COVID-19 Could Cause More Deaths This Year Than Tuberculosis, The Current Deadliest Infectious Disease

COVID-19 is on it’s way to becoming the deadliest infectious disease in the world this year, and could cause more deaths worldwide than the current deadliest infectious disease killer tuberculosis.

Currently tuberculosis, one of humankind’s oldest known infectious diseases, takes the lives of some 1.8 million people per year.

Global Deaths Due to Various Causes & COVID-19 – by Tony Nickonchuk. Tuberculosis deaths are not included.

However, Wednesday marked a gain in the fight against TB. Pretomanid, only the third antibiotic to be approved for treating the disease in nearly half a century, was on Wednesday approved for use in India, which has the highest TB burden in the world. The oral drug has a 90% cure rate when used correctly to treat multi-drug resistant TB, according to peer-reviewed studies published by the TB Alliance, who developed pretomanid.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has killed over 600,000 people since the beginning of the pandemic, already surpassing the number of deaths caused by HIV/AIDS, suicide, and malaria. But experts at a virtual event hosted by the TB Alliance on Wednesday warned that steadily growing outbreaks in hotspots like the United States, Latin America, South Asia, and Africa could lead to a death count higher than that of tuberculosis.

“Tragically COVID-19, which didn’t exist a year ago, may be in a position to match or surpass tuberculosis as the infectious killer this year,” warned Ariel Pablos-Mendez, a founding board member of the TB Alliance. 

“I don’t mean to be melodramatic about it, but it is really, as an infectious diseases person, a public health person, almost your worst nightmare. It’s almost the perfect storm,”  said Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. Fauci has become a household name in recent months, emerging as the preeminent expert voice on COVID-19 in the United States, many times countering messages put out by the Trump administration downplaying the seriousness of the virus.

COVID-19 is the “Perfect Storm” – And It’s Not Going Away Anytime Soon
Subway workers in New York City hand out masks to commuters. Even those who don’t show symptoms of COVID-19 can spread the disease if they were infected.

The novel coronavirus has a number of characteristics that make it “particularly formidable,” said Fauci. It causes a wide range of disease severity, and is easily spread between humans.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has the ability to jump from animals to humans, and is easily spread from one person to the next as a respiratory-borne virus.

Some 20-45% of infected people may never show symptoms. But people without symptoms are still able to pass the disease onwards, although it’s unclear how much of COVID-19’s spread can be contributed to asymptomatic transmission.

“It is spectacularly efficient in spreading from human to human,”  said Fauci. “I don’t see this disappearing the way that SARS1, [the virus that sickened over 8000 in a 2002-2003 epidemic], did. I don’t really see us eradicating it.”

Additionally, the virus causes anywhere from non-existent to critical disease, hitting large swathes of the population like older people and those with common preexisting conditions particularly hard.

“I have never seen an infection in which you have such a broad range of [disease severity],”  said Fauci. “[You have] literally nothing – no symptoms at all – in a substantial proportion of the [infected] population, to some who get ill with minor symptoms, to some who get ill enough to be in bed for week and have post-viral syndromes, to others who get hospitalized, require oxygen intensive care, ventilation, and face death.”

Still, Fauci remained cautiously hopeful.

“I think with the combination of good public health measures, a degree of global herd immunity, and a good vaccine, which I do feel cautiously optimistic we will get, we will get very good control of this,” he said. “Whether it’s this year, or next year I’m not certain. But I think ultimately… we will bring it down to such a low level that we will not be in the position that we’re in right now for an extended period of time.”

Image Credits: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit.