The death toll from the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) may actually be more than what is currently being reported, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
If countries went back to their COVID-19 medical records, there will be changes in the number of deaths, said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, replying to a query about deaths in Russia, on June 10, 2020.
“It has happened in the past with countries revising death numbers. We should recognize that a large number of deaths may be revised if it were to happen again,” she said.
Russia has fewer deaths (6,358), compared to the number of positive cases (493,000), something that has surprised experts across the world. The United Kingdom, by contrast, has 41,000 deaths and 290,000 cases, while Italy has 34,000 deaths and a little over 253,000 cases.
Kerkhove said this was not just about any one country: It applied to other countries too, once they decide to review medical records after they pass through high-intensity transmissions.
“So, we expect to see increased numbers in several countries,” Kerkhove added.
In Russia, a death is not classified as one resulting from COVID-19 if the patient had the disease, but also had other underlying health conditions (comorbidities).
A Russian reporter asked if this aligned with WHO guidelines at a virtual press conference.
Many countries counted COVID-19 deaths in real-time without taking comorbidities into consideration, something that may cause over-estimation of deaths, replied Michael Ryan, the executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program.
“So far, as standardization of deaths is concerned, it is a complicated process. It is difficult to say what the primary cause of death is and what other factors contribute to it. It can be interpreted in different ways,” Ryan said, skirting the issue of whether Russia followed standard practice or not.
He, however, said low death rates in Russia were difficult to understand.
“Death numbers in Russia are unusual. Neither the age profile nor the pattern of underlying conditions in Russian population is much different than that of other European countries (which witnessed heavy death toll compared to Russia),” Ryan said.