In Depth

The new coronavirus research out this week: excess deaths - and an unexpected benefit

A weekly digest of the latest data and scientific studies

As soon as a new coronavirus was identified in China at the end of last year, the world’s scientists set about investigating the threat it posed.

Each week we bring you a round-up of the progress they’ve made in understanding the spread of Covid-19 – and developing the vaccines, treatments and preventative measures that will bring it under control.

Measuring the pandemic

In some countries, most notably China and Iran, official coronavirus death tolls have long been viewed with suspicion. But even where scientists and politicians are presumed to be working in good faith, their figures are likely to be incomplete at best.

This is partly because some people die without being tested and partly because the outbreak may cause indirect fatalities too, for example among people who are denied treatment for cancer or heart disease because hospitals are full.

“The best overall figures are those that estimate whether the death rate is higher than normal,” says the Financial Times. For example, if a country recorded 12,000 deaths in March but would typically record 10,000 in that month, it is said to have 2,000 “excess deaths”.

Most European countries experienced a sharp rise in deaths during early March – and in some cases recorded far more excess deaths than appear in official Covid-19 figures (which often include only people who die in hospital).

Among the most extreme cases is Italy, where excess death data, so far available for about a quarter of local authorities, “suggests that the true toll was about 120% higher” than the official statistics, The Economist reports.

In the Netherlands, the discrepancy is 140% and in Spain and France 60%. British excess deaths are running at about 10% higher than the Office for National Statistics’ weekly totals, which are themselves about 10-15% higher than the daily figures published by the NHS.

Chest infection data

As deaths from Covid-19 have increased, cases of other respiratory conditions have fallen dramatically, most probably because social distancing and increased hand-washing has reduced transmission rates.

Both upper and lower respiratory tract infections “have fallen significantly since 15 March when social distancing measures were introduced”, according to Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine. It found that infection rates fell from 22 to eight per 10,000 people during the course of March.

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Treatment shows promise

Leaked footage of scientists discussing the early results of a drug trial has fuelled hopes for an effective coronavirus treatment. The University of Chicago is assessing a drug called remdesivir, originally developed to treat ebola, which has led to “rapid recoveries in almost all of the more than a hundred severely ill patients” enrolled in the study, the Financial Times reports.

Gilead, which makes the drug, cautioned against premature optimism, and independent researchers said it would be “all but impossible to judge the efficacy of remdesivir… until the results of full trials emerge” at the end of April, says The Times.

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