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There was real reason to indulge in each of these hopes. But in the past several days, a series of developments have undermined the factual basis for all of them. So I am, finally, starting to reconcile myself to a darker reality: The miracle of deliverance is not in sight.
On Thursday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo released preliminary results from a coronavirus-antibody study to determine the true caseload in his state. (Antibodies remain in a patient’s body even after the disease has cleared.)
According to official statistics, a quarter of a million people, or about one in 100 residents of the state, have contracted the coronavirus, and more than 21,000 have died from it. This would put the fatality rate for the coronavirus at a staggering 8 percent.
The new study suggests that the real caseload is much higher. About one in seven New Yorkers who were administered the test were found to have antibodies to the virus. This is good news. If that rate holds for the general population, and a lot more people than previously known have already had COVID-19, then the true fatality rate could be a little less than 1 percent.
Some researchers have cast doubt on that one-in-seven figure. Existing antibody tests are far from accurate, and may include a lot of false positives. And because the New York study recruited many participants in public spaces such as supermarkets, those selected might have taken social distancing less seriously than the average resident of the state—which would make them more likely to have been exposed to the disease.
But even if the New York antibody study didn’t overestimate the infected population, its findings suggest that there’s no easy way out of social distancing. Experts estimate that for a population to reach herd immunity, up to 80 percent of it would have to be exposed to the coronavirus. Even if the virus has a fatality rate of a little less than 1 percent, this means that letting it spread through the population of the United States would cause about 2 million deaths.
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Although the New York study gives us a lot of valuable information, we still don’t know how deadly the coronavirus really is. Some antibody tests, including one in Miami-Dade, suggest a lower fatality rate than the New York study. Others, including one in the Netherlands, come to a similarly pessimistic conclusion. But so long as we can’t rule out that millions would die in the United States alone, plans to brave the virus by going back to normal remain in the realm of the stupid or the sociopathic.
A vaccine is likely at least a year away, according to most experts, making finding an effective treatment against COVID-19 all the more important.
President Donald Trump, for his part, has been touting hydroxychloroquine as a potential miracle drug. But two studies—one by scientists in France, another by doctors working for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs—have dashed such hopes. As the VA found, patients who took hydroxychloroquine were actually more likely to die than those who did not.