Global COVID-19 deaths may be three times higher than records say

More than 18 million people may have died of COVID-19 by end of 2021.
Derya Ozdemir
The photo credit line may appear like thisTempura/iStock

The COVID-19 pandemic may have claimed roughly 18 million lives worldwide, more than three times the official death toll, according to a new estimate.

According to an analysis published in the Lancet by a team of health researchers, the higher figure represents a better approximation of the true worldwide casualty figure through the end of 2021.

The researchers say the true number of lives lost to the COVID-19 by 31 December 2021 was 18.2 million, which vastly outnumbers the 5.9 million deaths reported by various official sources for the same time span.

The gap can be attributed to major undercounts in official statistics as a result of delayed and incomplete reporting, as well as a lack of data in dozens of nations. Determining the death toll is critical, as it's needed for successful public health decision-making.

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Mortality impact of the COVID-19 pandemic 

A team of researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle, Washington, gathered information on all causes of death in 74 countries and territories. Not all countries had such data, which is why the authors had to rely on a statistical model to calculate mortality estimates.

They used a measure called excess deaths, which refers to how many people have died than would be expected in recent years prior to the pandemic. Excess deaths are estimated to have varied substantially by country and location; however, the study managed to determine an overall global rate of 120 deaths per 100,000 people.

It was seen that Andean Latin America (512 deaths per 100,000 population), eastern Europe (345 deaths per 100,000), central Europe (316 deaths per 100,000), southern Sub-Saharan Africa (309 deaths per 100,000), and central Latin America (274 deaths per 100,000) had the greatest estimated excess mortality rates.

Understanding the full impact of the pandemic

Previous studies from Sweden and Netherlands indicated that COVID-19 was directly responsible for the majority of the excess death seen there, which could easily be the case in other countries. However, deaths may also have occurred indirectly from suicide or drug use as a result of behavior changes or a lack of access to healthcare and other vital services.

The findings of the IHME are the first estimate of excess deaths to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the researchers state that more research is needed to distinguish deaths caused directly by COVID-19 from deaths caused by the pandemic's indirect effects. People who did not have COVID-19, for example, could have died due to insufficient medical care in overcrowded hospitals.  

Vaccines and innovative therapies, according to the researchers, will reduce excess mortality associated with the pandemic; however, they also caution that the pandemic is far from over as new, deadly strains of the virus may arise.

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