Mathematical models indicate that as few as one in five cases of Covid-19 during the pandemic have been reported

The World Health Organization reported 513,955,910 cases from 1 January 2020 to 6 May 6 2022 with 6,190,349 deaths. The numbers made Covid-19 amongst the top killers in some countries. In the USA it ranked just behind heart disease and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Still, mathematical models indicate overall underreporting of cases ranging from 1 in 1.2 to 1 in 4.7. That underreporting translates to global pandemic estimates of between 600 million and 2.4 billion cases.

Dr Arni SR Srinivasa Rao is director of the Laboratory for Theory and Mathematical Modeling in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Medical College of Georgia. He said: “We all acknowledge a huge impact on us as individuals, a nation and the world, but the true number of cases is very likely much higher than we realise. We are trying to understand the extent of underreported cases.”

See also: Third covid vaccination ‘better’ against Omicron variant

‘Dearth of information and inconsistency’

The wide range of estimated cases generated by their models indicate the problems with accuracy of reported numbers, which include data tampering, the inability to conduct accurate case tracking and the lack of uniformity in how cases are reported.

A ‘dearth of information and inconsistency’ in reporting cases has been a major problem with getting a true picture of the impact of the pandemic, Rao says.

Mathematical models use whatever information is available as well as relevant factors like global transmission rates and the number of people in the world, including the average population over the 29-month timeframe.

That average, referred to as the ‘effective population’, better accounts for those who were born and died for any reason and so provides a more realistic number of the people out there who could potentially be infected.

Rao adds: “You have to know the true burden on patients and their families, on hospitals and caregivers, on the economy and the government.”

Model-based estimates

More accurate numbers also help in assessing indirect implications like the underdiagnosis of potentially long-term neurological and mental disorders that are now known to be directly associated with infection.

Rao and his colleagues had published similar model-based estimates for eight countries earlier in the pandemic in 2020, to provide more perspective on what they said then was clear underreporting.

Their modelling predicted countries like Italy, despite their diligence in reporting, were likely capturing one in four actual cases while in China, where population numbers are tremendous, they calculated a huge range of potential underreporting, from 1 in 149 to 1 in 1,104 cases.

Other contributors to underreporting include the reality that everyone who has contracted Covid-19 has not been tested. A significant percentage of people, even vaccinated and boosted individuals, are also getting infected more than once. There is a likelihood they may only go to the doctor for PCR resting the first time and potentially use at home tests or even no test for subsequent illnesses.

For example, a recent report in JAMA on reinfection rates in Iceland during the first 74 days of the Omicron variant wave there indicates, based on PCR testing, that reinfection rates were at 10.9% – a high of 15.1% among those 18- to 29-year-olds – for those who received two or more doses of a vaccine.

The number of fully vaccinated individuals globally reached a reported 5.1 billion by the end of the 29-month study timeframe.

The report is published in Current Science.

Image: Dr Arni Rao.

Credit: Michael Holahan, Augusta University.