Global Covid-19 death toll more than double official count, report says

Lower count partly attributed to lower testing rates in some countries

Covid-19 victims are seen outside a crematorium in New Delhi. AFP
Covid-19 victims are seen outside a crematorium in New Delhi. AFP

Close to 6.9 million people have died from Covid-19 worldwide, more than double the tally of recorded deaths, a report released on Thursday claims, showing how little the world still knows about the true extent of the pandemic.

Only 3.2 million deaths have been recorded by a widely used resource created by Johns Hopkins University's Centre for Systems Science and Engineering.

Regardless, the US still has the highest death toll in the world, with 905,289 fatalities, a dramatic increase from the about 577,000 reported by Johns Hopkins, the report said.

India, embroiled in an ever-worsening outbreak, has registered 654,395 deaths, according to the report, a sharp rise from the officially reported 220,000.

The analysis was carried out by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent research organisation to which the US government has referred over the past year.

“As terrible as the Covid-19 pandemic appears, this analysis shows that the actual toll is significantly worse,” said Dr Chris Murray, director of the institute.

The institute said that the project entailed looking into deaths from all causes that would have occurred without a global pandemic and comparing it to excess deaths between March 2020 and March 2021.

The report's estimates focused on deaths directly caused by the virus and not deaths indirectly caused by strapped healthcare systems.

The institute says countries have been counting Covid-19 deaths that occurred in healthcare centres and those linked to positive test results.

Testing capacity varies widely from country to country, making it difficult to determine whether a death was directly contributable to the virus and leading to lower official tallies.

The US Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) said on Friday it is reviewing the IHME report and will consider whether to increase their numbers as a result.

"We will look at this carefully, and then we will work within the CDC to make decisions as to whether to count them as excess or to count them as Covid-specific," CDC Chief Dr Rochelle Walensky said in a briefing.

The CDC currently has the US death toll over 577,000 deaths, similar to the Johns Hopkins University tally.

Adjusting to the IHME numbers would add more than 300,000 deaths in the US.

“Many countries have devoted exceptional effort to measuring the pandemic’s toll, but our analysis shows how difficult it is to accurately track a new and rapidly spreading infectious disease,” Dr Murray said.

In the Middle East, the institute found concerning results in Egypt and Iran.

More than 174,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Iran, according to the report – about 100,000 more than the recorded 72,906.

It found that at least 170,000 people have died from the virus in Egypt, almost 13 times the recorded 13,529 deaths.

The World Health Organisation says it is seeing the worst weeks of the pandemic in terms of global cases.

The death rate, which lags behind infections by about two or three weeks, is also rising.

Updated: May 7, 2021 10:50 PM

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