More than eight months after the coronavirus started in Wuhan, China, we still don’t know everything about the virus. The deadly virus has killed at least 928,212 lives around the world. But how does the ongoing coronavirus pandemic compare to some of the most deadly pandemics in history?

Despite the media hysteria, it turns out COVID-19 is not in one of the top ten deadly pandemics in history. In addition, a recent study by UCLA and Stanford finds COVID-19 “10 Times Less Fatal than First Thought.” The study also found that your chance of actually dying from COVID-19 is 1 in 19.1 million. “The vast majority who catch it will have mild or no symptoms. Children are largely spared,” the authors of the study said.

Now looking at the deadly pandemics in history, the Black Death or Bubonic Plague of 1347-1351, which was spread by fleas, killed as many as 200 million people in just a few year’s time. It’s estimated that up to half of Europe’s entire population was wiped out from the plague in the 14th century.

The Small Pox outbreak in the 1500s killed an estimated 56 million; the majority were children. In 1918, the Spanish Flu killed approximately 40 to 50 million. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is currently the fifth deadliest. Since 1981, 25 million to 35 million people have died. A decade ago, the Swine Flu claimed the lives of 200,000 people.

The team from the modern business media company, Visual Capitalist, did an excellent job of putting together an infographic with a visualization that outlines some of history’s most deadly pandemics. The infographic shows a timeline of pandemics through the centuries, starting with The Antonine Plague of 165 to 180 AD, which killed an estimated 5 million people in the Roman Empire to the current COVID-19 event.

Below is a list of the major known epidemics (including pandemics caused by an infectious disease) that have occurred over time. Widespread non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer are not included.

Name Time period Type / Pre-human host Death toll
Antonine Plague 165-180 Believed to be either smallpox or measles 5M
Japanese smallpox epidemic 735-737 Variola major virus 1M
Plague of Justinian 541-542 Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas 30-50M
Black Death 1347-1351 Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas 200M
New World Smallpox Outbreak 1520 – onwards Variola major virus 56M
Great Plague of London 1665 Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas 100,000
Italian plague 1629-1631 Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas 1M
Cholera Pandemics 1-6 1817-1923 V. cholerae bacteria 1M+
Third Plague 1885 Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas 12M (China and India)
Yellow Fever Late 1800s Virus / Mosquitoes 100,000-150,000 (U.S.)
Russian Flu 1889-1890 Believed to be H2N2 (avian origin) 1M
Spanish Flu 1918-1919 H1N1 virus / Pigs 40-50M
Asian Flu 1957-1958 H2N2 virus 1.1M
Hong Kong Flu 1968-1970 H3N2 virus 1M
HIV/AIDS 1981-present Virus / Chimpanzees 25-35M
Swine Flu 2009-2010 H1N1 virus / Pigs 200,000
SARS 2002-2003 Coronavirus / Bats, Civets 770
Ebola 2014-2016 Ebolavirus / Wild animals 11,000
MERS 2015-Present Coronavirus / Bats, camels 850
COVID-19 2019-Present Coronavirus – Unknown (possibly pangolins) 928,212 (Johns Hopkins University estimate as of  September 13, 2020)

Note: Many of the death toll numbers listed above are best estimates based on available research. Some, such as the Plague of Justinian and Swine Flu, are subject to debate based on new evidence.




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