Flu is Killing Way More People than Coronavirus

What's new isn't necessarily what's most important.

The CDC reminds us how dangerous the common flu is:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 19 million Americans have been infected with the flu so far this season, and 180,000 of them have been hospitalized because of the illness. The flu virus has already killed an estimated 10,000 people across the U.S., including 68 children, according to the CDC.

Fourteen influenza-associated pediatric deaths occurring during the 2019-2020 season between weeks 45 and 4 (the weeks ending November 9, 2019 and January 25, 2020) were reported to CDC during week 4. Eight were associated with influenza B viruses; one had a lineage determined and was a B/Victoria virus. Six were associated with influenza A viruses, and three were subtyped; all were A(H1N1)pdm09 viruses. (Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report, Key Updates for Week 4, ending January 25, 2020)

It’s worth keeping that in mind with all of the attention surrounding the coronavirus. That epidemic is scary—and has already killed more people than the SARS virus that got our attention back in 2003—but the death toll worldwide is under 1000. The flu has already killed ten times that just in the US.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t try to contain the epidemic or figure out how to cure/treat it. But some perspective is in order.

FILED UNDER: Health
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Lynn says:

    The flu has killed more people than the coronavirus, no question. But … the mortality rate from the coronavirus is higher than that of the flu.

    “So far this flu season, about 0.05% of people who caught the flu have died from the virus in the U.S., according to CDC data. . . . The death rate for 2019-nCoV is still unclear, but it appears to be higher than that of the flu. Throughout the outbreak, the death rate for 2019-nCoV has been about 2%.”

    And then there’s the issue of transmission:

    “The flu has an R0 value of about 1.3, according to The New York Times. . . . Researchers are still working to determine the R0 for 2019-nCoV. A study published Jan. 29 in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) estimated an R0 value for the new coronavirus to be 2.2”

    https://www.livescience.com/new-coronavirus-compare-with-flu.html

    Freak out? No … but let’s not minimize things, either (not that you were, James)

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  2. steve says:

    We had about 60,000 (average) flu deaths in the 18-19 cycle and about 80,000 (a bad year) in the 17-18 cycle. We dont know yet where we are going with coronavirus. My sense is that we handling it OK so far even though we weren’t prepared very well.

    Steve

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  3. sam says:
  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    China needs to permanently close down its wildlife markets. They did it after SARS, then re-opened them. This really is intolerably irresponsible for a country with pretensions to world power and influence.

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  5. KM says:

    It’s car deaths vs plane crashes. One kills *way* more people but is so mundane you don’t even register it anymore unless it affects you personally. There’s also a great chance you’ll survive it, maybe even unharmed. One is dramatic, involves a ton more governmental intervention to deal with, makes a hell of a bigger mess and your chances of death go way, way up even though it’s far more infrequent.

    Coronavirus is frightening because the government is treating it the way they should be treating the flu and other contagious illnesses. Stop and think about how life would be if we demanded quarantines at the beginning of flu season – the entire concept of “flu season” would go away! What if we as a society didn’t tolerate people walking around, spreading disease causally but instead decided to get ahead of it and stop its spread? Coronavirus shows us just how illogical we are about the things that kill us just because they are “common”. If we had taken better measure to contain AIDS back in the day, our society would look a lot different. It was considered a niche disease and not a threat to the world at large – now it’s a “common” exposure threat anyone in a sexual relationship needs to consider.

    We *should* care flu kills more then Coronavirus by treating it the same way but people will never accept that because “that’s just how it is”. Consequently, governments are flipping out to stop it from being the new “that’s just how it is” and our children don’t have to look forward to “Corona season”. From that perspective, we’re doing OK but can try harder. This thing is going to linger for *months* if not into next year – the incubation rate virtually guarantees Coronavirus will be in the news at least until July.

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  6. @Michael Reynolds: All of this should be a reminder that China is still a developing country.

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  7. Teve says:

    I have a friend who’s an epidemiologist at Kent State. Whenever SARS or MERS or this new thing pop up I ask her what’s going on. She says with this coronavirus strain there’s not enough evidence that we should freak out yet, but that paying very close attention to it is good because it’s the sort of thing that could be one or two mutations away from going all 1918 up in here.

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  8. grumpy realist says:

    My idiot “friend” (who used to be intelligent but has gone down the alt-right/self-pity party hole) is now posting all the wildest conspiracy theories on his Facebook page. He seems to think that we’re just a few weeks from a raging epidemic in the U.S. and the collapse of civilisation, sigh. Next he’s going to be panicking about rampaging hordes breaking into stores for food. Anything for an excuse to get out his guns and start blasting away at people, I suspect.

    Seems to me you can’t have it both ways: either tons more people are infected than have been let out, in which case the death rate is much lower than the 2% estimation and I’ll take my chances thank you very much, or the statistics of infection/death are as reported….in which case it’s a 2% chance with victims being the elderly/suffering from something else as well and I’ll take my chances thank you very much. Someone pointed out elsewhere that it looks like it’s older men in China that are dying, which might link into the fact that a lot of men in China smoke like fiends but women not so much. If you’ve already got crappy lung health due to your incessant smoking it doesn’t surprise me that it’s easier for a coronavirus infection to turn into pneumonia–especially since it looks like a high percentage (40%) of the infections were caught from other patients in the hospital. So we have a highly contagious flu virus which is killing people who already were not in the pink of health…

    ….I’ll take my chances, thank you very much….

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  9. Randall Flagg, The Walkin' Dude says:

    @Teve:

    it’s the sort of thing that could be one or two mutations away from going all 1918 up in here

    Heh heh…heh…heheheheheheheheheh…

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  10. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    All of this should be a reminder that China is still a developing country.

    China is a great example of where concepts of “developing country” fail.

    A former colleague who was a China scholar (and did long periods of fieldwork in the Western Border areas) would always remind us that the reality China is still in the process of colonizing itself (let alone trying to recolonize other areas or expand its boundaries).

    Of course, there are still significant portions of the US that, if they were in any other county, we’d say they were in the “developing” category.

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  11. DrDaveT says:

    The Spanish Influenza of 1917 had a mortality rate of 2.5%, and was devastating. I don’t know what its transmissivity was. If NCP* becomes endemic, as 4 existing coronavirii have, I think that might be enough to induce social changes.

    *”novel coronavirus pneumonia”, which is apparently the accepted acronym in some circles.

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  12. MarkedMan says:

    @Lynn: Well put. If we assume that the transmission rate was the same (we shouldn’t, but the math is hard), and simply take the fatality rate, the 19m infected would have resulted in 380,000 dead rather than 10,000. If the actual transmission rate is as high as it seems to be the number of infected would be multiples, as would the dead.

    I’m not suggesting panic. The US has a real CDC and NHS, and each state has the equivalent. And (so far) they are not covering up the cases because Chairman Trump doesn’t wanna look bad. They can effectively quarantine people and track down those that might be infected. And our medical system should also result in a higher recovery rate.

    But I am not comfortable at all that the Republicans have been loading up every area of government with political ideologues. “Heckuva job, Brownie!)

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  13. Kathy says:

    @DrDaveT:

    The devastation of the 1917 flu was that it killed young adults rather than the elderly and infants, as the regular flu does. so removing 25 of so of the working age population is really bad. add WWI, the Russian Civil War, Mexico’s Civil war (1910-1921). It’s a wonder we didn’t get a major economic depression then.

    R0, which @Lynn brings up, is not a rate, but a number stating how many cases of X disease occur from every person infected with X. The new virus’ R0 is uncertain, but appears to be higher than the common flu.

    All this is terrible, but it means precautions should be taken. How extreme is hard to say. if you successfully prevent a pandemic, it looks like the case where the dog didn’t bark. People notice more what happens than what doesn’t happen.

    this new virus is not very widespread outside China, yet. So worrying about the flu makes more practical sense than worrying about the new coronavirus. The precautions one person can take are about the same: avoid crowds, wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your eyes, ears, nose and mouth.

