Why Covid Deaths May Be 3 Times Higher Than We Previously Thought

Researchers say the official 5.9 million global death toll may actually be closer to 18 million.
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More than 18 million people have probably died because of Covid, which is three times higher than official records, say researchers.

The Covid-19 excess mortality team at Washington University, US, studied 191 countries and territories to find what they call the true global death figure.

Their report comes two years to the day since the World Health Organisation first announced the pandemic.

Excess death is the measure used to see how many more people have been dying than would be anticipated compared to recent years, before the pandemic struck.

Some deaths were directly from the virus, whereas others were linked to the infection. This is because having Covid can intensify other pre-existing medical conditions, like heart or lung disease, for example.

With these deaths taken into account, the researchers estimate 18.2 million people have died because of Covid in the two years between the start of 2020 and the end of 2021. That figure is three times the official recorded number, which is 5.9 million.

What’s behind those figures?

Researchers calculated the new figures by searching several government websites, such as the World Mortality Database, the Human Mortality Database, and the European Statistical Office.

The rates of excess deaths are likely to have varied dramatically by region and country, they said, but the overall global rate computed in the study was 120 deaths per 100,000 people.

The researchers said that excess death predications were calculated for the full study period only, and not by a week or month. This was due to lags and irregularities in the reporting of Covid-19 death data that could change the estimates excessively.

The estimated total number of Covid-related deaths in the UK in 2020 and 2021 were close to the official records at about 173,000, with an excess mortality rate of 130 people per 100,000.

Here’s what it means for Covid health measures

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

Currently in England, face masks are no longer mandatory in public places and Covid-19 passports have been dropped for large events.

The government is no longer advising people to work from home and most offices have introduced hybrid working conditions. Controversially, self-isolation laws have also been scrapped, meaning you no longer have to stay home after a positive test.

Travelling abroad is also back, after the World Health Organisation (WHO) called for countries to lift international travel bans back in January. Other European countries have eased restrictions too.

Fourth booster jabs are being offered to the elderly in spring. The policy will apply to those aged 75 and over, residents in care homes for older adults, and people aged 12 and over who are immunosuppressed. Children aged five to 11 in England will now be offered a Covid vaccine, the government has announced.

Researchers argue that excess death data is vital for assessing the full, global impact of the pandemic. These figures can be used to inform current public health policies, as well as health policies in the event of a future health crisis.

“Further research will help to reveal how many deaths were caused directly by Covid, and how many occurred as an indirect result of the pandemic,” Dr Wang said.