Without global action against coronavirus pandemic, 40 million could have died: report

If the world hadn’t taken action against the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the world would have become infected and 40 million lives could been lost, says a new report.

“We estimate that in the absence of interventions, COVID-19 would have resulted in 7.0 billion infections and 40 million deaths globally this year,” says a March 26 report by the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team. 

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The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, and global infections as of March 30 surpassed 690,000. The global death toll is currently more than 33,100.

As the pandemic spread across the world, countries started issuing lockdowns, quarantines and border closures in response.

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In Canada, social distancing has been ongoing for more than two weeks. As of March 30, domestic travel on flights and intercity passenger trains was restricted for anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

The country has also deployed the Quarantine Act, legally requiring anyone returning to Canada from overseas to self-isolate for 14 days. As of March 30, Canada has more than 7,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 74 deaths.

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In the U.S., President Donald Trump recently extended the voluntary nationwide shutdown till April 30, despite initially touting plans to re-open parts of the country by Easter. Many American states and local governments have even stiffer controls in place on mobility and gatherings.

Britain initially took a modest approach to containing the spread of the disease compared with European countries such as Italy, but U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed stringent controls after projections showed a quarter of a million people could die.

The Imperial College report warns that the response by individual countries in coming weeks “will be critical in influencing the trajectory of national epidemics.”

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The report looks at potential scenarios, including what could have happened without intervention, and what could happen with different types of intervention, across 202 countries. 

Without any intervention, the coronavirus would have caused 40 million deaths across the world in 2020, according to the report. If there had been no interventions in North America, the model in the report projected close to 3 million deaths.

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Social distancing focusing on protecting older members of populations and slowing down the transmission of the virus would have cut this number in half, to 20 million deaths, but even in this scenario, the report says “health systems in all countries will be quickly overwhelmed.”

If measures to suppress the virus — such as intense social distancing and high levels of testing — kick in when the death rate in each country is at 0.2 for every 100,000 per week, then the project global death toll could be just over 1.85 million, the report finds.

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Then health care demand can be held at a “manageable” level if testing, isolating, and wider social distancing are swiftly implemented, the report says. Many countries are already doing this, it notes. 

“Delays in implementing strategies to suppress transmission will lead to worse outcomes and fewer lives saved,” the report warns.

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To avoid further COVID-19 epidemics from erupting, these same strategies will need to remain in place one way or another “until vaccines or effective treatments become available.”

The report takes care to say that its findings are about the potential effect of the pandemic and that it is not possible to accurately predict the exact number of cases or exact death toll for any country at the moment.

“A full understanding of both will only be available retrospectively,” the report says.

— With files by Reuters

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