Nearly 15 Million Deaths Are Linked to COVID-19: WHO

(London) — The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 15 million people were killed either by coronavirus or by its impact on overwhelmed health systems in the past two years, more than double the official death toll of 6 million. Majority of deaths occurred in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

In a report Thursday, the U.N. agency’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the figure as “sobering,” saying it should prompt countries to invest more in their capacities to quell future health emergencies.

Scientists tasked by WHO with calculating the actual number of COVID-19 deaths between January 2020 and the end of last year estimated there were between 13.3 million and 16.6 million deaths that were either caused directly by the coronavirus or were somehow attributed to the pandemic’s impact on health systems, like people with cancer unable to seek treatment when hospitals were full of COVID patients.

Although the figures were calculated using statistical modeling and country-reported data, only half of those countries have provided any information. WHO said it wasn’t yet able to break down the figures to distinguish between direct deaths from COVID-19 and others caused by the pandemic, but said a future project examining death certificates would probe this.

“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 Albert Ko, an infectious diseases specialist at the Yale School of Public Health who was not linked to the WHO research.

For example, Ko said, South Korea’s decision to invest heavily in public health after it suffered a severe outbreak of MERS allowed it to escape COVID-19 with a per-capita death rate around a 20th of that of the U.S.

Learn More: The U.S. Is in a ‘Controlled Pandemic’ Phase of COVID-19. But what does this mean?

Since the outbreak, accurate figures on COVID-19-related deaths has proven difficult due to limited testing, differences between countries, and the fact that not all countries use the same method of counting COVID-19 fatalities. There have been over 6 million coronavirus-related deaths, according to WHO figures and Johns Hopkins University’s separate count.

The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, has estimated more than 18 million deaths by COVIDs between January 2020 and Dec 2021. In an earlier study in Lancet, a Canadian team of researchers calculated that India had more than 3 million coronavirus-related deaths. WHO’s new analysis estimated there were more than 4 million missed deaths in India, ranging between 3.3 million to 6.5 million.

Some countries, including India, have disputed WHO’s methodology for calculating COVID deaths, resisting the idea that there were many more deaths than officially counted.

The Indian government published new numbers earlier this week that showed there had been 474,806 fewer deaths in 2020 than the year before, but didn’t say how many of these were related to the pandemic. India has not released any estimates of deaths for 2021 since the outbreak of the delta strain, a highly contagious virus that killed thousands, in India.

Ko suggested that better WHO figures might help to explain the pandemic’s mysteries, such as why Africa seems to be the most affected despite having low vaccination rates.

“Were the mortality rates so low because we couldn’t count the deaths or was there some other factor to explain that?” he said, adding that the crush of deaths in rich countries like Britain and the U.S. proved that 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 true toll of COVID-19, particularly in poor countries.

“When you have a massive outbreak where people are dying in the streets because of a lack of oxygen, bodies were abandoned or people had to be cremated quickly because of cultural beliefs, we end up never knowing just how many people died,” he explained.

Although Pankhania said the estimated COVID-19 death toll still pales in comparison to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic — when experts estimate up to 100 million people died — he said the fact that so many people died despite the advances of modern medicine, including vaccines, is shameful.

The cost of COVID-19, he warned, could prove to be much more costly in the long-term due to the growing burden of care for Long COVID patients.

“With the Spanish flu, there was the flu and then there were some (lung) illnesses people suffered, but that was it,” he said. “There was not an enduring immunological condition that we’re seeing right now with COVID.”

“We do not know the extent to which people with Long COVID will have their lives cut short and if they will have repeated infections that will cause them even more problems,” Pankhania said.

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