UW study: True global COVID death toll is more than double the official toll

SEATTLE – The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than twice as many people around the world as the official death counts show, according to a new analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

The official global death toll as of Thursday stands at about 3.26 million, but the new analysis found that COVID-19 has actually caused about 6.9 million deaths worldwide.

“As terrible as the COVID-19 pandemic appears, this analysis shows that the actual toll is significantly worse,” said Dr. Chris Murray, director of the UW institute. “Understanding the true number of COVID-19 deaths not only helps us appreciate the magnitude of this global crisis, but also provides valuable information to policymakers developing response and recovery plans.”

The updated analysis shows that the United States has had more COVID-19 deaths to-date than any other country, a total of more than 905,000.

By region, Latin America and the Caribbean and Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia were hardest hit in terms of total deaths. This figure only includes deaths caused directly by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, not deaths caused by the pandemic’s disruption to health care systems and communities, Murray said.

The official death toll undercounts the true toll mostly because many deaths from COVID-19 go unreported. Countries only report deaths that occur in hospitals or in patients with a confirmed infection. In many places, weak health reporting systems and low access to health care magnify this challenge.

The UW institute’s analysis found that the largest number of unreported deaths occurred in countries that have had the largest epidemics to-date. However, some countries with relatively smaller epidemics saw a large increase in the death rate when accounting for unreported deaths. This analysis shows that they may be at greater risk for a wider epidemic than previously thought.

“Many countries have devoted exceptional effort to measuring the pandemic’s toll, but our analysis shows how difficult it is to accurately track a new and rapidly spreading infectious disease,” Murray said. “We hope that today’s report will encourage governments to identify and address gaps in their COVID-19 mortality reporting, so that they can more accurately direct pandemic resources.”

According to the new analysis, the countries with the highest COVID death tolls are the United States, with an estimated 905,289 fatalities; India, with 654,395; Mexico, with 617,127; Brazil, with 595,903; and the Russian Federation, with 593,610.

However, the official death tolls in those countries are significantly lower. In the U.S., the official toll is 574,043; in India, 221,181; in Mexico, 217,694; in Brazil, 408,680; and in the Russian Federation, 109,334.