COVID has killed 15 million people worldwide, WHO says

The problem is that 85 of the 194 countries studied by the WHO Technical Advisory Group who provided the new estimates do not have death records good enough for this approach to be viable. Forty-one of these 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 data from countries with complete death records to build another statistical model capable of predicting the total number of COVID deaths. over the course of a month from other measurements, including temperature. , the percentage of COVID tests returning positive, a rating from the strict social distancing and other measures to limit infection and rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease – conditions that put people at high risk of dying from COVID.

The Indian Ministry of Health strongly opposed this model in its response to the New York Times article. But the WHO team didn’t actually use it to estimate India’s COVID deaths. India is in a middle group of countries that have reasonably good data on the total number of deaths in some regions but not others. Wakefield’s team therefore used data from 17 Indian states with adequate death records, applied the standard excess deaths approach used for countries with complete death records, and then extrapolated from those states to all of them. from the country.

“We only base the predictions of the number of people who died in India in these two years on Indian data,” Wakefield told BuzzFeed News.

Importantly, the WHO estimates for Indian COVID deaths also line up well with other studies, including one published in the journal Science in January by a team led by Prabhat Jha, director of the Center for Global Health Research at the University of Toronto in Canada. Jha’s team estimated COVID deaths from Indian government data and a nationwide survey of 137,000 people, conducted by a polling company that asked people if a family member had died of aftermath of COVID. “India has pretty high phone coverage, and they’ve been doing random dialing,” Jha told BuzzFeed News.

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

This explains the political sensitivity in India to accept the results of studies that indicate a much higher death toll than the official count. Responding to a question from opposition Congress party leaders about Jha’s study in February, the Department of Health and Family Welfare described it as “speculative” and claimed it “lacks peer-reviewed scientific data” – even though it was published in one of the world’s leading peer-reviewed scientific journals.

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

According to the WHO, Egypt has proportionally the largest undercount of deaths from the pandemic, with an excess mortality of 11.6 times the toll attributed to COVID. India, with 9.9 times more excess deaths than its official COVID death toll, ranks second. Russia, meanwhile, has reported 3.5 times fewer COVID deaths than its excess mortality would indicate.

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 figures. “Putin doesn’t know who I am, but they know who the WHO is,” he told BuzzFeed News.

But rather than correcting their COVID death counts, some governments are now apparently withholding all-cause mortality data used to calculate excess deaths. Belarus, which appears to be underestimating its COVID deaths by a factor of about 12, has stopped reporting its all-cause mortality data to the UN, Karlinsky said. “The mortality sections just disappeared.”

At the moment, the main concern is China, which is experiencing a large surge of the Omicron coronavirus variant but is reporting oddly 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 will die.

Some countries have reacted to excess mortality studies with more responsibility and transparency. After earlier analyzes of excess deaths suggested Peru was underreporting its COVID deaths by a factor of 2.7, the South American nation went through his medical and death records in detail and revised its death toll in May 2021 to a figure closely matching the analysis of excess deaths. He now reports the highest official per capita death rate of COVID from any nation. “Peru did what I would have liked every country to do,” Karlinsky said.

New WHO estimates of the total number of deaths from the pandemic will include people who died of other causes because health systems were overwhelmed, as well as people killed by the coronavirus.

Karlinsky, who is an economist, said he started analyzing excess deaths because he wondered if “the cure was worse than the disease” – in particular, he worried that the shutdowns were causing more deaths than the coronavirus, in part because of the increase in 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 excessive death signal. Nor is there evidence of a global epidemic of suicide during the pandemic – in the United States, suicides actually went down. Only in a few countries like Nicaragua, where people appear to have avoided going to hospital because they feared being infected, are there signs that deaths from other causes such as heart disease have increased, according to Karlinsky.

“The excess mortality is roughly equal to the mortality from COVID,” he added.

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