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Analysis: Half of Global Coronavirus Deaths Unreported

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 5/6/2021 Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder
a group of baseball players standing on top of a dirt field: Relatives bury the body of a COVID-19 victim at a graveyard in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, May 4, 2021. India's official count of coronavirus cases surpassed 20 million Tuesday, nearly doubling in the past three months, while deaths officially have passed 220,000. Staggering as those numbers are, the true figures are believed to be far higher, the undercount an apparent reflection of the troubles in the health care system. (AP Photo/Ishant Chauhan) © (Ishant Chauhan/AP) Relatives bury the body of a COVID-19 victim at a graveyard in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, May 4, 2021. India's official count of coronavirus cases surpassed 20 million Tuesday, nearly doubling in the past three months, while deaths officially have passed 220,000. Staggering as those numbers are, the true figures are believed to be far higher, the undercount an apparent reflection of the troubles in the health care system. (AP Photo/Ishant Chauhan)

The real count of global deaths caused by the coronavirus is more than double the number officially reported, according to a new analysis.

Researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation analyzed excess mortality numbers and found about 6.9 million global fatalities from the virus. The current count reported by Johns Hopkins University's COVID-19 dashboard is over 3.2 million deaths.

"Pretty much we're seeing an undercount everywhere," Christopher Murray, IHME director, said during a press briefing. Almost every country has significantly underreported its deaths, according to the analysis.

The analysis found that the U.S. still has the highest death toll of any country. But instead of the country's official toll of nearly 580,000 lives lost, it is actually over 900,000, according to the analysis. That number would put the U.S. well over the death toll from the 1918 flu pandemic, which was estimated to be about 675,00 lives.

Murray detailed reasons for why countries are underreporting coronavirus deaths, including missing cases unintentionally as health care systems come under pressure and lack of adequate testing to identify COVID-19-caused deaths.

But some countries have such a large disparity in the numbers that "there likely is something else going on – something around either coding practice by physicians or recommendations on the statistical front," Murray said.


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Researchers performed the analysis by calculating excess mortality, which is the number of deaths beyond what would be expected based on pre-pandemic trends. They adjusted the excess deaths to account for certain factors like the impact of decreased access to health care during the pandemic and lower traffic deaths due to less mobility.

Murray said that "if anything, the estimates that we have now of the total [COVID-19] death rate are undercounts" because researchers did not factor in the surprisingly low death count from the flu this season into their mortality calculations.

Instead of Brazil following the U.S. as the second-highest reported death toll, the actual count would put India as second, Murray said. India, which reports roughly 230,000 deaths from the virus, has a death toll over 650,000, according to the analysis. The country has been accused of underreporting cases and deaths as it sees an unprecedented coronavirus surge.

Mexico follows India with similar numbers – 218,000 official deaths but 617,000 in the report.

Russia is the most underreported nation with a difference of over 480,000 deaths between its official death toll of 110,000 deaths and the analysis' estimate of more than 590,000 fatalities.

Researchers also found a stark difference in Egypt's numbers with the country reporting over 13,000 deaths but the analysis estimating the toll to be roughly 170,000.

IHME predicts that the global coronavirus death toll will rise to 9.4 million by September, with India surpassing the U.S. as the country with the highest death toll.

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