On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic. Two years later, after the development and roll-out of a series of highly effective vaccines and the massive amounts of natural immunity induced by the fulminant rise of the highly contagious (but slightly less severe) Omicron variant, many countries are dropping nearly all containment measures, accepting the fact that Covid-19 will never be completely eradicated, and should be treated as an endemic disease. While parts of the world such as Hong Kong are now facing their most severe outbreaks, many other countries are optimistic that the worst has passed – at least until the emergence of the next variant.
Regardless of this rather widespread optimism, a new study published in the journal The Lancet paints a grim picture of Covid-19’s true death toll. While official figures claim that this disease has killed a little over six million people until now, a team of researchers led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has argued that the pandemic’s true death toll could be three times higher, reaching a total of 18 million worldwide deaths.
According to the study authors, lack of access to Covid-19 tests, patchy records of causes of death, and – in some countries – political incentives to undercount, hindered an accurate estimation of the number of deaths caused by this pandemic. Moreover, the researchers claim that people who died from delays to healthcare for other conditions caused by the pandemic should also be counted as victims of SARS-CoV-2 (although such cases don’t surpass more than 10 to 20 percent of the total of 18 million estimated deaths).
By calculating the excess deaths (the number of deaths over the historical average) in 74 countries and territories, and over 200 locations within countries, the scientists argued that the impact of the pandemic was seriously underestimated. “The pandemic has been much worse than anyone thinks,” said study lead author Christopher Murray, the director of IHME.
According to Murray and his colleagues, India suffered the highest number of excess deaths, estimated at 4.1 million, followed by the United States and Russia with about 1.1 million each. The excess mortality rate was highest in Russia (374.6 deaths for 100,000 inhabitants), and surpassed 300 deaths per 100,000 in 21 countries.
Calculating these excess deaths is important for estimating how various societies have managed the pandemic, and for better understanding what went wrong and why. “What we’ve missed is a huge toll in other parts of the world that probably would have change the urgency of things, such as scaling up vaccination in different parts of the world,” Dr. Murray said. Hopefully such highly costly mistakes will not be repeated during the remainder of this pandemic or in case other pandemics emerge.