- This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: June 3, 2021
With a current count of more than 171 million cases and 3.55 million deaths around the world from the coronavirus, it’s increasingly likely that you know someone who has become infected. But how does the coronavirus compare to other global pandemics through history? Where does it rank on the list of deadliest pandemics in history?
While some reputable sources vary slightly, the current COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t yet rank in the top 5 historically—and its numbers are currently dwarfed by the other major pandemic that is still affecting the planet: AIDS.
Here’s an overview of the five deadliest pandemics in human history.
Although the Centers for Disease Control notes smallpox may date back to the 3rd century BCE (Before the Common Era), based on evidence found on three mummies, it was most virulent between 1877-1977, claiming an estimated 500 million lives during that century.
Yet, as Julia Tortorice observed in a CEUfast blog post, smallpox has surfaced in other epochs to devastate populations, most notably in 1519 and 1520 in Mexico, where 80% of the population died.
This strain of flu resulted in 50 million deaths around the world in 1918 and 1919. Its relative recency, combined with its impact in American communities, has made it a ready measuring stick for analysts looking at the various rises and falls of coronavirus cases in 2020. As Howard Markel, a physician and medical historian, observed in a CNBC article, patriotism infused the public health debate on both sides. While he said, “It was the patriotic thing to do to not cough on people or stay home if you were sick,” he also pointed out that mask mandates were met with resistance.
Plague of Justinian
This sixth-century pandemic killed an estimated 30-50 million people, about half the planet’s population at the time. The plague was similar to the more famous (but actually less deadly) Black Plague, in that bacteria carried by fleas living on rodents were to blame for the outbreak.
“These strains of plague that are endemic in rodent populations all around the world [today] are just as deadly as the strains that caused the [earlier] pandemics,” David Wagner, a Northern Arizona University associate professor, told National Geographic following a study he co-published in The Lancet. While that sounds ominous, he also points out that the 21st century brings antibiotics and better hygienic practices, making a similar pandemic of this nature less likely.
The human immunodeficiency virus, better known as HIV, dates back to 1976 in sub-Saharan Africa and has since claimed an estimated 32-36 million lives. AIDS, the immunodeficiency syndrome caused by the virus, was identified as a pandemic in 1991. According to a Nature report in 2019, scientists developed what might be a cure for the disease, though at the time of its publication, the case chronicled was described as a “long-term remission,” involving bone marrow transplantation. Though some now can manage AIDS as a chronic illness with medication, it still remains an active pandemic.
Perhaps the most infamous of pandemics, the Black Plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century and left a legacy in the concept and even the naming of quarantine. According to DePaul University history professor Thomas Mockaitis, as relayed to History.com, Venetian officials tried to stem the tide of the plague by keeping sailors on their ships before entering a port city they controlled. The initial duration was for 30 days, or a trentino, but then the cautionary period was extended to 40 days, or a quarantino. Though the recommended periods for self-isolation in pandemics are often shorter than this, the term quarantine has stuck.
For what it’s worth, COVID-19 ranks No. 10 among the deadliest pandemics in history as of April 21, according to CEUfast. At No. 13, the Japanese smallpox epidemic in the 8th century killed an estimated 2 million people. At No. 12, Russia Typhus Epidemic from 1918-22 killed an estimated 2.5 million people.
At No. 11, the Great Plagues of London that lasted from 1348-1665 killed about 3 million people during 40 outbreaks in about a 300-year span.
At No. 9, cholera killed between 3.79-4.79 million people between 1817-1975. The first pandemic occurred in India in 1817, and according to History.com, it stemmed from contaminated rice. A second cholera pandemic that began in 1829 eventually made its way from India to Europe and then, eventually, to North America. According to History.com, there were at least six cholera pandemics during the next century.
After the U.K. passed 100,000 deaths in late January, the Independent reported that the number of deaths there during the pandemic had surpassed those suffered in “the Great Plague, the AIDS pandemic, and every single terror attack and war since 1945” combined.
While the case and death rates are beginning to slow, there are still some worrisome trends. Especially if the new coronavirus variants bring even more infections that could help the virus mutate, if America reopens too quickly, or if Brazil and India continue to badly struggle.
Yet, as of late May 2021, the numbers of new cases and deaths in the U.S. had dropped to their lowest levels in a year.