It’s a dismissive comment uttered, sometimes without much thought, among circles of friends or on social media.
But as the coronavirus reaches a critical point outside of China, simply passing off coronavirus as a ‘flu-like’ outbreak is a naive move, doctors and virologists have warned.
In Italy in particular, where the country’s health system has been stretched to its limit with an outbreak of more than 10,000 cases, the impact of the virus is not to be underestimated.
In a now-viral tweet, one woman in northern Italy warned the country had made a “big mistake” in the lead-up to the outbreak in the European epicentre which has sent its death toll soaring beyond 600.
“Please, please guys. Here in northern Italy we made one big mistake. Everybody kept saying: ‘It’s just flu’ and now our intensive care units are collapsing,” 23-year-old Bianca, from Lombardy, tweeted.
“Everybody kept going outside like nothing happened and now our grandparents and parents are dying.
“Coronavirus is not flu.”
And in a lengthy post on Facebook which has since been shared 32,000 times, Dr Daniele Macchini who is on the frontline of the coronavirus fight in the Italian city of Bergamo, revealed the devastating effect the virus is having on the health system.
“The war has literally exploded and battles are uninterrupted day and night,” he said.
“The need for beds has arrived in all its drama. One after the other the departments that had been emptied fill up at an impressive pace.”
He said the virus must not be likened to the flu.
“Explain to me which flu virus causes such a rapid drama. And while there are still people who boast of not being afraid by ignoring directions, protesting because their normal routine is ‘temporarily’ put in crisis, the epidemiological disaster is taking place,” he said.
Do not underestimate coronavirus
As the virus continues to spread in more countries, Professor Ian Mackay, virologist and associate professor at the University of Queensland, has warned the virus must not be underestimated.
Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, he said many people he comes across daily refer to coronavirus as “just another flu” without seeing it as a “big risk”.
“It’s hard to stress how bad this could be if we don’t take it seriously.”
He noted how “advanced” medical teams in countries where the outbreak has soared have been forced to make the decision on whether patients live or die due to a lack of beds or staff to cope with “the sheer overwhelming number of sick people.”
“We’re seeing the virus spread and cause a lot of severe disease and while it’s not death, it’s still severe disease and it’s tying up a lot of healthcare resources. That’s not what we see every year from flu,” he said.
In recent days Italian media has broadcast footage of ICU units overflowing with patients, with the current situation labelled by Professor Mackay as a “cautionary tale”.
Weeks before, the plight of medical teams in Hubei, the original epicentre of the virus, was widely documented as staff worked day and night in their fight against the outbreak.
‘This virus is not influenza’
Last week, the World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus specifically warned the coronavirus outbreak shouldn’t be compared to the flu.
“This virus is not SARS, it’s not MERS, and it’s not influenza. It is a unique virus with unique characteristics,” he said.
Tedros reiterated that COVID-19 causes more severe disease than seasonal influenza.
“While many people globally have built up immunity to seasonal flu strains, COVID-19 is a new virus to which no one has immunity,” he said.
“That means more people are susceptible to infection, and some will suffer severe disease.”
He noted the current global mortality rate sits at 3.4 per cent while seasonal flus sit at less than one per cent.
Tedros praised the work of countries working to contain the virus, such as Australia where a cluster of cases has occurred in Sydney’s northwest.
“We don’t even talk about containment for seasonal flu – it’s just not possible. But it is possible for COVID-19,” he said.
“It will prevent infections and save lives. Containment is possible.”
In a report on coronavirus issued by WHO in February, treating the virus as the flu will only cause further deaths.
“Building scenarios and strategies only on the basis of well-known pathogens risks failing to exploit all possible measures to slow transmission of the COVID-19 virus, reduce disease and save lives,” the report said.