In a report Thursday, the U.N. 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 that 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 but only about half of countries provided information. WHO said it wasn’t yet able to break down the figures to distinguish between direct deaths from COVID-19 and others caused by the pandemic and said a future project examining death certificates would probe this.
“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 Dr. 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 U.S.
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. 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. WHO’s new analysis estimated that missed deaths in India ranged between 3.3 million to 6.5 million.
In a statement following the release of WHO’s data, India disputed the methodology used by the U.N. health agency. India’s Health and Family Welfare Ministry called WHO’s analysis and data collection methods “questionable” and complained that the new death estimates were released “without adequately addressing India’s concerns.”
Samira Asma, a senior WHO director, acknowledged that “numbers are sometimes controversial” and that all estimates are only an approximation of the virus’ catastrophic effects.
“It has become very obvious during the entire course of the pandemic, there have been data that is missing,” she told reporters during a press briefing on Thursday. “Basically, all of us were caught unprepared.”
Ko said better figures from WHO might also explain some lingering mysteries about the pandemic, like why Africa appears to have been one of the least affected by the virus, despite its low vaccination rates.
“Were the mortality rates so low because we couldn’t count the deaths or was there some other factor to explain that?” he asked, citing the far higher mortality rates in the U.S. and Europe.
Dr. Bharat Pankhania, a public health specialist at Britain’s University of Exeter, said the world 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 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.
He also warned the cost of COVID-19 could be far more damaging in the long term, given the increasing burden of caring for people with long COVID.
“With the Spanish flu, there was the flu and then there were some (lung) illnesses people suffered, but that was it,” he said. “There was not an enduring immunological condition that we’re seeing right now with COVID.”
“We do not know the extent to which people with long COVID will have their lives cut short and if they will have repeated infections that will cause them even more problems,” Pankhania said.
Krutika Pathi and Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.
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