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The global coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of over 24,000 people as of Thursday, but that number could have been much, much worse. A new study points out that the outbreak could have caused 40 million deaths had it not been kept in check.
The study comes from Imperial College London, where researchers estimated the potential scale of the coronavirus pandemic across the globe had measures not been put in place to stop its spread. The paper appeared in the 12the report of the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Modeling within the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis and the Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics.
“Our findings suggest that all countries face a choice between intensive and costly measures to suppress transmission or risk health systems becoming rapidly overwhelmed,” said the study’s co-author Dr. Patrick Walker, a member of the faculty of medicine at Imperial College London.
“However, our results highlight that rapid, decisive and collective action now will save millions of lives in the next year,” Walker added.
Currently, the latest estimates show that the coronavirus has infected over 531,000 people worldwide. However, according to the study, that number could have been as high as 7 billion people — about 90 percent of the world’s population — had it remained unchecked.
The researchers looked at several possible scenarios for the pandemic, including:
The researchers noted that an unmitigated scenario would result in over 40 million deaths and infect nine out of 10 people worldwide. In this model, the U.S. would have suffered over 2.18 million deaths and over 10 million hospitalizations. Currently, the U.S. has around 1,200 deaths, as of press time.
The researchers found that reducing the rate of social contacts through distancing — together with reducing social contacts by 60 percent among the elderly — can reduce this risk by half. However, this amount would still overwhelm health systems of countries all over the world.
The rapid adoption of public health measures, such as testing and isolation of cases, combined with wider social distancing are critical in curbing the impact of the virus. The study suggests that if all countries adopt these measures early, deaths would be lowered to 0.2 per 100,000 per week. This means that 95 percent of the deaths could be averted, saving 38.7 million people. However, should the countries adopt them much later, the deaths go up to 1.6 per 100,000 per week, dropping the number of lives saved to 30.7 million.
“Rapid, decisive and collective action is required by all countries to limit the effect of this pandemic,” stated Professor Azra Ghani, chair in infections disease epidemiology at Imperial College London.
Slowing down the rate of infections is paramount as the outbreak threatens to overwhelm health systems all over the world. The modeling in the study revealed that, even if the rate of infection was reduced by half, the outbreak would still overwhelm health systems in all countries.
“Our research adds to the growing evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic poses a grave global public health threat,” warned senior author Dr. Neil Ferguson.
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