    The recommendation to take in more vitamins C and D may or may not help, but they can’t hurt much if what one does is eat some more citrus and drink some more milk.

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  14. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    We’re human beings. We don’t DO the perspective thing very well.

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  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    @mattbernius:
    I agree. China is countries, plural. The China of Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou is a rising economic, technological and diplomatic great power. Most of China is still desperately poor, and parts are very near to being rebellious colonies. China may rise to world domination, but then again they may disintegrate.

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  16. grumpy realist says:

    @DrDaveT: It looks like the mortality rate of the Spanish influenza for infected populations was much higher–I know that the 2.5% percentage gets batted about for the overall mortality rate, but a) that’s more of a guesstimate than anything backed up by numbers (since we lack data from a lot of countries), and b) when researchers have gone in and looked at the actual statistics for enclosed populations, the mortality rate is much higher. Here’s some data I found from a paper:

    Objectives  To study the mortality patterns of the pandemic in the Brazilian fleet sent to patrol the West African coast in 1918.

    Method  We investigated mortality across vessels, ranks, and occupations based on official population and mortality records from the Brazilian Navy Archives.

    Results  The outbreak that swept this fleet included the highest influenza mortality rate on any naval ship reported to date. Nearly 10% of the crews died, with death rates reaching 13–14% on two destroyers. While overall mortality was lower for officers, stokers and engineer officers were significantly more likely to die from the pandemic, possibly due to the pulmonary damage from constant exposure to the smoke and coal dust from the boilers.

    P.S. this backs up the possible smoking ==>higher death rates for men supposition in my previous post.

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  17. mattbernius says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Well said. In many respects China is not unlike the USSR (at least in terms of being many disperate countries at once).

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  18. DrDaveT says:

    @grumpy realist: Thanks for the correction — I hate it when my references let me down.

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  19. de stijl says:

    We can pay attention and assign resources to two things at once. It’s fairly easy.

    It’s not binary. No forced choice required.

    A moderately advanced infrastructure can assign multiple people pointing at different areas.

    Stories and headlines like this are bogus, in the Keanu sense. It isn’t forced choice. Our structures can handle and address both by design.

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  20. Skip says:

    Your assertion depends on whether we can trust the numbers coming out of China or not. Since the evidence is mounting that China is not being honest with the world community, I would hold off on making proclamations like this if I were you.

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  21. grumpy realist says:

    @DrDaveT: The CDC was curious enough about the Spanish Influenza virus that they reconstructed it and poked around to see if they could figure out why it was so lethal, but had no luck.

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  22. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Lynn:

    The flu has killed more people than the coronavirus, no question. But … the mortality rate from the coronavirus is higher than that of the flu.
    “So far this flu season, about 0.05% of people who caught the flu have died from the virus in the U.S., according to CDC data. . . . The death rate for 2019-nCoV is still unclear, but it appears to be higher than that of the flu. Throughout the outbreak, the death rate for 2019-nCoV has been about 2%.”

    This isn’t true, because you’re using an unequal basis of comparison: for 2019-nCoV you’re comparing fatalities vs. hospitalizations and for Influenza you’re comparing fatalities vs. infections.

    We don’t yet have any good data on what percentage of 2019-nCoV infections result in hospitalizations.

    If we compare influenza hospitalizations vs. deaths, for this flu season it’s running about 5%, more than twice as deadly as 2019-nCoV so far.

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  23. Stormy Dragon says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Probably because the 1918 flu ISN’T particularly deadly anymore. The people most susceptible to whatever made it different all died, so five generations later, the genes for resistance to it are widely spread. Figuring out what made it particularly deadly would require not just looking at the virus itself, but also the immune response of the people who died from it, which is unavailable now.

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  24. Jen says:

    I’ve never found the notion of taking a cruise as the ideal vacation, but honestly, between the way Norovirus whips through a ship and now the number of sick with Coronavirus on that one in Japan, I can say firmly that cruises are off the list.

