Dr. Barnard, MD, FACC, president and co-founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, discussed the issue on the Physicians Committee's podcast called The Exam Room.
Host Chuck Carroll asked Dr. Barnard about a recent study comparing the virus to the common flu.
COVID-19 and the flu
"That's the question that people have been raising," said Dr. Barnard. "And in fact this really goes back to the earliest days of the pandemic. People were saying 'I wouldn't worry about it, it's just like a flu', and there's a kernel of truth to that."
Explaining this, he outlined some of the similarities: many of the people who get both the flu and COVID-19 will survive the illness, and may even be asymptomatic. Both illnesses affect the elderly and people with underlying health conditions the worst, and of course, they're both caused by viruses.
"In fact influenza was a devastating disease when it first broke in, in 1918, it killed 50 million people, far more than COVID-19," said Dr. Barnard.
JAMA Internal Medicine
He continued: "But some people have tried to suggest that we don't need to take COVID-19 very seriously because it's just like the flu. Well, yesterday JAMA Internal Medicine [a monthly peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association] put out a really important article."
According to the article, annual influenza deaths range between 24,000 and 62,000. COVID-19 deaths so far reaching 87,000 (as of May 15). Dr. Barnard said you could make a case they are in a similar ballpark, however, the figures for influenza are the estimated deaths, while the 87,000 COVID-19 deaths are 'real deaths that someone has counted up, and they know for sure'.
'We need to take it seriously'
This is significant because while the worst weekly flu death tally is 752, the worst weeks with COVID-19 have resulted in around 15,000 deaths.
Dr. Barnard said that while influenza can be bad, and even deadly - and it really was when there was no herd immunity at all back in 1918 - COVID-10 is now emerging without pre-existing immunity, and 'it is a killer'.
He concluded: "Again, most people will do well, many will not, we've got to take it totally seriously."