Donald Trump casually suggests the World Health Organisation's official coronavirus death rate is a 'false number'

By Sam Clench

US President Donald Trump has labelled the World Health Organisation's official coronavirus death rate a "false number", saying he has a "hunch" the real rate is "way under 1 per cent".

The claim has been widely criticised with one news outlet declaring it a "blizzard of dangerous, irresponsible misinformation". But there's just a possibility that Trump could be right.

Earlier this week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media briefing 3.4 per cent of confirmed coronavirus cases had been fatal.

"Globally, about 3.4 per cent of reported COVID-19 cases have died. By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1 per cent of those infected," Dr Adhanom said.

Earlier estimates had placed the fatality rate at about 2 per cent.

Mr Trump was asked about the WHO figure during a phone interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity last night.

"We have a report today: The global death rate as 3.4 per cent and a report that the Olympics could be delayed. Your reaction to that?" Hannity asked.

How to stop the spread of coronavirus. Video / AP / CDC / Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust / ABC News

"Well, I think the 3.4 per cent is really a false number," Mr Trump said.

"This is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this.

"Because a lot of people will have this, and it's very mild. They'll get better very rapidly.

"They don't even see a doctor, they don't even call a doctor. You never hear about those people. So you can't put them down in the category, the overall population, in terms of this coronaflu, or virus.

"So if, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around, and even going to work – some of them go to work – but they get better.

"And then when you do have a death, like you've had in the state of Washington, like you had one in California, I believe you had one in New York, all of a sudden it seems like 3 or 4 per cent, which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of 1 per cent.

"But again, they don't know about the easy cases, because the easy cases don't go to the hospital. They don't report to doctors or the hospital.

"So I think that number is very high. I think the number – personally, I would say the number is way under 1 per cent."

The President went on to compare the coronavirus to the flu, admitting he had been surprised to learn how many Americans died from influenza each year.

"Now, with the regular flu, we average from 27,000-77,000 deaths every year. Who would think that? I never knew that until six or eight weeks ago," he said.

"I asked that question, I said, 'How many people die of the flu?' You know, you keep hearing about flu shot, flu shot, take your flu shot. But I said, 'How many people die of the flu?' And they said, 'Sir, we lose between 27,000 and, you know, somewhere in the seventies. I think we went as high as 100,000 people died in 1990, if you can believe people. But a lot of people, regardless.

"So I said, 'Wow, now that's a percentage that's under 1 per cent very substantially.' So it will be interesting to see what that difference is."

The flu kills about 0.1 per cent of the people it infects.

Mr Trump has been accused of downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus for political reasons. His comments to Hannity sparked another round of criticism.

"It was a blizzard of dangerous, irresponsible misinformation, all delivered within a span of just over two minutes," declared Vox.

Mediate columnist Dean Obeidallah labelled it a "dangerously irresponsible lie".

Others accused the President of implying it was fine for people infected with the coronavirus to go to work.

But it's possible Mr Trump is correct about the virus's mortality rate.

On Monday, Professor Peter Collingnon, an infectious diseases expert and microbiologist, told ABC radio he believed the death rate could ultimately fall to a level 10 times lower than the current estimates.

He broadly used the same logic as Mr Trump, albeit with a little more data to back it up.

"Generally, people who go and get seen are the ones who are sicker. So if you've got 1000 people in hospital, and 20 or 30 of them die, you'd say, 'Wow, the death rate is 3 per cent,'" Prof Collingnon said.

"But if we look at swine flu – when it appeared in 2009, the initial reports from Mexico, where it was first found in hospitals there, was a death rate of 6 per cent. And then it became obvious when some more data, about a month later, was becoming available from California, the death rate was much less than that.

"By the time we had all the information in, about six months later, particularly from England where they did a lot of testing of people, they found the true death rate was 0.02 per cent, or a hundred times lower."

Prof Collingnon pointed to data showing a mortality rate of just 0.3 per cent among 2000 health care workers infected with the coronavirus in China.

"My own view is the mortality rate is probably going to be 10 times lower than what is recorded now, because we haven't had tests to really find the people who've had mild symptoms," he said.

"Hopefully the death rate is much lower, and I think previous experience suggests it will be. But we don't know that, that's still speculation."

Whatever the merits of his latest comments, Mr Trump does have a clear record of trying to downplay the extent of the coronavirus outbreak. He has, on occasion, directly contradicted his own government's health officials.

At a press conference, shortly after officials said they expected the number of cases to grow, the President said the opposite.

"You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero. That's a pretty good job we've done," Mr Trump said.

The official tally of cases in the US has since risen to 149, according to America's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Ten of those cases have been fatal.

And there are fears the virus has been allowed to circulate undetected, with the United States slow to implement widespread testing.

On Wednesday, Mr Trump blamed the testing shortage on his predecessor Barack Obama.

"The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we're doing, and we undid that decision a few days ago, so that testing can take place in a much more accurate and rapid fashion," he said.

"That was a decision we disagreed with. I don't think we would have made it, but for some reason, it was made."

Those comments confused health experts, several of whom told the media they were unaware of any Obama-era policy or rule that would have affected America's capacity to respond to the coronavirus.

Pressed for clarification, Vice President Mike Pence said Mr Obama's administration had "asserted Food and Drug Administration jurisdiction" over "the development of tests like this".

On Saturday, the FDA said it would allow independent labs to start using coronavirus tests they had developed themselves. It said the move would facilitate "more rapid testing capacity" in the US. That appears to be the decision to which Mr Trump was referring.

More generally, the President has labelled criticism of his government's handling of the coronavirus the "new hoax", adding it to a list of personal grievances which includes the Russia investigation and his impeachment by Congress.

In recent days, Mr Trump has interspersed his frequent tweets about the Democratic presidential primaries with praise for his coronavirus response.

Mr Trump's assertion that Gallup "just gave us" the "highest rating ever" appears to be a reference to a poll conducted in early February, which found three-quarters of Americans were at least somewhat confident in the government's ability to handle the virus.

That number was indeed higher than in similar surveys conducted during the outbreaks of ebola in 2014 and swine flu in 2009.

When the poll was taken, no one in the US had died from the coronavirus and its spread was far more limited.

More recent polling released this week found 42 per cent of voters approved of Mr Trump's handling of the situation, compared to 55 per cent who disapproved.

More than a third of respondents said Mr Trump's coronavirus response made them less likely to vote for him in November's general election.