1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Cemetery workers carry a coffin while wearing protective equipment
The WHO estimates that around 6-8 million people have died so farImage: Agustin Marcarian/REUTERS

COVID death toll likely a major 'undercount,' says WHO

May 21, 2021

The agency said that up to three times more people have died due to the virus, than the official figure of 3.4 million. Many deaths were also attributed to overcrowded hospitals and reduced access to medical care.


Official tolls indicating the number of deaths linked to the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to be a "significant undercount," the World Health Organization (WHO)said on Friday.

According to the WHO, up to three times more people have died due to the pandemic than records show. So far, more than 3.4 million deaths worldwide have officially been attributed to the virus, but the WHO says that 6-8 million people may have died so far.

Presenting its annual World Health Statistics report, the WHO estimated that total deaths from the pandemic in 2020 were at least 3 million last year or 1.2 million more than officially reported.

"We are likely facing a significant undercount of total deaths directly and indirectly attributed to COVID-19," the WHO said. "Total deaths are at least two to three times higher than officially reported," Samira Asma, the WHO assistant director-general in charge of data, told reporters.

COVID surges in rural India

Deaths due to lack of health care access

Some people included in those figures not only died because of coronavirus, but instead because they were not able to access treatment for other ailments.

The pandemic has seen overcrowded hospitals and intensive care units, as well as restrictions on other movements and medical appointments. Additionally, many people died early on of COVID without first being tested.

Asked how many excess deaths could be attributed to the pandemic today, Asma said: "I think safely, about 6 to 8 million deaths could be an estimate, with a cautionary note."

Mass trauma among nurses is global

She added that the WHO was working with countries "to understand the true human toll of the pandemic so we can be better prepared for the next emergency."

"The challenge is that the reported COVID-19 [death toll figures] is an undercount of that full impact," WHO data analyst William Msemburi told reporters.

'Crisis point' in vaccine distribution

The report comes as world leaders kicked off a global health summit on Friday to discuss the state of global vaccine distribution. Ahead of the summit, WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan told DW that the pandemic is at a crisis point, in terms of global distribution of inoculations.

While high-income countries have had significant access to the inoculation, developing countries are still struggling to catch up, said Swaminathan.

"We are at a crisis point.  We've had over 1.5 billion doses of vaccines distributed around the world. And guess how much went to low-income countries? 0.3%. That is a grotesque situation in a pandemic," she added.

lc/rt (Reuters, AFP)

Skip next section Related topics
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Thomas Müller waves a hand during Germany's match with Costa Rica

Germany out of World Cup at group stage

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage