The Strategist

WHO: Real mortality from COVID-19 may be two to three times higher than official figures

05/24/2021 - 03:49

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) experts, 6-8 million people in the world may have already died because of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, 1.8 million people are officially estimated to have died from the virus in 2020, and preliminary estimates of total mortality from COVID-19 stand at 3 million.

Pouya Bazargard
Pouya Bazargard
Some 6-8 million people around the world could have died as a result of infection with the coronavirus to date. This was the estimate given yesterday by WHO Assistant Director General Samira Asma. Meanwhile, the WHO has officially recorded 1.8 million deaths from the virus in 2020. According to these figures, the USA (389.6 thousand people), Brazil (207.1 thousand), India (151.9 thousand), Mexico (137.9 thousand) and the UK (87.4 thousand) have the most dead.

However, the official figure was formerly recognized by WHO itself as rather tentative, because the appearance of a new disease requires new criteria for establishing death from it.

As previously indicated by WHO, deaths due to the coronavirus can also include those who died from an exacerbation of an underlying disease provoked by infection. Also, the number of deaths directly attributable to the coronavirus may be lower than the actual number because of the poor accuracy of tests detecting the presence of the virus in the body. 

Because of this, and the existence of intercountry discrepancies in the recording of deaths, even after the WHO interim guidelines were issued, WHO suggested that all excess deaths should be counted when analysing the number of deaths. Based on this approach, much more than 1.8 million people died of covid worldwide last year. In the WHO's annual report, World Health Statistics, the estimated excess deaths in the European region were 1.11-1.21 million, twice the official figure of 590 000 deaths from COVID-19.

Based on these discrepancies, WHO experts calculated an approximate number of excess deaths for the whole world: it exceeded 3 million people.

As Samira Asma explained during a briefing on Friday, this discrepancy is the basis of WHO's assumption of an even higher number of deaths so far. "The pandemic is evolving and the accuracy of our estimate will improve. But for the time being, we assume that we can speak with confidence about a lower threshold of 6-8 million deaths," she explained.

Note that this figure is likely to be revised in the long term: not only because the epidemic continues and the extent of further waves of infections is impossible to predict. Refining vital statistics after they have been collected is an integral part of data processing. The most realistic estimates of the number of deaths may therefore not be available until one year after the pandemic is completely over.


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