CORONAVIRUS may be far deadlier than we fear – killing eight times more patients than the official death toll shows.
Most scientific models for Covid-19 have suggested the deadly virus has a 0.1-0.2 per cent fatality rate.
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But, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, warned this is a "conservative" estimate.
They claim the fatality rate could be as much as eight times higher than this figure.
The researchers used data on the number of “excess” deaths in Italy to estimate the likely fatality rate in the US and in New York, specifically.
Their findings suggest that Italy’s fatality rate of 0.5 per cent is equal to the “conservative” estimate for New York City.
They also anticipate that, overall, Covid-19 may kill up to 0.85 per cent of those infected in Italy.
This would make the fatality rate as much as eight times higher than the flu's 0.1 per cent fatality rate, and far higher than the 0.1-0.2 per cent rate most models have suggested for coronavirus.
Chances of dying doubled
Their calculations are based on the assumption that excess deaths this year are largely caused by Covid-19, regardless of official classification.
The lead author of the study, which has not been peer-reviewed but was posted in preprint form online, says that contracting coronavirus doubles your chances of dying this year.
This is including healthier and younger people who may contract the bug.
Their models suggest that about a quarter of people in New York City are infected, a figure closely aligned with the 21 per cent found by antibody testing carried out by the state.
It comes as scientists across the globe are still grappling to get an effective antibody test, which would help to get a more accurate measure of the coronavirus infection rate and, as a result, the fatality rate.
The FDA-approved coronavirus antibody test is about 95 per cent accurate, but others being used by state and local governments aren't guaranteed to provide clear results.
Results from early antibody testing of 7,500 people in New York found that nearly 15 per cent of the population has been infected.
However, until this form of testing, which reveals who has developed immune cells to the infection, is more reliable and widespread, the UC Berkeley team's estimates emphasise just how deadly the pandemic can be.
As of Monday, the US has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world, with 1,007,514.
Of that number, 56,624 have died after contracting the virus.
The death toll in the US equals a fatality rate of around 5.7 per cent.
Italy’s crude fatality rate, meaning raw numbers of cases and deaths unadjusted, is at 14.1 per cent.
These figures may be lower than reality, as testing shortages, asymptomatic patients and delays in data collections along with the excess deaths unattributed to Covid-19 cast doubt on official data.
UC Berkeley maintains that these fatality rates are hugely inaccurate, because of inadequate testing, and therefore it is likely that the fatality rates are lower because of higher infections.
This is supported by a recent Imperial College of London study, which estimated the global case-fatality rate to be about 1.4 per cent.
That rate fell to 0.66 once the researchers factored in the estimated number of undiagnosed cases.
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Accurate infection rates measures are crucial to estimating the fatality rate of coronavirus, or any other disease, which is calculated as a function of deaths over infections.
Comparing the California antibody studies' infection rates to deaths in those counties suggests that about 0.1 of people infected by coronavirus die of the disease.
In addition to assumptions that the infection rates reported in most countries are low-ball figures, the UC Berkeley team's model predicts that deaths, too, have been massively undercounted in Italy, and likely in the US and the world at large.
Earlier this month, analysis of coronavirus death data in the US was thrown into chaos when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed it would be including "probable" coronavirus fatalities in its count, leading to an overnight addition of more than 5,000 deaths.
Estimates made in various nations and states have suggested the following death rates:
- 0.1% death rate (Early UK government estimate)
- 0.19% death rate (Helsinki, Finland)
- 0.37% death rate (Gangelt, Germany)
- 0.4% death rate (Stockholm, Sweden)
- 0.57% death rate (New York state)
The inclusion of probable deaths seems to confirm that the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are at the greatest risk of becoming severely ill from coronavirus – and are dying of the infection, but going uncounted among its victims.
Using that assumption, the UC Berkeley team took a different approach to estimating how many people have died of coronavirus.
The scientists there looked at official data on overall deaths for more nearly 1,700 Italian towns between 2015 and April 4, 2020.
From that data, they assumed that the excess deaths this year could be safely blamed on coronavirus, establishing a "lower limit" for the pandemic's death toll in Italy.
Lead study author Dr Uros Seljak, a physics professor at UC Berkeley, said: "The dataset is a treasure trove for statistical analysis of Covid-19 mortality.
"For example, it can give mortality rate as a function of age better than any other data out there, a sad consequence of tens of thousands of deaths from Covid-19 in Italy."
Age is particularly poignant in some hard-hit areas of Italy, like the Bergamo Province of Lombardi, a region where more than 22 per cent of the population is over 65.
"With this data, we established that if one gets infected and is above 90 years of age, the probability of dying is at least ten per cent, because that is the fraction of the entire population of Bergamo province in this age group that died," said Dr Seljak.
"In contrast, the corresponding number for ages 40 to 49 is 0.04 per cent, far lower than previous estimates."
In nearly every town that the team analysed, the number of excess deaths for this year exceeded the official count of coronavirus deaths.
Extrapolating their analysis to the US, the researchers found similarly worrying trends.
Italy's older population means the fatality rate there will likely be higher than the fatality rate in most cities an states in the US, as well as for the nation as a whole.
My colleagues think that we have been overly conservative
The UC Berkeley team predicts that Italy's fatality rate will come to about 0.85 per cent, while New York's will average out to 0.5 per cent.
However, because the dense population of New York is generally younger, Dr Seljak and his team say that more young people there will die.
They estimate that more than a quarter – 26 per cent – of those who die of coronavirus in New York will be under 65.
Further extrapolating their model, the UC Berkeley team estimates that about a quarter of New York's population – more than two million people – is infected with coronavirus, not a far cry from the 24.7 per cent of the city estimated to have the virus by statewide antibody testing.
"Of course, it [the infection fatality rate] matters, for policy decisions," Dr Seljak said.
"Is this just a bad case of flu, as they would like to claim, or is it something much more serious," he asked, referring to US officials early (and in some cases, ongoing) dismissal of coronavirus as no greater a threat than the seasonal illness.
His research seems to suggest that coronavirus is much more serious than official death counts suggest.
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In fact, the estimates from his study are "lower limits" because the Italian death counts included in the research and used as the basis for their predictions are not up to date.
Dr Seljak said:"Some of my colleagues think that we have been overly conservative, which might be true.
"We have just accounted for the people who have died up until today, but people are still dying."
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