huge numbers | 

Death toll from Covid-19 pandemic close to 15 million, admits WHO in ‘sobering’ study

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Photo: Salvatore Di Nolfi

Maria Cheng

The World Health Organisation estimates nearly 15 million people were killed either by coronavirus or by its impact on overwhelmed health systems during the first two years of the pandemic.

This is more than double the current official death toll of over six million.

Most of the deaths occurred in south-east Asia, Europe and the Americas, according to a WHO report issued yesterday.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the UN health agency’s director-general, said that the newly calculated figure was “sobering”, and should prompt countries to invest more in their capacities to quell future health emergencies.

The WHO tasked scientists with determining the actual number of Covid deaths between January 2020 and the end of last year.

They estimated between 13.3 million and 16.6 million people died either due to the coronavirus directly or because of factors somehow attributed to the pandemic’s impact on health systems, such as cancer patients who were unable to seek treatment when hospitals were full of coronavirus patients.

Based on that range, the scientists came up with an approximated total of 14.9 million. The estimate was based on country-reported data and statistical modelling, but only about half of countries provided information.

The WHO said it was not yet able to break down the data to distinguish between direct deaths from Covid and those related to effects of the pandemic, but the agency plans a future project examining death certificates.

“This may seem like just a bean-counting exercise, but having these WHO numbers is so critical to understanding how we should combat future pandemics and continue to respond to this one,” said Dr Albert Ko, an infectious diseases specialist at the Yale School of Public Health who was not linked to the WHO research.

He said that South Korea’s decision to invest heavily in public health after it suffered a severe outbreak of Mers allowed it to escape Covid with a per-capita death rate around a 20th of the one in the United States.

Accurately counting Covid deaths has been problematic throughout the pandemic, as reports of confirmed cases represent only a fraction of the devastation wrought by the virus, largely because of limited testing. Government figures reported to the WHO and a separate tally kept by Johns Hopkins University show more than 6.2 million reported virus deaths to date.

Scientists at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington calculated for a recent study published in The Lancet that there were more than 18 million Covid deaths from January 2020 to December 2021.

A team led by Canadian researchers estimated there were more than three million uncounted Covid deaths in India alone.

The WHO’s new analysis estimated that missed deaths in India alone ranged between 3.3 million to 6.5 million.

In a statement following the release of the WHO’s data, India disputed the UN agency’s methodology.

Its Health and Family Welfare Ministry called the analysis and data collection methods “questionable” and complained that the new death estimates were released “without adequately addressing India’s concerns”.

Samira Asma, a senior WHO director, acknowledged “numbers are sometimes controversial” and that all estimates are only an approximation of the virus’s catastrophic effects.

“It has become very obvious during the entire course of the pandemic, there have been data that is missing,” she told a press briefing yesterday.

“Basically, all of us were caught unprepared.”

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