Graphic via Tania Lili for Courier
Graphic via Tania Lili for Courier

The coronavirus is slow to evolve but fast to spread. That is actually the opposite of the swine flu, the science shows.

MICHIGAN — In 2009, the H1N1 swine flu pandemic spread across Michigan, prompting an awareness and proliferation of hand sanitizer through public spaces. It was ingrained in the public consciousness, something discussed by Michiganders regularly with concern about how we would weather the storm.

This cultural connection between the swine flu and the novel coronavirus has prompted President Donald Trump to compare the two events on numerous occasions. For instance, in a recent tweet Trump tried to compare his coronavirus response to the Obama-era swine flu response. 

That comparison has been declared false before by FactCheck.org, but Michigan shows one particular dimension on which the comparison just falls apart. That dimension is scale.

As of Sunday, 51,142 Michiganders have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, 4,891 of which have died. At the same point in the 2009 pandemic, 655 Michiganders had the swine flu and only eight had died, the state of Michigan reported

Nationally, 12,469 people died of the swine flu pandemic. The coronavirus to date has killed more than seven times that many Americans, at 89,504 per New York Times numbers. FactCheck.org also noted that the swine flu had a case fatality rate of 0.02%, whereas The ‘Gander reports the national fatality rate of coronavirus is 6%.

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The massive difference in both scale and death toll between the pandemics makes comparing the two a difficult task. But that’s not the only difference highlighted by Michigan.

Pfizer in Michigan is working on a vaccine for the coronavirus, The ‘Gander reported. Pfizer chose its Kalamazoo facility to develop the vaccine for a number of reasons, including a proven history of being to scale up a new project. But the efficacy of that vaccine against the coronavirus is a world of difference from the efficacy of vaccines against swine flu.

That’s because coronaviruses mutate slowly. As Business Insider notes, the novel coronavirus mutates about four times slower than the flu. That means the vaccine that may be developed in Kalamazoo will last longer and be more effective and curbing the pandemic than the flu. 

“I don’t think it is a fair comparison,” Paul A. Offit, chair of vaccinology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania told FactCheck.org. “The flu is constantly mutating – it usually happens in pig and humans in southeast Asia – it is really hard to stop that. Unless you ban all travel anywhere in the world to the United States you would have had trouble. That is true with all flu pandemics. I don’t think a travel ban would have ever made a difference.”

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Taken together, the slower mutation and the more pervasive and deadly nature of the coronavirus make the response we all have learned — flattening the curve — far more important for the coronavirus. Not only are the dangers the virus poses far more severe but the potential vaccine is a total game-changer. A vaccine for the swine flu, by contrast, mutates phenomenally quickly, according to NPR; being able to mutate from barely noticeable to virulent and lethal in just ten days. By flattening the curve, Michiganders reduce the number of cases and deaths faced from a particularly pervasive pathogen as the wait for a long-term effective vaccine is produced. 

While both diseases were pandemics that captivated the common consciousness the actual way both need to be responded to are dramatically different because the viruses behave wildly differently.