Story at a glance
- A study authored by MIT researchers suggests the actual number of coronavirus cases is vastly underreported.
- It cites data from 84 countries, encompassing approximately 5 billion people.
New data suggest that due to limited initial testing, demographic differences in testing subjects and varying public health policies across the U.S., the actual number of confirmed COVID-19 infections and related fatalities could be 11.8 and 1.48 times higher than actual reports, respectively.
“The magnitude of [the] epidemic is widely under-reported with much variation globally,” the authors write.
The data comes from a study authored by Hazhir Rahmandad, TY Lim and John Sterman of MIT’s Sloan School of Management. They used a SEIR model, a standard mathematical model for infectious diseases used by epidemiologists, to estimate the spread of the coronavirus across 84 different countries with an emphasis on asymptomatic spread.
Collectively, this accounted for approximately 4.7 billion people.
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Using infection and death data from the sample number of countries, researchers were able to estimate the infection parameters of COVID-19 throughout the individual countries, as well as track trajectories of both infections and fatalities. Taken into account were variations in disease response by country, including testing capacity, public health policies, hospitalizations and risk perception, and behavioral responses. These controls are intended to make the individual country’s epidemiological curves accurate based on their population and institutions.
The epidemiological model found that coronavirus case infections could be widely underreported, estimating 88.5 million people may have been infected by June 18, and anywhere from 586,000 to 622,000 people could have died from COVID-19 complications.
Citing undercounting early in the pandemic as a culprit for inaccurate reporting, some of the countries with the most discrepancies between estimated cases and cumulative cases include Mexico, Iran, Spain, Qatar, Ecuador, the U.K and the U.S.
It also notes that the countries that have come closest to herd immunity are Ecuador and Chile.
These numbers are significantly higher than current estimates. Johns Hopkins’ widely cited coronavirus dashboard records about 10.5 million confirmed cases worldwide with a corresponding 512,114 fatalities as of July 1 at approximately 10 a.m. EDT.
Some of the findings estimate that more than half of all global infections are asymptomatic and suggest that asymptomatic individuals are only about one-third as infectious as symptomatic patients.
Available testing was an issue early on as the pandemic hit the U.S., making it difficult to know exactly who was infected and how the virus was transmitted.
The authors further note that millions of infections could have been prevented if governments had alerted the public earlier and worked to contain the virus before mass outbreaks occurred.
“By alerting the public earlier and reducing contacts, extensive testing when the pandemic was declared could have averted 35.3 (32.7-42.7) million cases and 197 (171-232) thousand deaths,” the authors state. “However, future outcomes are less dependent on testing and more contingent on the willingness of communities and governments to reduce transmission.”
Future projections vary across countries, but without any treatments or vaccines being developed, researchers estimate between 186 to 586 million cases and anywhere from 1.40 to 3.67 million deaths in the 84 countries by Spring 2021.
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