Fact check: Chance of an asteroid hitting Earth on Nov. 2 is not higher than dying of COVID-19

Melissa Brown, USA TODAY
·5 min read

The claim: There's a higher chance of an asteroid hitting Earth than of a person dying from COVID-19

It has been shared in various iterations thousands of times on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to downplay the severity and risk of COVID-19, a pandemic.

"So NASA says there is a .042% chance of an asteroid hitting earth on 11/02/2020. The chance of dying from Covid 19 is .026%. I'm going to trade my mask in for a helmet," says a post Sept. 21 on Facebook.

NASA tracked an asteroid, formally known as 2018VP1, as it neared Earth. It was discovered in 2018 by the Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar Observatory in California, and further observation found it was likely to be near Earth on Nov. 2.

In August, news of the 6.5-foot asteroid's approach spread due to its proximity to Election Day in the United States.

NASA, through an official social media account dedicated to asteroid observation, dispelled the notion.

According to NASA, 2018VP1 poses "no threat" to Earth. NASA calculates the asteroid has a 0.41% chance of entering Earth's atmosphere but, given its "very small" size, it would disintegrate before it hit the planet.

"Close approaches by small objects of this size are not rare, and even if something of this size were to impact, the object would not likely survive the Earth’s atmosphere,” Donald Yeomans, a senior researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told The New York Times in August.

Additionally, epidemiologists say the COVID-19 "chance of dying" quoted in the social media claim is incorrect and misleading.

"0.068% of the U.S. population has died of COVID (and this number only continues to grow) which is higher than the chance of dying from an asteroid below," said epidemiologist Suzanne Judd, director of the Lister Hill Center for Health Policy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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Judd said people should be cautious in how they interpret data.

It's irresponsible to distill the pandemic into a single data point, given that the coronavirus can have vastly different outcomes that are dependent on the health of the patient, prevention methods and access to health care, among a variety of other factors.

In Alabama, where Judd is based, the case fatality rate ranges from 0.17% to 8.19%, though Judd said this is not the same as the "chance of dying."

"It’s challenging when people try to interpret data, and they don’t understand what it means," Judd said. "There’s one percentage that describes how many people that get COVID will die from it. That’s the total number of people who die divided by the total number of people who have COVID. The denominator changes all the time. There’s the other number, which is the total population. It’s Epidemiology 101. Never look at the numerator, always look at the denominator."

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As of Oct. 14, according to data gathered by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the U.S. had confirmed 7,856,605 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Of those cases, at least 215,887 resulted in deaths, leading to a 2.7% case fatality rate, much higher than the percentage quoted in the social media claim.

"But not everyone has equal probability of getting COVID," Judd said. "For example, if a person and the members of their household are not interacting with other people in situations where risk of contracting COVID is high, then that person would have a low chance of dying from COVID because they are not likely to be infected with COVID."

Based on a U.S. Census estimate of the country's population, .065% of the overall U.S. population has died from COVID as of Oct. 14, a number which Judd says "only continues to grow."

The Facebook user who posted the item did not return a request for comment.

Our ruling: False

We rate this claim FALSE based on our research. Though NASA has calculated there is a 0.41% chance of an asteroid entering Earth's atmosphere on Nov. 2, the asteroid in question would disintegrate before it hit Earth. Both COVID-19's case fatality rate in the U.S. and the percentage of the overall U.S. population that have died from COVID-19 are higher than the percentage cited in the social media claim.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Chances of Nov. 2 asteroid strike less than COVID death