IHME Goes All In On Excess Deaths Over Reported CoVid-19 Deaths

This is the 17th in a series of articles on CoVid-19. I am not a medical expert, but have worked with epidemiologists and have some expertise in research, data analysis and statistics. I am producing these articles in the belief that reasonably researched writing on this topic can’t help but be an improvement over the firehose of misinformation that represents far too much of what is being presented on this topic in social (and some other) media.

IHME estimated cumulative “actual” CoVid-19 deaths per 100,000 citizens, through May 3, 2021. These numbers are on average more than twice official “reported” deaths per 100,000 citizens, and use global data on “excess deaths” from many sources.

IHME current average daily “actual” CoVid-19 deaths per million citizens, as of the week ending May 3, 2021. These numbers are on average more than twice official “reported” deaths per 100,000 citizens, and use global data on “excess deaths” from many sources.

For the past year, the University of Washington’s IHME CoVid-19 forecasters have been twisting themselves into knots to get their forecasts to be both accurate and consistent with their long-standing assumptions that (1) actual CoVid-19 deaths have been reasonably close to reported deaths, and getting closer over time, and (2) infection fatality rates (IFRs) for the disease are globally consistent when adjusted for age demographics.

Something had to give. More and more anomalies were appearing in the discrepancies between their predictions and reported cases and deaths. So this week IHME basically abandoned both assumptions. They will no longer attempt to forecast “reported” deaths, instead forecasting their computation of “actual” deaths, using a mountain of diverse sources of “excess deaths” data, and presuming that substantially all “excess deaths” since the pandemic began are attributable to CoVid-19.

That means that they believe excess deaths from other causes, such as those due to people dying at home rather than risking going to CoVid-19-infested hospitals, roughly offset, in all jurisdictions, reduced deaths from other causes affected by CoVid-19 restrictions, such as the drop in fatal car accidents due less driving. It’s not an unreasonable assumption, but, given the biases out there, it’s aroused a chorus of protests, most of them saying that “developed” nations couldn’t possibly have underreported CoVid-19 deaths that dramatically.

Here are some of the reported and “actual” CoVid-19 death numbers the IHME is now using:

The chart suggests that not only have actual CoVid-19 deaths been 1.5-3plus times what health authorities have been reporting, but that that serious undercounting continues even now to about the same degree.

It’s interesting that, a year ago, IHME was talking about the possibility of a million US CoVid-19 deaths, and ten million deaths worldwide, and after some huge revisions to their projections in the interim, they’ve come full circle to the original estimates.

IHME’s changes also acknowledge, finally, that “lifestyle” issues (notably, the prevalence of obesity and many chronic respiratory, immunodeficiency and autoimmune diseases in the Americas and Europe) affecting the capacity of our immune systems to cope with infections, dramatically affect rates of death and hospitalization for every age cohort. The IFR in much of Africa and Asia (even accounting for the current explosion of cases in India) now looks to be less than 1/5 that experienced in the immunocompromised Americas and Europe, far more than their younger demographics alone could account for. We know that much of our “lifestyle” illness is attributable to stress, lack of exercise and poor diet. Now we know that this also sets us up for disproportionate fatalities in a pandemic, might that cause some changes in this western “lifestyle”? I wouldn’t count on it.

more than a year into this pandemic, thanks to our repeated failure to Go For Zero, we still have not yet even reached global peak daily deaths from the disease

So, we haven’t learned that our poor “lifestyle” makes us much more vulnerable to pandemic disease. Or at least, not sufficiently to change that lifestyle. And we haven’t understood that preventing most future pandemics will require an end to factory farming, exotic animal harvesting, and invading the last remaining areas of the planet’s wilderness where more novel infectious diseases await us. Or at least, we haven’t learned sufficiently to abandon these ruinous, dangerous practices. What if anything have we learned?

