Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19 (novel coronavirus), are two different viruses that are both responsible for a global pandemic, according to WHO. This article will try and establish if there is any information that indicates that HIV is more deadly than COVID-19. Before doing so, there are some differences regarding the characteristics of these two viruses. Their principal difference is their route of transmission. Another question that arises is what makes a virus deadly. How quickly do the viruses spread, and where does their pandemic start?

What is a pandemic? 

A pandemic occurs when a new disease starts spreading worldwide uncontrollably. Influenza virus, for example, due to the emergence of new viral strains, causes lots of different pandemics globally. Their cause is infectious diseases that can spread from a person to another. Usually, they generate increased levels of morbidity and mortality, and they make it extremely hard to control. The advanced technology, allowing millions of people to travel daily, is one of the reasons why pandemics are more likely to happen during our century. 

Characteristics of pandemic pathogens

The following are the most well-established characteristics that are more likely to give to a pathogen pandemic properties:

  • Route of transmission. According to research, the mode of spread that is likely to cause a pandemic is the respiratory route. The reason for that is the inability to control the spread of the disease, as it transmits through breathing. Some examples are COVID-19, influenza, pertussis, and rhinoviruses. 
  • Timing of transmission. Another factor that makes a pathogen likely to cause a pandemic is the timing of spread. Infections that are transmissible during the incubation period and before the appearance of symptoms, or diseases with mild initial presentation, are more likely to become a pandemic.
  • Host. The interaction between the host and the pathogen plays a significant role in its pandemic potential. Zoonotic pathogens, which appear spontaneously and for which we do not have available vaccines, are more likely to start a pandemic. The reason for that is our immunologic naïveté towards this pathogen.
  • Type of pathogen. Generally, viruses have a higher potential to generate a pandemic than bacteria, fungi, prions, or protozoa. The reason for that is their high rate of replication combined by our lack of knowledge towards antiviral agents. 

COVID-19 characteristics

COVID-19 is a new disease that appeared in 2019 in Wuhan, China. The infected individual presents with symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath. More severe cases of COVID-19 experience the following:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath (dyspnea or breathlessness)
  • Persistent pressure in the chest
  • Chest pain
  • New confusion 
  • Bluish discoloration of the lips or face

COVID-19 route of transmission

SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for novel coronavirus disease, spreads through respiratory droplets of the infected individual when he or she coughs or sneezes. The points of entry for the infection are the mouth, nose, and eyes. A secondary method of COVID-19 transmission is through contaminated objects or surfaces by infected people. When a COVID-19-negative individual touches a contaminated object and then touches their mouth, nose, or eyes, they get infected. 

COVID-19 timing of transmission

The incubation period of SARS-CoV-2 is approximately five days, meaning that an infected individual might take five days to present with symptoms and signs of COVID-19. However, during this period, the person can transmit the disease to others without knowing it. 

COVID-19 type of pathogen

COVID-19 is a disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) virus. It belongs to the broader coronavirus group, including various types of viruses that cause mild to severe upper respiratory infections. 

COVID-19 interaction with the host

Currently, there is no vaccine against COVID-19, believed to be a zoonotic disease. However, scientists are not sure yet about its origin. Current evidence suggests that the entry of the virus to the human body causes a cytokine storm, responsible for some of the most severe cases caused by COVID-19.

HIV characteristics

HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, making it hard to fight new infections and diseases. It appeared in Central Africa during the 20th century. HIV is now manageable with antiretroviral medication, and most people can live an average life. It has three stages, starting with an acute HIV infection that passes into a latency period. Finally, it results in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Its first stage resembles a flu-like syndrome, characterized by the following:

  • Headache
  • Fever and chills
  • Rash
  • Sore throat or generalized fatigue
  • Decreased appetite
  • Night sweats
  • Sores in the oral cavity, or genital area
  • Lymphadenopathy
  • Pain in the muscles
  • Changes in bowel habits with diarrhea

HIV route of transmission

HIV spreads through body fluids, such as blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. Some of the most prevalent methods of transmission are unprotected vaginal or anal sex and sharing needles when using injectable drugs.

HIV timing of transmission

HIV stays in the body forever, and its incubation period is about one to four weeks. The affected individual can transmit the disease without knowing they are HIV-positive. Sometimes, the infection is asymptomatic, and the patient is unaware of their infection until they have AIDS.

HIV type of pathogen

HIV is a virus of Lentivirus species (a subgroup of retrovirus). After years, it causes AIDS, meaning immune system failure that may lead to death. Scientists believe it is a mutated form of simian immunodeficiency virus or SIV, firstly identified in a type of chimpanzee in Central Africa.

HIV interaction with the host

HIV enters the body and starts replicating, attacking the immune cells, predominantly of the CD4 type. After some time, the virus kills so many cells that the human body is not able to fight other pathogens anymore. 

So, which virus is more deadly?

There is no measure by which someone can compare two completely different pathogens. However, HIV is manageable with medication, making the viral load undetectable in affected individuals. COVID-19, on the contrary, is a new disease for which scientists don't know a lot yet. Current efforts are focusing on the development of a vaccine that could stop the pandemic and protect people from getting COVID-19.