How Fast Is Covid-19 Spreading Vs. Other Infectious Outbreaks?

COVID-19 seems to have turned into a global crisis practically overnight, but how does its spread compare to infectious outbreaks in the past?

Although the disease caused by the novel coronavirus did not even have a real name until February 12 (COVID-19), it traveled to most every corner of the world in the following weeks. Its ability to spread so quickly has frightened people, to the point where events are being cancelled, buildings are closing down, and travel bans have been initiated. Many people have even started hoarding items like bottled water and toilet paper, leaving store shelves empty.

The outbreak began in Wuhan, China, last December. As of March 11, 2020, there are 121,090 confirmed cases across the globe, and it is now an official pandemic. It was also reported that out of these, 1,000 people in the United States had the virus, with 33 deaths. COVID-19 seems to have turned into a global crisis practically overnight, but how does its spread compare to infectious outbreaks in the past?

Cholera Pandemics

Cholera is an infectious bacterial disease caused by Vibrio cholerae, which usually exist in warm, salty bodies of water. The infection is transmitted when people consume the infected water. Cholera has existed for hundreds of years, with its first deadly outbreak in India in 1817. There have been repeated outbreaks, and the WHO (World Health Organization) estimates that 1.3 to 4 million people perish from it around the world every year.

The most lethal cholera pandemic occurred from 1910 to1911, also originating in India. More than 800,000 lost their lives, and the disease also spread to Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and, Russia. When it got to the United States, American health authorities were prepared and managed to contain it by isolating those who were infected. There were only 11 deaths.

1918 Influenza Pandemic

This was one of the most devastating pandemics that ever occurred, and originated from a H1N1 virus traced to avian genes. It spread around the world from 1918 to 1919, after it was identified in military personnel in the spring of 1918, at Boston’s Fort Devens. That fall, the City of Philadelphia closed gathering places like churches, schools, and theaters. Residents of Tucson, Arizona, were not allowed in public unless they were wearing masks.

Estimates put the number of people infected with the 1918 flu at around 500 million, with approximately 50 million deaths. In the United States, 675,000 perished. The pandemic ended in the summer of 1919.

1957 Asian Influenza (H2N2)

The 1957 Asian Influenza, or H2N2, began in Hong Kong, with 250,000 people being infected. Analysis showed that it was an influenza A virus that had not been seen in humans before. Within a few months, H2N2 spread through China and the surrounding area; by the middle of the following summer, it reached the United States. At first, there were not many cases reported, but after a few months more cases were recorded. Later that year, a second wave hit the United Kingdom and the Northern Hemisphere. In December 1957, over 3,500 were reported in Wales and England; by March of 1958, 69,800 deaths were reported in the United States.

1968 Hong Kong Influenza

The 1968 H3N2 influenza also started in Southeast Asia, and soon made its way to the west. This strain was different from H2N2, and spread more sporadically to other regions of the globe. It had higher illness and death rates, and a vaccine that was introduced reduced infection rates by 54 percent.

2009 Swine Flu

Mexico City metro scene during 2009 swine flu breakout. Image credit: Eneas De Troya/

Swine flu is a virus that usually affects pigs, but in 2009 a pandemic occurred from H1N1 influenza type A virus. This virus is a mix of avian (bird), pig (swine), and human genes, which become combined in pigs, then spread to humans. It was first found in a young Californian girl in April of that year. Two months later, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it as a global pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 61 million people became infected in the U.S., and 12,469 died. Global estimates put the death count at around 575,400. Swine flu was declared officially over by 2010.

2003 SARS

SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) is also a coronavirus, first identified in 2003. It also originated in China, in the Guangdong province. Scientists believe it is an animal virus that spread to other animals and then humans. It only took a few months to spread to two dozen countries; Asia, Europe, North America, and South America were all affected. More than 8,000 people became infected worldwide, and 800 died. COVID-19 has already surpassed these numbers.


MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is also caused by a coronavirus, and leads to similar symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, and fever. The CDC reports that around three to four of every 10 patients diagnosed with MERS pass away. MERS was first reported in September 2012 in Saudi Arabia, and all of the known cases have been traced to residence in, or travel to, countries located in and around the Arabian Peninsula. Another outbreak occurred in 2015 in the Republic of Korea, from a traveler who had been in the Arabian Peninsula. In 2014, two patients tested positive for MERS in the United States.


HIV/AIDS was first identified in 1976, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It still exists today, but is more manageable due to increased awareness and treatments like anti-retroviral therapy. Since 1981, the virus has killed more than 36 million. Today, approximately 31 to 35 million people have HIV, and most of those affected live in Sub-Saharan Africa.

All pandemics and infectious diseases are different, and each year brings a round of viruses and other health problems. The CDC stated that for this year, seasonal flus have caused at least 34 million infections, and 350,000 hospitalizations, with 20,000 or so deaths. Flu vaccines help slow down the spread of these diseases, but developing them takes time.


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