The true number of people who have died as a result of COVID-19 could be as high as 6m to 8m – more than twice the official figure, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.
The official global death toll for 2020 was 1.8m people, but presenting its annual World Health Statistics report, the WHO estimated that total deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 were at least 3m.
"We are likely facing a significant undercount of total deaths directly and indirectly attributed to COVID-19," it said.
WHO data analyst William Msemburi said this estimate included both unreported COVID-19 deaths – where people did not get tested – as well as indirect deaths due to the lack of hospital capacity and other restrictions.
"Excess mortality gives us a better picture, because it captures both of these direct and indirect effects," Msemburi said.
The UN agency officially estimates that around 3.4m people have died directly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic by May 2021. But the overall excess mortality figures suggest the true count is higher.
"This number would truly be two to three times higher. So I think safely about 6m to 8m deaths could be an estimate on a cautionary note," said Samira Asma, WHO's assistant director-general in its data and analytics division at a virtual press briefing.
Every country is facing challenges to report COVID-19 deaths and WHO said it was working with countries "to understand the true human toll of the pandemic so we can be better prepared for the next emergency."