Pandemic killed 15 million people in first 2 years, WHO study of excess deaths finds
An estimated 14.91 million people worldwide died in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an analysis of global excess mortality released Thursday by the World Health Organization.
The estimate – with a 95% confidence interval of 13.3 million to 16.6 million – is significantly higher than the number of reported deaths directly caused by COVID-19 during this period, which was around 5.42 million according to official counts. But excess mortality estimates attempt to capture the true toll of the pandemic – direct and indirect deaths. The estimate is made by comparing the number of deaths that have occurred over a period of time to those that are expected to occur over that period based on historical mortality data and modelling. Such modeling also accounts for historical differences, such as the decrease in traffic and flu deaths during the pandemic due to movement and health restrictions.
Thus, excess death estimates aim to capture not only deaths reported by COVID-19, but also deaths not reported by COVID-19 and deaths indirectly caused by COVID-19. These may be people who die of preventable, non-COVID diseases because they delayed or avoided health care for fear of becoming infected, or because their health care system was overloaded with COVID-19 patients and unable to provide optimal care.
“These sobering data underscore not only the impact of the pandemic, but also the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can support essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
Estimates can point to countries that have struggled to respond to the pandemic and the actual devastating toll.
India, for example, reportedly delayed releasing the WHO analysis for months due to a dispute over estimates. The WHO estimates that 4.74 million people died in India in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, nearly a third of the total pandemic deaths worldwide. India had previously reported only around 481,500 deaths during this period.
Overall, only 10 countries accounted for 68% of additional deaths: India, Russia, Indonesia, United States, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Turkey, Egypt and Iran . The analysis also broke down excess deaths by gender and age, finding that men accounted for a larger share of excess deaths (57% male), as did older adults. All data can be found here.
The analysis estimated that the number of additional deaths in the United States reached nearly 932,500 at the end of 2021. The country reported just over 848,000 deaths directly caused by COVID-19 for this period, while that reported deaths from COVID-19 now stand at 997,000. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has its own estimate of excess deaths for the pandemic, which is now around 1.12 million.