    On infection rates and such–what I’ve always found most interesting are asymptomatic carriers. Apparently there are people out there who can carry viruses–colds, flu, whatever–and never exhibit symptoms. Mary Mallon was such a person–completely asymptomatic carrier of typhoid. Without showing any symptoms, she spread typhoid to dozens of people working as a cook.

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  25. grumpy realist says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Wouldn’t it be the opposite? I thought the Spanish Influenza caused an overreaction in younger people, which is why it was so lethal….

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  26. Stormy Dragon says:

    @grumpy realist:

    When I said “The people most susceptible to whatever made it different all died”, I didn’t mean from old age. I mean they got the virus and died from it in 1918. The people who survived and had offspring were the subset of the population less genetically susceptible to it, and those resistant genes are now in everyone.

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  27. Stormy Dragon says:

    BTW, for those interested in following 2019-nCov, John Hopkins University made the following site which is updated multiple times a day with the latest data:

    https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6

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  28. @mattbernius:

    China is a great example of where concepts of “developing country” fail.

    I take the point. How about this: China is a case of uneven national development that combines highly developed and highly underdeveloped areas, populations, and practices (and state capacity).

    Or, as I used to point out when I taught this kind of stuff: the overall degree of development is often seen in the space between the most and least developed parts of a country/economy.

    And, in China’s case, we can also clearly see that that GDP per capita tells us something about the overall development of the country that raw GDP doesn’t.

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  29. @Michael Reynolds:

    I agree. China is countries, plural. The China of Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou is a rising economic, technological and diplomatic great power. Most of China is still desperately poor, and parts are very near to being rebellious colonies. China may rise to world domination, but then again they may disintegrate.

    Again, I take the point, but the reality is that there is one national territory and one national economy all trying to function as one China. The fact that the central government in Beijing has to worry about desperately poor sections and near-rebellious subsections is what I am talking about.

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  30. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: (Good) Point taken!

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  31. James Joyner says:

    @de stijl:

    We can pay attention and assign resources to two things at once. It’s fairly easy.

    It’s not binary. No forced choice required.

    I explicitly state in the short third paragraph of a three-paragraph post that we should pay attention and assign resources to both. I’m just pointing out that, because of how press converage works, we’re only paying attention as a public to one—and arguably the less important of the two. I’m quite sure the CDC and other national health authorities are doing their due dilligence on both.

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  32. Lynn says:

    @Stormy Dragon: “This isn’t true, because you’re using an unequal basis of comparison: for 2019-nCoV you’re comparing fatalities vs. hospitalizations and for Influenza you’re comparing fatalities vs. infections.”

    The article I linked to did refer to hospitalizations but, as far as I can tell, was comparing fatalities to infections for both illnesses.

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  33. de stijl says:

    @Randall Flagg, The Walkin’ Dude:

    That was spot on and super creepy!

    I like Steven King, but not everything is thought through well.

    Are you Satan or another fallen angel?It’s really unclear.

    King nails the set-up and muffs the landing so often it’s a cliche.

    Randall Flagg or the Walking Dude is both The Trickster or Loki and Satan simultaneously. A retcon is needed to resolve this.

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  34. de stijl says:

    Don’t Fear The Reaper as the intro song to the TV version of The Stand was outstanding.

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  35. Slugger says:

    The cruise ships should be a useful microcosm. We can derive a fairly good starting date, rapidity of spread, and morbidity from these easily observed samples. I haven’t heard of any deaths, but I don’t know if any severe pneumonias have developed.
    There are nearly 8 billion humans. Travel and trade are common. A serious pandemic can’t be too far off.

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  36. de stijl says:

    Corin Nemec out of that cast did best.

    Jamey Sheridan had fun.

    Laura San Giacoma had the unenviable role of shrill hot girl who goes psycho.

    Gary Sinese was present. Dingus guy from “Coach” showed up. Did the least convincing take on autism ever.

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  37. de stijl says:

    Miguel Ferrer rocked pretty hard.

    The role of Lloyd Henried was pretty well written in the book.

