WHO estimates nearly 15 million COVID deaths – triple official figures
A new report published in Nature offers the most detailed estimate to date of COVID-19-related deaths. The research found up to the end of 2021 there were likely nearly 15 million deaths associated with COVID around the world. The estimate is three times higher than officially reported mortality figures and is likely to be much higher when data from 2022 is eventually included.
By the end of December 2021, the World Health Organization had logged 5.4 million COVID-19 deaths from almost 300 million infections. These numbers were based on a piecemeal assortment of reporting measures that varied from country to country.
Since the beginning of the pandemic it has been clear the official mortality figures for COVID-19 were an undercount of the real impact of this novel disease. Studying excess mortality, that is the amount of deaths over the expected year-to-year number, affords researchers a more accurate way to quantify loss of life.
However, not every country in the world can accurately track general mortality figures. In fact, only around 50% of nations generally deliver granular overall mortality data to the WHO. So in order to get a more accurate picture of the pandemic researchers look to mathematical models to estimate likely numbers.
In this new study looking at likely excess death figures across the entire world over 2020 and 2021, researchers estimate 14.83 million deaths can be associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers note these mortality figures are "staggeringly high" and easily surpass per capita mortality from the 1957, 1968 and 2009 influenza pandemics.
"To place these estimates in context, the leading cause of death in 2019 was ischaemic heart disease, with 8.9 million deaths," the researchers write in the study. "Information on the leading causes of death is not currently available for the pandemic years, but we would expect COVID-19 to be among the leading causes of death in 2020 and the leading cause of death in 2021."
Despite the stark figures, these WHO estimates still sit along the lower end of the spectrum in terms of other excess death estimates. A study published in The Lancet earlier this year suggested around 18 million deaths could be associated with the pandemic across 2020 and 2021.
And, perhaps most upsetting, these estimates only span to the end of 2021. Excess death figures across most countries moving through 2022 have remained high, suggesting the true death toll up to now may be closing in on 30 million.
Recent research has suggested the death toll of the 1918 flu pandemic, adjusted to 2020 population figures, was around 75 million. And while that number is much more horrifyingly larger than what has been estimated from COVID, it is important to note current mortality figures have been moderated by the incredible development of new vaccines.
An analysis last month estimated COVID vaccines prevented more than three million deaths in the United States alone. And an investigation earlier this year from Imperial College London researchers estimated vaccines prevented 20 million deaths worldwide, in 2021 alone.
So, despite the horrific estimates of current likely COVID-19 deaths over the past three years, it's plausible to presume those numbers would have been significantly higher without the rapid development of vaccines and antivirals.
The new study was published in Nature.