True COVID-19 death toll close to 15 million says WHO

London: The World Health Organisation is estimating that nearly 15 million people were killed either by the coronavirus or by its impact on overwhelmed health systems in the past two years.

The estimate is more than double the official death toll of 6 million. Most of the fatalities were in Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas.

WHO did not immediately break down the figures to distinguish between direct deaths from COVID-19 and others caused by the pandemic.Credit:AP

In a report released on Thursday, the UN agency’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the figure as “sobering,” saying it should prompt countries to invest more in their capacities to quell future health emergencies.

Scientists tasked by WHO with calculating the actual number of COVID-19 deaths between January 2020 and the end of last year estimated there were between 13.3 million and 16.6 million deaths.

Those deaths were either caused directly by the coronavirus or were somehow attributed to the pandemic’s impact on health systems, like people with cancer unable to seek treatment when hospitals were full of COVID patients.

The figures are based on country-reported data and statistical modelling. Data in Australia indicates the pandemic claimed more than 7000 lives.

Data collated by governments in Australia suggest the death toll here has surpassed 7400.Credit:Joe Armao

WHO did not immediately break down the figures to distinguish between direct deaths from COVID-19 and others caused by the pandemic.

“This may seem like just a bean-counting exercise, but having these WHO numbers is so critical to understanding how we should combat future pandemics and continue to respond to this one,” said Albert Ko, an infectious diseases specialist at the Yale School of Public Health who was not linked to the WHO research.

For example, Ko said, South Korea’s decision to invest heavily in public health after it suffered a severe outbreak of MERS allowed it to escape COVID-19 with a per-capita death rate around a 20th of that of the US.

Accurate numbers on COVID-19 deaths have been problematic throughout the pandemic, as the figures are only a fraction of the devastation wrought by the virus, largely because of limited testing and differences in how countries count COVID-19 deaths.

According to government figures reported to WHO and to a separate count kept by Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 6 million reported coronavirus deaths to date.

Scientists at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington guessed there were more than 18 million COVID deaths from January 2020 to December 2021 in a recent study published in the journal Lancet, and a team led by Canadian researchers estimated there were more than 3 million uncounted coronavirus deaths in India alone.

Dr. Bharat Pankhania, a public health specialist at Britain’s University of Exeter, said we may never get close to the true toll of COVID-19, particularly in poor countries.

“When you have a massive outbreak where people are dying in the streets because of a lack of oxygen, bodies were abandoned or people had to be cremated quickly because of cultural beliefs, we end up never knowing just how many people died,” he explained.

Although Pankhania said the currently estimated COVID-19 death toll still pales in comparison to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic — when experts estimate up to 100 million people died — he said the fact that so many people died despite the advances of modern medicine, including vaccines, is shameful.

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