The true Covid-19 global death toll

Pandemic may have claimed three times as many lives as previously thought

French medical staff move a Covid-19 patient
(Image credit: Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images)

The Covid-19 pandemic may have claimed 18.2 million lives worldwide, more than three times the official death toll, a US study has revealed.

The report, produced by a team at Washington University and published in The Lancet almost exactly two years to the day since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the pandemic, found that the official global death toll of 5.9 million may be a significant underestimate.

The researchers based the calculation on the number of “excess deaths” they believe were caused by Covid-19, said the BBC. This is a “convenient tool to overcome variation in the ways that countries diagnose and record deaths from the virus”, added Nature.

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The overall global rate of excess deaths calculated by the researchers is 120 deaths per 100,000 people, which would suggest about 18.2 million Covid deaths across 2020 and 2021.

The study found that Russia had the highest excess death rate, at 375 per 100,000 people. There were also high rates in lower-income countries in Latin America, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. They were also high in Italy and areas of the US.

In the UK, the estimated total number of Covid-related deaths in 2020 and 2021 was similar to official records, coming in at around 173,000. Some countries saw excess death rates fall, including Iceland, Australia and Singapore.

The Telegraph said the findings “chime” with research by The Economist’s data team, which is also tracking excess deaths as a result of the pandemic.

Some experts have already questioned the accuracy of the Washington report. Ariel Karlinsky, an economist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has worked on excess deaths estimates, criticised the report’s “ludicrous estimate for Japan at over 100,000 excess deaths, which is over six times the reported deaths”, Nature said.

Jonathan Wakefield, a US statistician who leads the WHO global death toll project, said the report’s modelling had some “bizarre features”.

The researchers conceded that some excess deaths, such as from suicide, drug use or reduced access to healthcare, may be only indirectly linked to the pandemic.

Lead author Dr Haidong Wang, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, Washington, said: “Understanding the true death toll from the pandemic is vital for effective public health decision-making.”

The report comes days after Dr Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, told a conference that excess mortality estimates “are almost identical” to the death toll during the First World War.

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