WHO notes 15 million excess deaths over 2 COVID years


Geoff Henson / Flickr cc.

Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy

Lisa Schnirring | News Editor | CIDRAP News

In highly anticipated findings today, the technical advisory group for the World Health Organization (WHO) released excess death data for 2020 and 2021, which suggest that the real COVID-19 number is nearly three times higher than officially reported.

The report also revealed other key trends, including that the pandemic has been deadlier for men and has exposed gaps in reporting.

‘Behind these numbers are people’

The WHO said the goal of the study was to clarify the true impact of the pandemic. The complex process of assessing deaths takes into account deaths directly related to COVID, but also assesses deaths from not receiving care when health systems were overwhelmed.

The estimates also take into account fatalities averted—such as from car accidents and workplace injuries—when COVID-19 measures were in place.

The WHO estimated there were 14.9 million excess deaths in 2020 and 2021, with a range between 13.3 million to 16.6 million. As of today, the fatality count on the WHO’s COVID-19 dashboard is 6.24 million.

Samira Asma, DDS, MPH, the WHO’s assistant director-general for data, analytics, and delivery, said in a video press release that measuring excess deaths is key to understanding the true impact of the pandemic, important for both policymakers and the public. She added that accurate estimates help public health officials make targeted investments in public health and noted that the estimatation process revealed an urgent need to invest in good data gathering.

Most important, the numbers are a reminder of the tragic loss of life, Asma said. “We have to remember that behind these numbers are people.”

The WHO’s expert group developed methods to produce mortality estimates, even when data were incomplete or unavailable. Their work included consultations in different countries.

Some regions experienced a larger death burden, with 84% concentrated in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

The death toll was higher for men, who made up 57% of the deaths. As expected, fatalities were higher in older adults. Middle-income countries accounted for 81% of deaths, followed by high-income nations with 15% and low-income countries with 4%.

South Africa extends some measures

South Africa stepped down its state of disaster for COVID-19 in early April, but it kept a few transitional measures, such as wearing masks indoors in public places and on public transportation, that were set to expire today, according to News24. Officials yesterday, however, announced that the transitional measures remain in effect for 30 more days.

Amid rising cases over the past few weeks, fueled by the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, officials are assessing whether the spike reflects impacts from the recent Easter holiday or is the start of a fifth surge. South Africa today reported 9,757 new cases and 7 more deaths, with test positivity rising to 25.9%, up from 22.6% the previous day.

In other global developments:

Officials from the European Medicines Agency said today that it hopes to approve variant-adapted COVID-19 vaccines by September to allow for the rollout of new immunization campaigns in the fall, according to Reuters. Trial data from clinical trials are expected over the next few months.

In China, health officials in Beijing—hoping to avoid a lockdown similar to Shanghai’s—are still tracking local transmission chains, with 39 more cases reported today.

US cases continue steady rise

In the United States, several COVID-19 cases have been reported among journalists across several news organization who attended the White House Correspondents Association dinner on Apr 30, the New York Times reported yesterday. It’s unclear how many cases are linked to the event, which had testing and vaccination protocols in place, but no mask rules.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who attended the event, is among those who are reporting infections. So far, President Joe Biden, who was also at the dinner, has tested negative.

The United States reported 114,308 new cases yesterday, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. The country’s illness levels are the highest since late February.

The 7-day average for new daily cases is 65,886, with 375 daily deaths, according to New York Times data. Cases are up 54% compared to a week ago, with hospitalizations up 19% and deaths showing a 3% decline.

Meanwhile, the country’s death toll is approaching 1 million, with Johns Hopkins reporting 996,823. NBC News data show the US passed the 1 million fatality mark yesterday.