Why do UK coronavirus recoveries seem so low compared with other countries?

The percentage of patients who have recovered from the coronavirus in the UK currently stands at 2.3 per cent. 

At the time of writing, the Public Health England (PHE) dashboard states just 135 people, out of over 5,600 confirmed cases, have recovered.

The figures appear worrying, especially when compared to China which has more than 72,000 recoveries out of 81,000 cases – an 89 per cent recovery rate. And Italy, which has more than 60,000 infections and 7,000 recoveries – a 12 per cent recovery rate.

In reality, these figures aren’t as alarming as they seem, here’s why.

Growth curve 

The UK recorded its first coronavirus case around the same time as Italy on January 31 2020. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to assume then that our recovery rate should be the same. 

But the reason Italy’s recovery rate is currently around four times higher than the UK is “almost entirely down to the fact that the exponential face of the outbreak in Italy kicked off about a week or two earlier,” said Professor Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at UEA. As the chart below shows, the number of confirmed cases in Italy spiked far quicker than in the UK.

The growth curve of coronavirus infections only really began to rise exponentially in the last week in the UK. Early estimates suggest patients recover around 10 days after first falling ill, so it will still be another couple of weeks before our recovery rate begins to increase, as patients begin to improve.

The initial figures from China show a similar pattern. The country recorded its first case in November 2019, so there has been a significantly longer period for patients to recover, compared to the UK and Europe.

Professor Hunter believes when we edge towards the end of the outbreak peak, there won’t be a “big difference” in recovery rates between countries. But due to the UK still lagging behind other Western countries in terms of cases and deaths, this could signal the government’s early strategy was effective.

He said: “I think we’re lagging behind largely because the containment phase worked very well for a number of weeks.”

Additionally, although hopes the coronavirus will spread less readily in the summer months are yet to be proven, Professor Hunter said “it’s quite plausible that the lag will have pushed us back into summer, so that we will get a much lower peak (in cases) than we would have done”. 

“If we start to flatten Boris’s sombrero we could see that recovery rate as a percentage rising sooner,” he added.

How they are recorded 

The way the UK is recording recoveries is also having an impact on official figures.  

PHE confirmed to The Telegraph the recovery rates on their dashboard are based on “the number of patients that are discharged from NHS services following a positive test for Covid-19.

“This occurs two weeks after their diagnosis which means there will be some lag time in reporting the numbers of people who have recovered,” PHE said in a statement.

Additionally, they are not reporting recoveries of patients who were not treated in NHS services, PHE said.

Government advice states if you are suffering from mild Covid-19 symptoms to stay home and self-isolate. Patients may have tested positive but recovered at home, and so they are not recorded in official statistics.

Measuring recoveries

There are two ways of measuring recoveries, a clinical observation or a viral test, said Prof Hunter.

“If you’re clinically well you feel better, you don’t have a fever, your cough has gone away. You feel back to normal,” said Prof Hunter. A viral test involves taking a swab of a patient and testing to see if the virus is still in their system. 

“My impression is that we are not doing viralogical recovery on many at the moment,” he added.

Testing every patient once they have clinically recovered would also take up valuable resources, which, right now, are needed for testing new cases.

Prof Hunter added it is more beneficial to focus efforts on testing new cases, except when it comes to key healthcare workers who may need a viral test “to get back on the frontline”. 

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