Imperial researchers say COVID-19 could have caused 40 million deaths if left unchecked

The outbreak of COVID-19 would likely have caused 40 million deaths this year in the absence of any preventative measures.

Researchers at Imperial College London estimated the potential scale of the coronavirus pandemic across the globe, highlighting that failure to mitigate the impact could lead to huge loss of life.

The report is the twelfth to be released by The WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Modelling within the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis (GIDA), Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics (J-IDEA).

Researchers included a number of scenarios, such as what would have happened if the world had not reacted to COVID-19 (the “unmitigated scenario”). They also included two scenarios incorporating social distancing, which result in a single-peaked epidemic (“mitigated scenarios”), and several scenarios for suppressing the spread of the disease that can have the largest overall impact in terms of reducing disease and deaths. 

According to the unmitigated scenario, if left unchecked the virus could have infected 7 billion people and caused in the region of 40 million deaths this year. Social distancing to reduce the rate of social contacts by 40%, coupled with a 60% reduction in social contacts among the elderly population (at highest risk) could reduce this burden by around half. However, even at this level of reduction, health systems in all countries would be rapidly overwhelmed, the modelling revealed. 

Dr Patrick Walker, an author of the report from Imperial, 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." 

The full report ‘The Global Impact of COVID-19 and Strategies for Mitigation and Suppression’ is available on the MRC GIDA report website.