    Not sure how much was character stuff from the book and how much was Ferrer, but I remember him in that kinda tiny role 25 years later.

    Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man also did well.

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  38. Lynn says:

    @Stormy Dragon: This isn’t true, because you’re using an unequal basis of comparison: for 2019-nCoV you’re comparing fatalities vs. hospitalizations and for Influenza you’re comparing fatalities vs. infections.

    The article I linked to states:

    “So far, the new coronavirus, dubbed 2019-nCoV, has led to more than 20,000 illnesses and 427 deaths in China, as well as more than 200 illnesses and two deaths outside of mainland China. But that’s nothing compared with the flu, also called influenza. In the U.S. alone, the flu has already caused an estimated 19 million illnesses, 180,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths this season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). ”

    As I figure it, that’s a mortality rate of about .05% for flu and 2% for the coronavirus in China. As far as I can tell, there’s no mention of hospitalizations for 2019-nCoV, though there is for flu. Did I miss something?

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  39. Gustopher says:

    @Skip:

    Since the evidence is mounting that China is not being honest with the world community, I would hold off on making proclamations like this if I were you.

    What is this mounting evidence?

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  40. Jax says:

    @Gustopher: There have been some “accidental”, “up for 10 minutes” updates released by Tencent, that indicate the infection and death numbers are up to as many as 10 times what China is releasing publicly. Nobody knows if it’s somebody on the China side trying to get the word out, before the censors kick in, or what.

    Found the link. When I first read it 3 days ago, it was “10 times higher” as far as infection/death rate, now it’s gone up. Take it for what you will, I mean….it’s a grand basis for a conspiracy theory. BUT….it’s also China. They are not going to want to seem weak, or like they can’t get a handle on it.

    https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/ryanhatesthis/as-chinese-internet-users-try-to-track-the-coronavirus

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  41. DrDaveT says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Great link; thanks.

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  42. Gustopher says:

    @Jax: if the numbers from the likely crazy people are to be believed, this virus kills about 20-25% of those infected.

    China is not well known for human rights, so if that were the case I think we would see them building death camps rather than hospitals, and national media there saying it was a biological weapon created by an al Qaeda linked group of whatever Muslims they are trying to exterminate, with stories about how the Winnie The Pooh guy is acting decisively.

    Maybe I just expect a higher level of competence in my evil.

    I would be much more comfortable the an Obama CDC right now though. And someone strong-arming the Chinese to allow access.

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  43. Jax says:

    @Gustopher: Russian media is saying it’s an American bioweapon.

    Fun times.

    I think Trump disbanded the CDC “emergency response” team that Obama set up for Ebola and such. Because….you know….Obama did it. (Eyeroll)

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  44. MarkedMan says:

    @Gustopher: The NYT has stringers on the ground in Wuhan and have been steadily reporting that significant numbers of sick people have been unable to be tested and are sent home. A very realistic supposition is that if one of them dies, there is no post Morten to determine if it was the virus that killed them.

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  45. grumpy realist says:

    Number of deaths in China has passed 1000.

    Has some good diagrams. I can’t find the web-page again, but there’s a medical report out showing that 40% of the infected in Wuhan in hospitals caught the coronavirus from other patients. (This might have occurred before they realised how contagious the virus was.)

    ….I’m still not panicking.

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  46. Stormy Dragon says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I can’t find the web-page again, but there’s a medical report out showing that 40% of the infected in Wuhan in hospitals caught the coronavirus from other patients.

    Given we’re not seeing this virus either spread or kill to the same degree outside China, one might start to wonder if this is more about the state of Chinese healthcare than about 2019-nCoV per se.

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  47. grumpy realist says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I think what has happened in Wuhan is simply that the number of victims has totally overwhelmed the existing medical network. This is why highly contagious epidemics are potentially so dangerous–the illness might be easily handled if there were only a few victims–but when there’s not enough health care workers, masks, medicines, beds–about the only thing the city can do is tell people to quarantine themselves inside their own houses and deal with the deaths later.

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