The objective of this Personal View is to compare transmissibility, hospitalisation, and mortality rates for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) with those of other epidemic coronaviruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), and pandemic influenza viruses. The basic reproductive rate (R0) for SARS-CoV-2 is estimated to be 2·5 (range 1·8–3·6) compared with 2·0–3·0 for SARS-CoV and the 1918 influenza pandemic, 0·9 for MERS-CoV, and 1·5 for the 2009 influenza pandemic. SARS-CoV-2 causes mild or asymptomatic disease in most cases; however, severe to critical illness occurs in a small proportion of infected individuals, with the highest rate seen in people older than 70 years. The measured case fatality rate varies between countries, probably because of differences in testing strategies. Population-based mortality estimates vary widely across Europe, ranging from zero to high. Numbers from the first affected region in Italy, Lombardy, show an all age mortality rate of 154 per 100 000 population. Differences are most likely due to varying demographic structures, among other factors. However, this new virus has a focal dissemination; therefore, some areas have a higher disease burden and are affected more than others for reasons that are still not understood. Nevertheless, early introduction of strict physical distancing and hygiene measures have proven effective in sharply reducing R0 and associated mortality and could in part explain the geographical differences.