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Topline: Researchers at Imperial College in London have found that COVID-19 could have caused 40 million deaths worldwide this year without preventative measures, putting into sharp focus the impact that early social distancing and testing aimed at slowing the spread of the disease can have.
- Researchers looked at several possibilities: the world not reacting to COVID-19; mitigated scenarios, where social distancing takes place, and other scenarios to suppress the spread of the virus, such as testing.
- They found that, left unchecked, the virus “would likely” have caused the deaths of 40 million people this year and could have infected 7 billion people—almost the world’s entire population.
- Their modelling also found that social distancing could halve this impact, but without quick, decisive action, could leave health systems around the world, particularly lower-income regions, overwhelmed.
- The team found that rapidly adopting “proven public health measures” such as testing, isolation of confirmed cases and widespread social distancing measures are “critical” in slowing the virus’ spread.
- “Rapid, decisive and collective action is required by all countries to limit the effect of this pandemic. Acting early has the potential to reduce mortality by as much as 95 per cent, saving 38.7 million lives,” said Professor Azra Ghani, author of the report.
- The report adds: “If all countries were to adopt this strategy at 0.2 deaths per 100,000 population per week, 95 per cent of the deaths could be averted, saving 38.7 million lives. However, if this strategy is adopted later (1.6 deaths per 100,000 population per week), then this figure drops to 30.7 million.”
- Strategies to contain the virus would need to be kept up until treatment is made available, the researchers said.
Crucial comment: Dr. Patrick Walker, who wrote the report, said: “We estimate that the world faces an unprecedented acute public health emergency in the coming weeks and months. Our findings suggest that all countries face a choice between intensive and costly measures to suppress transmission or risk health systems becoming rapidly overwhelmed.
“However, our results highlight that rapid, decisive and collective action now will save millions of lives in the next year.”
Key background: Around 540,000 people have contracted COVID-19 across the world to date, while 25,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. is now facing the biggest number of infections of any nation, with more than 86,000 confirmed cases. Various countries have taken different approaches to tackling the virus—mainland China, where the outbreak was first detected late last year, was the first to enforce a lockdown of tens of millions of people, which has begun to lift as new domestic cases appear to drop. Singapore and South Korea, which have also been hot spots for the virus, embarked on early and widespread testing of the population.
Some of the hardest-hit European countries eventually imposed nationwide lockdowns, which have been extended in Italy and Spain. The U.K., which was initially taking a more cautious approach to social distancing measures, has shut all non-essential businesses and urged people to stay at home. The government is facing calls to ramp up testing among healthcare professionals.
The U.S. approach has also been slow, and testing severely delayed and limited. President Donald Trump initially downplayed the severity of the disease, forcing governors across the country to enforce lockdowns by state. Lawmakers are now on the brink of passing a $2 trillion economic relief bill.