  1. I think we’ve learned that a century-old dogma about infectious disease, that prevented us from acknowledging that CoVid-19 spreads mainly by aerosol infection, has needlessly cost millions of human lives. Next time: high quality masks ready and mandatory, activities moved outside or to very-well-ventilated spaces, and avoiding the crowds that enable super-spreader events responsible for most disease transmission. And less preoccupation with transmission on surfaces and during outdoor activities.
  2. I think we’ve learned that kids get pandemic diseases at much the same rate as adults, but because (like those in ‘less developed’ nations) they have healthier immune systems and more B-cells than adults, they get less sick, carry lower viral loads, and infect fewer others less seriously. Next time: especially when they’re doing things outdoors, leave the kids alone.
  3. I think some of us have learned to Go For Zero, right from the start of a pandemic, and stay with that strategy until it’s over. Next time: listen to the health leaders that advised Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand in 2020-21. Understand that defeating a pandemic is a public health issue, not a political issue. Lock up the damned politicians if they get in the way again.

None of that will be easy, and we humans have terrible memories and keep repeating our mistakes. And the anti-science forces and disinformation media are relentless. But, to save ten million lives, not to mention the unknown long-term damage this virus has potentially done to the bodies of billions of people, it’s worth fighting for.

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4 Responses to IHME Goes All In On Excess Deaths Over Reported CoVid-19 Deaths

  1. Jason Johnston says:

    What weight do you hold the lab outbreak theory? It is coincidental that there happens to be a viral lab in Wuhan. It’s not impossible to think that they were tinkering with some corona viruses and it got out. A deliberate release seems less likely. Why would the Chinese real ease a virus on their own population?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Jason: No lab origin, deliberate or accidental: From a study by epidemiologists way back in Feb 2020 (Source: Archives of Virology: https://virological.org/t/tackling-rumors-of-a-suspicious-origin-of-ncov2019/384):

    “The preponderance of evidence dictates that the PRRA sequence has been conserved in nCoV2019 from a long ago ancestor virus. It is not of suspicious origin…The definitive source of the pandemic is a mixed infection of viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 and Bat HKU9 – copy choice error resulting in an insert in SARS-CoV-2 …[patient zero], infected in [a bat cave in] Yunnan, does not spread it there, but goes to Wuhan [new high-speed direct train service began in 2017], where he/she either falls ill or spreads it asymptomatically to another person, initiating the pandemic there. The initial outbreak occurs a short distance from the Wuhan train station for good reason – that is where it arrived. This accidental mixed infection in the wild, and infection of a human by some form of bush meat or bat guano, who carries it by high speed train to Wuhan – this is the most likely series of events leading to the pandemic. The only ‘laboratory’ required is the natural laboratory of the bat cave with multiple species of bats and bat coronaviruses.”

  3. John Twain says:

    Dave there’s actually a huge amount of evidence that it could very well have been a lab leak, and almost zero evidence of a zoonotic jump.

    The WIV were tinkering with corona viruses, and tinkering with them in the BSL2 section of the Institute. That’s the same level of infection control as a dentist has.

    Since the article you link to (from virologists, who seem to have been rather panicked by the possibility that it was their discipline that foisted this on us all) there has been much more evidence come to light and much more written about the possible origins.

    A good summary of some current thinking is here:


    Language is important, and simply dismissing the lab theory leak, for which there is a huge amount of circumstantial evidence, as some sort of “conspiracy” theory as some have done is foolish. The evidence so far is only circumstantial because the Chinese government and the WIV have refused to release their lab notes and much of the data about what they were doing and what may have happened at the lab in late 2019.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    John: Einstein famously said that in the search for truth one should look for the simplest possible explanation, an explanation that is “as simple as possible, but no simpler”. If you read the whole thread in the virologists’ site it is clearly not defensive or apologetic, including some exhaustive critiques that had to be scientifically resolved.

    The zoonotic explanation, which is also the explanation for just about every pandemic in history, is by far the simplest. In fact, given the acceleration of novel viruses in the 21st century due to the causes I described, it is astonishing to me that there haven’t been more zoonotic-jump pandemics. There are certainly many more to come, as Michael Greger and many others have been screaming for years.

    The lab leak explanation by contrast is not at all simple.

    But of course we will never know for sure (though Hollywood tries to convince us we can know everything). And as a result we will believe what we want to believe. As you do, and as I do.

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