New report says the real global COVID death totals are much higher than reported
Countless reports on the COVID-19 pandemic have used research from a highly reputable source: Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which reports that the death toll from COVID-19 has passed 5.5 million worldwide and 855,000 in the United States. Some far-right conspiracy theorists and coronavirus truthers have made the baseless claim that those sobering figures are an exaggeration, but London-based science reporter David Adam has a totally different perspective. In an article published by Nature this week, Adam argues that the real death toll from COVID-19 is even worse than what has been widely reported.
“On 1 November, the global death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic passed 5 million, official data suggested. It has now reached 5.5 million,” Adam explains. “But that figure is a significant underestimate. Records of excess mortality — a metric that involves comparing all deaths recorded with those expected to occur — show many more people than this have died in the pandemic.”
Adam continues, “Working out how many more is a complex research challenge. It is not as simple as just counting up each country’s excess mortality figures. Some official data in this regard are flawed, scientists have found. And more than 100 countries do not collect reliable statistics on expected or actual deaths at all, or do not release them in a timely manner.”
The reporter notes that “demographers, data scientists and public-health experts” are “striving to narrow the uncertainties for a global estimate of pandemic deaths.”
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“The World Health Organization (WHO) is still working on its first global estimate, but the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, Washington offers daily updates of its own modelled results, as well as projections of how quickly the global toll might rise,” Adam notes. “And one of the highest-profile attempts to model a global estimate has come from the news media. The Economist magazine in London has used a machine-learning approach to produce an estimate of 12 million to 22 million excess deaths — or between two and four times the pandemic’s official toll so far.”
One of the things that makes calculating the numbers of deaths from COVID-19 challenging, according to Adam, is the fact that different countries can have very different ways of keeping records. And “many countries,” according to Adam, “simply don’t collect good data on births, deaths and other vital statistics.”
“Even superficially similar places can have varying approaches to recording COVID-19 deaths,” Adam observes. “Early in the pandemic, countries such as the Netherlands counted only those individuals who died in hospital after testing positive for the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Neighboring Belgium included deaths in the community and everyone who died after showing symptoms of the disease, even if they weren’t diagnosed.”
Adam adds, “That is why researchers quickly turned to excess mortality as a proxy measure of the pandemic’s toll. Excess-death figures are seemingly easy to calculate: compare deaths during the pandemic with the average recorded over the previous five years or so. But even in wealthy countries with comprehensive and sophisticated systems to report deaths, excess-mortality figures can be misleading. That’s because the most obvious way to calculate them can fail to account for changes in population structure.”
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