(London) — The World Health Organization estimates that in the past two years nearly 15 million people have died from the coronavirus or its impact on overburdened health systems, more than double the official death toll of 6 million. Most fatalities occurred in Southeast Asia, Europe and America.
In a report Thursday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the chief of the UN agency, described the figure as “sobering,” saying it should urge countries to invest more in their capabilities to quell future health emergencies.
Scientists tasked by WHO with calculating the true number of COVID-19 deaths between January 2020 and the end of last year estimate that there were between 13.3 million and 16.6 million deaths that were either directly caused by the coronavirus. caused or were somehow attributed to the impact of the pandemic on health systems, such as people with cancer unable to seek treatment when hospitals are full of COVID patients.
The figures are based on country-reported data and statistical models, but only about half of the countries provided information. The WHO said it was not yet able to break down the numbers to differentiate between direct deaths from COVID-19 and others caused by the pandemic, but said a future project investigating death certificates would look into this.
“This may just seem like a bean counting exercise, but having these WHO numbers is so crucial to understanding how to fight and continue to respond to future pandemics,” said Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at Yale School or Public Health that was not linked to the WHO study.
For example, Ko said South Korea’s decision to invest heavily in public health after it suffered a severe outbreak of MERS allowed the country to escape COVID-19 with a per capita death rate of about a 20th. from that of the US
Read more: The US is in a ‘controlled pandemic’ phase of COVID-19. But what does that mean?
Accurate numbers on COVID-19 deaths have been problematic during the pandemic, as the numbers are only a fraction of the devastation wrought by the virus, largely because of limited testing and differences in how countries count COVID-19 deaths. According to government figures reported to the WHO and a separate tally maintained by Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 6 million reported deaths from the coronavirus to date.
Scientists at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington suspected there were more than 18 million COVID deaths between January 2020 and December 2021 in a recent study published in the journal Lancet, and a team led by Canadian researchers estimated that there were more than 3 million countless deaths from the coronavirus in India alone. According to a new WHO analysis, there were more than 4 million missed deaths in India, ranging from 3.3 million to 6.5 million.
Some countries, including India, have disputed the WHO’s methodology for calculating COVID deaths, opposing the idea that there were many more deaths than officially counted.
Earlier this week, the Indian government released new figures showing that there were 474,806 more deaths in 2020 than in the previous year, but did not say how many were linked to the pandemic. India has not released estimates of deaths for 2021, when the highly contagious delta strain swept across the country, killing many thousands.
Ko said better numbers from the WHO could also explain some lingering mysteries about the pandemic, such as why Africa appears to be one of the least affected by the virus, despite low vaccination rates.
“Were the death rates so low because we couldn’t count the dead or was there some other factor to explain that?” he said, adding that the death toll in rich countries like Britain and the US proved resources alone were insufficient to contain a global outbreak.
dr. Bharat Pankhania, a public health specialist at Britain’s University of Exeter, said the world may never get close to the real toll of COVID-19, especially in poor countries.
“If you have a massive outbreak where people die in the streets because of a lack of oxygen, bodies were left behind or people had to be quickly cremated because of cultural beliefs, we never know how many people died in the end,” he explained. †
Although Pankhania said the estimated death toll from COVID-19 still pales in comparison to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic — when experts estimated 100 million people died — he said that many people died despite advances in modern medicine, including vaccines, is embarrassing.
He also warned that the cost of COVID-19 could be much more damaging in the long run, given the increasing burden of caring for people with lung COVID.
“With the Spanish flu there was flu and then there were some (lung) diseases that people suffered, but that was it,” he said. “There was no permanent immunological disorder that we see now with COVID.”
“We don’t know how much life will be shortened for people with Lung COVID and whether they will have repeated infections that will cause them even more problems,” Pankhania said.
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