The actual number of deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic may be more than three times higher than official records suggest, according to a new study.
It is estimated that more than 18.2 million people may have died because of coronavirus by the end of December last year.
This is despite the official Covid death toll indicating that 5.9 million people lost their lives between January 1 2020 and December 31 2021.
Excess deaths – the difference between the number of all deaths and the number expected based on past trends – are a key measure of the true death toll of the pandemic.
The new study provides the first peer-reviewed estimates of excess deaths – direct and indirect – due to the pandemic globally and for 191 countries and territories between January 2020 and December 2021.
For the UK it indicates the death toll was more or less as official records suggest, with 173,000 reported cases, and study estimates of between 163,000 and 174,000.
Lead author Dr Haidong Wang, of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, America, said: “Understanding the true death toll from the pandemic is vital for effective public health decision-making.
“Studies from several countries, including Sweden and the Netherlands, suggest Covid-19 was the direct cause of most excess deaths, but we currently don’t have enough evidence for most locations.
“Further research will help to reveal how many deaths were caused directly by Covid-19, and how many occurred as an indirect result of the pandemic.”
Researchers collected weekly or monthly data on deaths from all causes in 2021, 2020, and up to 11 previous years for 74 countries and 266 states and provinces through searches of government websites, the World Mortality Database, Human Mortality Database, and European Statistical Office.
The data were used in models to estimate excess death due to the pandemic, including for locations with no weekly or monthly reporting of death data.
According to the research, rates of excess death are estimated to have varied significantly by country and region.
The highest estimated excess deaths were in Andean Latin America – 512 deaths per 100,000 population; Eastern Europe – 345 deaths per 100,000; Central Europe – 316 deaths per 100,000; Southern sub-Saharan Africa – 309 deaths per 100,000; and Central Latin America – 274 deaths per 100,000.
Outside these regions several locations are estimated to have had similarly high rates, including Lebanon, Armenia, Tunisia, Libya, several regions in Italy, and several states in the southern USA.
However, in stark contrast some countries were estimated to have had fewer deaths than expected based on trends in prior years.
They included Iceland with 48 fewer deaths per 100,000; Australia – 38 fewer deaths per 100,000; and Singapore with 16 fewer deaths per 100,000.
South Asia had the highest number of estimated excess deaths from Covid with 5.3 million excess deaths, followed by North Africa and the Middle East (1.7 million), and Eastern Europe (1.4 million).
At the country level, the highest number of estimated excess deaths occurred in India (4.1 million) and the USA and Russia, both with 1.1 million.
Researchers suggest the large differences between excess deaths and official records may be because of under-diagnosis due to a lack of testing and issues with death data being reported.
They say it is crucial to distinguish between deaths caused directly by Covid and those that occurred as an indirect result of the pandemic.
Evidence from initial studies suggests a significant proportion of excess deaths are a direct result of coronavirus.
However, deaths may also have occurred indirectly from causes such as suicide or drug use due to behavioural changes or lack of access to healthcare and other essential services.
To date, only 36 countries have released cause of death data for 2020.
As data from more countries becomes available, it will be possible to get a better idea of how many deaths were due directly to Covid, and how many occurred as an indirect result.
The authors acknowledge a number of limitations to their study, including that a statistical model was used to predict excess deaths for countries that did not report weekly or monthly data.
– The findings are published in The Lancet.