Coronavirus: Professor's 'best guess' has half-a-million Americans dead

A medical professor has predicted the US will see 96 million cases of COVID-19 and 480,000 deaths in the US alone.

The horrifying forecast was contained in slides James Lawler of the University of Nebraska Medical Center presented during a webinar hosted by the American Hospital Association on February 26, reports Business Insider.

Of the 96 million predicted infections, Dr Lawler estimates around 4.8 million of them will result in hospitalisation, putting 10 times as much pressure on the notorious US health system as a usual flu season.

A spokesperson for the University of Nebraska Medical Center said those figures were "his interpretation of the data available" at that point in late February, and it's "possible that forecast will change as more information becomes available".

The slides called it a "best guess", at a time when the US had only a few dozen confirmed cases and zero deaths. Two weeks on, the US now has 21 deaths and more than 500 confirmed cases. 

The slide, which was obtained by Business Insider.
The slide, which was obtained by Business Insider. Photo credit: Business Insider/AHA

An equivalent-sized outbreak in New Zealand would see nearly 150,000 infected and 7300 dead - though we have vastly different health systems, with reports some Americans who have proactively got themselves tested being charged thousands of dollars

The American Hospital Association made a similar disclaimer to the university, saying the presentation reflects "the various perspectives of field experts". 

No one in the world has immunity to COVID-19, and a vaccine could be more than a year away. This is why some experts are predicting most of the world could end up infected. Marc Lipsitch of Harvard University recently predicted between 40 and 70 percent of the world will end up catching it.

"It is the best estimate that I've been able to make based on a combination of the mathematical models that we use to track and predict epidemics," he told CBS News.

"I think it is now almost inevitable that this will transmit in a global fashion and take a big toll on essentially the entire globe. I just don't see any way around that given the number of places where we know about it and the number of places where we haven't looked, and therefore, can infer that some of those places also probably have it."

COVID-19 is related to SARS, which threatened the world in 2003, but much more infectious. Only about 8000 people ended up catching SARS before it was contained. Luckily COVID-19 is much less fatal - SARS killed nearly one in 10 of everyone it infected, but guesses for COVID-19 have ranged from 1 to 3.4 percent.

Studies have suggested 2009's swine flu epidemic infected almost a quarter of the world, killing around 500,000 people. Its mortality rate was much lower than SARS or COVID-19, thankfully. 

Dr Lipsitch said the COVID-19 outbreak will end up "worse" than swine flu, but won't quite bring "civilisation to its knees". 

In contrast, China - where the virus began - has almost managed to eliminate further spread, if official figures are accurate. The vast majority of new infections are now in other countries, especially Italy, South Korea and Iran.

Dr Lawler didn't give a timeframe for his estimate of 96 million. Public health experts say rather than get the epidemic out of the way by encouraging infection, if it's inevitable, it's better to drag it out. 

New Zealand microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles says if we can hold off transmission in the community long enough, a vaccine might become available, avoiding a widespread outbreak altogether. 

If an outbreak happens, she says the aim will be "flattening the curve" - keeping the number concurrent infections as low as possible so the health system doesn't get overwhelmed.

"If we can achieve that, it'll mean we'll be able to treat everyone who needs treating," she wrote in a piece for The Spinoff on Monday. 

If too many people get infected at once, the health system simply won't be able to cope and more people will likely die.