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Nearly 15 million people around the world have died from COVID's impact, directly or indirectly, during the first two years of the pandemic, according to a new World Health Organization report. It’s also about three times higher than governments have reported so far. University of Washington's Jonathan Wakefield, whose modeling work helped produce the report, joins William Brangham for more.
Nearly 15 million people around the world have died from the impact of COVID directly or indirectly during the first two years of the pandemic.
That is the estimate from a new report by the World Health Organization. It is also nearly three times higher than governments have reported publicly so far.
William Brangham has more about these findings.
While the study is still being examined and debated, a few things are clear.
These deaths occurred more often with men, compared to women, and they hit older people particularly hard, with 82 percent of the deaths among people 60 and older. And according to the WHO, these deaths were not felt equally around the world. Most were concentrated in low-to middle-income nations.
Joining me now is Jonathan Wakefield. He's a biostatistician at the University of Washington, and his modeling work help the WHO produced this report.
Jonathan Wakefield, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."
First off, these numbers are just so jarring. I mean, this is three times the number of people believed to have died during this pandemic than we previously thought. I wonder if you could just reflect on that initially. Were you struck by the disparity here, how many lives we're talking about?
Jonathan Wakefield, University of Washington: Yes, I was. And it's an absolute tragedy.
I was also struck by there was an extra 13 percent more deaths than we expected to see. So that really struck me as a huge number. There's a lot of people who die, like 55, 60 million people die every year, and 13 percent more died during the pandemic. And that's just an incredible number.
Yes, it is. I mean, it's the population of a small nation in this case.
This data rests on this idea of excess deaths. And that may be an unfamiliar concept to some people. Could you explain, what do excess deaths mean? And how do you go about measuring them?
So the excess is the difference between the number of people who died and the number of people we would have expected to die if the pandemic hadn't occurred. And so the way we go about that is, we take data from those countries who supply data and use that to estimate the excess.
And then the countries with no data, we formulate a model, and then use country characteristics, such as temperature, containment measures, to predict the number we would have expected to see.
And that's how we come up with this final global figure.
And then there's also something, indirect deaths. So it's not just people who died of COVID. But it's people who might have died, because, what, they didn't go and get hospital care during the pandemic?
Yes, exactly. Yes, there was health care avoidance because of the pandemic. And so, yes, there are people — we don't know the numbers yet, the proportions. But, yes, there are indirect deaths from other causes.
And are there instances too where the pandemic might have prevented some people from dying from, I don't know, being on the roads less or things like that?
Yes, exactly. Yes.
And so some countries, such as New Zealand and Australia, did see a negative excess for reasons you say, that road accidents, other communicable diseases. So, yes, some countries — and there are — say, even countries with a large excess, some lives were probably saved.
But that's — so, that's why the excess is also a good number, because it really shows us the true extent of the pandemic.
This report also teases out the disparities between official death counts and what your data indicate are the actual death counts.
How much of that — I mean, I'm trying to understand how those disparities come. Are they from intentional underreporting? Are they countries that simply don't do a very good job of gathering data? Help me understand that.
Yes, I mean, it's a mixture.
And I'm not in the business of saying which governments I think were suppressing information. But when health systems are under strain, even in the best of times, in many countries — it's difficult to record deaths, particularly in low- and middle-income countries in rural areas.
And then, when health systems are under strain and energy has is being put in to try and save lives, rather than count the number of people who dies, then that situation is exacerbated.
I was interested to see also that your report looks at rates of deaths in relation to the per capita size of nations.
And there was the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Spain on that list, but also nations like Peru. Again, how do you want that data?
So, because we look at — so, yes, the largest — the country with the largest excess is India with 4.7 million deaths, excess deaths. But, of course, India is a — the second largest country in the world.
So, looking at the rate of deaths per 100,000 of population, which is the standard way we do, that's a more comparable — that allows us to compare between countries to some extent. And, as you said, Peru came out with a very high rate, which is — which is a tragedy.
This may seem self-evident to you, but I'm curious what you think of as the main import of your research.
I mean, we know COVID is a real killer. We know that vaccinating the world globally is the way to get through this pandemic. But what does this research add to our understanding?
Well, on one level, I mean, morally speaking, I think every death should be recorded. And so for the people who died, out of respect to them and to their families, I think it's very important that we count those people.
And then, for a public health — on public health grounds, it's important to know how many people died, particularly over — we estimate by month. And so we can look at the deaths by month, and then look at which measures were in place at the time. And that may help us in the future to try and avoid deaths, both as the COVID pandemic continues and for other pandemics.
All right, Jonathan Wakefield at the University of Washington, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you. It's a pleasure.
And one other important development.
Late today, the Food and Drug administration announced that it will no longer allow Americans to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine unless they are not able to receive any of the other approved COVID vaccines.
The move comes after the FDA determined that the risk of blood clots from the J&J vaccine, while still rare — quote — "warrants limiting the authorized use of the vaccine."
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