If the officially reported global Covid-19 death number is 3.24mn, a new study which claims that the actual figure is more than double, nearing 7mn, has come as a rude jolt. The analysis comes from researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, who looked at excess mortality from March 2020 through May 3, 2021, compared it with what would be expected in a typical non-pandemic year, then adjusted those figures to account for a handful of other pandemic-related factors. The final count only estimates deaths “caused directly by the Sars-CoV-2 virus,” according to the study’s authors. Sars-CoV-2 is the virus that causes Covid-19.
According to the new study, the number of people who have died of Covid-19 in the US is more than 900,000, a number 57% higher than official figures. Researchers estimated dramatic undercounts in countries such as India, Mexico and Russia, where they said the official death counts are some 400,000 too low in each country. In some countries — including Japan, Egypt and several Central Asian nations — the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s death toll estimate is more than 10 times higher than reported totals.
“The analysis just shows how challenging it has been during the pandemic to accurately track the deaths — and actually, transmission — of Covid. And by focusing in on the total Covid death rate, I think we bring to light just how much greater the impact of Covid has been already and may be in the future,” said Dr Christopher Murray, who heads the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The group reached its estimates by calculating excess mortality based on a variety of sources, including official death statistics from various countries as well as academic studies of other locations. Then, it examined other mortality factors influenced by the pandemic. For example, some of the extra deaths were caused by increased opioid overdoses or deferred healthcare. On the other hand, the dramatic reduction in flu cases last winter and a modest drop in deaths caused by injury resulted in lower mortality in those categories than usual.
Researchers at UW ultimately concluded that the extra deaths not directly caused by Covid-19 were effectively offset by the other reductions in death rates, leaving them to attribute all of the net excess deaths to the coronavirus. “When you put all that together, we conclude that the best way, the closest estimate, for the true Covid death is still excess mortality, because some of those things are on the positive side, other factors are on the negative side,” Murray said. Experts are in agreement that official reports of Covid-19 deaths undercount the true death toll of the virus. Some countries only report deaths that take place in hospitals, or only when patients are confirmed to have been infected; others have poor healthcare access altogether.
Researchers at UW also released an updated forecast for the Covid-19 death count worldwide, estimating that roughly 2.5mn more people will die of the pandemic until September 1, driven in part by the dramatic surge of cases in India. “We need to better understand the impact of Covid across the globe so that countries can understand the trajectory of the pandemic and figure out where to deploy additional resources, like testing supplies and vaccines to stop the spread,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins.
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