Official coronavirus death toll is likely an ‘underestimate’, WHO says

South Korean commuters wear protective masks as they crowd after getting off the subway during rush hour on September 15, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea.

Chung Sung-Jun | Getty Images

The official death toll of the coronavirus pandemic is likely lower than the true total, the World Health Organization said Monday, as reported global deaths approach 1 million.

Covid-19 has killed at least 998,867 people worldwide as of Monday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has the largest death toll in the world, with at least 204,825 deaths, Hopkins data shows. That’s followed by Brazil with 141,741 deaths and India with 95,542, according to Hopkins data.

But Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program, said the reported numbers likely represent an “underestimate” of those individuals who have either contracted Covid-19 or died as a cause of it.

“When you count anything, you can’t count it perfectly. But I can assure you that the current numbers are likely an underestimate of the true toll of Covid,” he said during a press conference at the agency’s Geneva headquarters when asked about global deaths.

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in July found the number of U.S. deaths due to the coronavirus could be undercounted by as much as 28%. Using National Center for Health Statistics data, researchers at Yale University compared the number of excess U.S. deaths with the reported number of weekly U.S. Covid-19 deaths. 

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it identified 5,000 fatalities in New York City, once the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., that may have been caused by Covid-19 but weren’t counted as part of the official coronavirus death toll.

The coronavirus is a stealthy virus, infectious disease experts say, capable of attacking nearly every system in the body, including the heart, kidneys and brain.

A model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, once cited by the White House, now projects more than 371,500 Americans could die of Covid-19 by Jan.1. 

WHO officials said Monday the world will have to “live with Covid-19 for a while.”

The WHO officials urged world leaders and public health officials to improve diagnostic and health systems that will enable them to respond better going forward. At the press conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced a deal to send 120 million rapid coronavirus tests across the globe, particulary in low and middle income countries.

The comments came days after the WHO said that it’s “not impossible” that the number  of deaths could double if countries don’t uniformly work to suppress the virus’ spread.

“It’s certainly unimaginable, but it’s not impossible, because if we look at losing 1 million people in nine months and then we just look at the realities of getting vaccines out there in the next nine months, it’s a big task for everyone involved,” Ryan said Friday in regard to whether the coronavirus death toll could rise to 2 million people. 

–CNBC’s Noah Higgins-Dunn contributed to this report.

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