Various posts on social media are sharing the incorrect claim that low influenza activity during the coronavirus pandemic is evidence that the flu is being mislabeled as COVID-19.
One iteration of the claim (here) points to a graph from the World Health Organization (WHO). It reports the “number of specimens positive for influenza by subtype” in the UK for each week of 2020.
The graph shows that around the start of April, a few weeks after the UK first went into lockdown, influenza rates dropped to minimal levels.
Unlike previous years, where flu activity would drop in summer and then rise again winter, in 2020 it has remained consistently low since April.
This has caused some users to believe that cases of the flu are being mislabeled as COVID-19, leaving comments like: “That’s because they’ve used flu numbers and turned them into covid” and “flu eradicated or covid is flu rebranded ?”.
However, there is a reasonable explanation for why flu activity has remained low during the pandemic.
“Influenza and Corona viruses infect the lungs following inhalation of environmental droplets”, Tracy Hussell, Professor of Inflammatory Disease at Manchester University, told Reuters via email.
“Since they use a similar transmission route, the measures currently being taken to slow the development of severe COVID-19 disease (social distancing and mask wearing) are likely responsible for the reduction in influenza virus infection in the current 2020/2021 season”.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that this also happened in the United States, when “influenza virus circulation declined sharply within 2 weeks of the COVID-19 emergency declaration and widespread implementation of community mitigation measures, including school closures, social distancing, and mask wearing” (here).
Another contributing factor could be that millions more people in the UK were offered the flu jab this year (here).
The expanded flu vaccination programme was created to relieve pressure on the NHS during the pandemic.
Influenza viruses cause the flu, while a type of coronavirus leads to COVID-19. Reuters has previously reported that the specific nature of the tests used to diagnose COVID-19 make them highly unlikely to give a false positive in someone with flu (here).
False. Low flu levels during the pandemic are likely the result of coronavirus measures such as mask wearing and social distancing, not because it has been mislabeled as COVID-19.
This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.