WHO has nearly tripled its estimate of the death toll from the pandemic


The problem is that 85 of the 194 countries surveyed by the WHO technical advisory group that came up with the new estimates don’t have enough death registries for this to be a viable approach. Forty-one of those countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

For these countries, a team led by Jonathan Wakefield, a statistician at the University of Washington in Seattle, used the data from countries with complete death registries to build another statistical model capable of calculating the total COVID deaths in each country. month based on other measurements, including temperature, the percentage of COVID tests that come back positive, an assessment of the strictness of social distancing and other measures to limit infection, and the number of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases – which people are at high risk of dying from COVID.

The Indian Ministry of Health strongly objected to this model in its response to the New York Times article. But the WHO team didn’t really use it to estimate India’s COVID deaths. India falls in an intermediate group of countries that have fairly good data on total deaths in some regions but not others. So Wakefield’s team took data from 17 Indian states with adequate death registries, applied the standard excess deaths method used for countries with complete death registries, and then extrapolated from these states to the entire country.

“We are basing the predictions of the death toll in India in those two years only on Indian data,” Wakefield told BuzzFeed News.

Importantly, the WHO’s estimates for Indian COVID deaths also align well with other studies, including one published in January in the journal Science by a team led by Prabhat Jha, director of the Center for Global Health Research at the United Nations. University of Toronto in Canada. Jha’s team estimated the number of COVID deaths based on data from the Indian government and from a national survey of 137,000 people conducted by a polling company that asked people if a family member had died from COVID. “India has a pretty high cell phone coverage and they chose randomly,” Jha told BuzzFeed News.

Jha’s team estimated that more than 3.2 million people in India had died from COVID in July 2021, most of them during the devastating wave of COVID caused by the Delta coronavirus variant between April and June 2021. That came after Prime Minister’s government Narendra Modi had relaxed COVID controls after an earlier, less severe wave. “The Indian government declared victory and said, ‘Oh India has beaten this virus,’ and complacency set in,” Jha said.

This explains India’s political sensitivity to accepting the results of surveys indicating a much higher death toll than the official count. In response to a question from opposition Congress party leaders about Jha’s study in February, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare described it as “speculative” and claimed it “contains no peer-reviewed scientific data” – even though it was published in a of the world’s leading peer-reviewed scientific journals.

“It’s political,” Jha said of the Indian government’s rejection of his study.

According to the WHO, Egypt has the largest undercount of pandemic deaths proportionally, with an excess mortality rate of 11.6 times the toll attributed to COVID. India, with 9.9 times more excess deaths than the official number of COVID deaths, is in second place. Russia, meanwhile, has reported 3.5 times fewer deaths from COVID than indicated by its excess mortality.

Ariel Karlinsky of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, another member of the WHO’s technical advisory group, hopes the agency’s “stamp of approval” for excess mortality calculations will encourage countries to come up with more realistic numbers. “Putin doesn’t know who I am, but they do know who the WHO is,” he told BuzzFeed News.

But instead of correcting their COVID deaths, some governments are now apparently withholding all-cause mortality data that is used to calculate the additional number of deaths. Belarus, which appears to be underestimating its COVID deaths by a factor of 12, has stopped reporting its all-cause mortality data to the UN, Karlinsky said. “The sections on mortality just disappeared.”

At the moment, the biggest concern is China, which is experiencing a significant wave of the Omicron coronavirus variant but reports suspiciously few deaths. If the wave now hitting Shanghai and other cities matches the pattern seen in Hong Kong since February, Jha fears a million Chinese could die.

Some countries have responded to studies on excess mortality with greater accountability and transparency. After previous analyzes of excess deaths suggested Peru underreported its COVID deaths by a factor of 2.7, the South American nation has gone through its medical and death data in detail and revised its death toll in May 2021 to a figure that closely aligns with the analysis. of the number of deaths. It now reports the highest official death rate per capita from COVID of any country. “Peru did what I wanted every country to do,” Karlinsky said.

The WHO’s new estimates of the total excess of pandemic deaths will include people who died from other causes because health systems were overwhelmed, as well as people killed by the coronavirus.

Karlinsky, an economist, said he started analyzing excess deaths because he wondered if “the cure was worse than the disease” – in particular, he feared that lockdowns could cause more deaths than the coronavirus, partly due to an increase of the number of suicides. But the data told a very different story.

In countries like New Zealand that had strict lockdowns but low levels of COVID, there is no sign of excessive deaths. There is also no evidence of a global suicide epidemic during the pandemic — in the US, suicide rates have actually declined. Only in a few countries like Nicaragua, where people seem to have avoided going to hospital because they feared getting infected, are there signs that deaths from other causes, such as heart disease, have increased, according to Karlinsky.

“Excess mortality is roughly equivalent to COVID mortality,” he added.

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