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4 May, 2020 19:23

Covid-19 victims ‘would have died anyway’? Not so, says new research

Covid-19 victims ‘would have died anyway’? Not so, says new research

A new study analyzing the longevity prospects of people who died from Covid-19 has found that, far from being on death’s door anyway, victims would have lived on for an average of 11 years had they not fallen to the disease.

One of the few things about the coronavirus that has been clear from the very beginning is that it’s far more likely to affect the old and infirm than the young and healthy. The vast majority of people who are thought to have died of Covid-19 have had at least one underlying condition – or comorbidity – which exacerbates the damage the virus does to the immune system. Furthermore, a person’s chance of dying increases greatly with age, and the disease seems to leave children and young people unaffected most of the time.

A new modelling study done at Scottish research institutes has peered into an alternative future, in which the novel coronavirus was never born – and so never ended the lives of so many people across Europe and the world. Researchers used data from Wales, Scotland and Italy, as well as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Burden of Diseases table, as a reference to estimate the years of potential life lost by the disease’s victims. They found that the average Italian or British victim would have lived for another 11 years.

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The virus seems to be disproportionately killing men, so they have slightly more potential lifespan lost than women. A fifth of the deceased were reasonably healthy people in their 50s and 60s who had an expected average of 25 more years to live. But how can scientists know how long people would have lived? There are ways and means, although they are far from perfect.

An imperfect science

First, the researchers looked at Italy, where 99 percent of the victims have been aged over 50. Calculating the average age healthy people are expected to reach is simply a case of checking the WHO data to see how long other people of their age tend to live. By this measure, many elderly people can expect to go on living for quite some time.

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The more difficult part is taking the underlying health conditions into account. The most common were hypertension (high blood pressure), type-2 diabetes, and heart disease. The researchers noted the major underlying conditions among the Italian Covid-19 fatalities and, combining this with data from their British cohorts, they formed estimates for the number of years those conditions would be expected to remove from a lifespan. This did shorten the projected figures, but not by much. 

The analysis - which is awaiting peer review - did have some limitations though. The study could not take account of how severe the underlying health conditions were, and better data would probably push down the estimate for the number of years victims had left. Furthermore, it did not include people in care homes – many of whom likely had lower life expectancies than people of similar ages on the outside. 

20:20 hindsight

Some have suggested that, when we can look back at the coronavirus crisis with some objectivity, there may not actually have been any additional deaths in the long or even mid-term. In other words, 12 or 18 months from now, all of the people who will have died from Covid-19 would have passed away due to their underlying diseases by that point anyway.

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Others have not gone quite as far, saying that two out of every three Covid-19 victims would have died within one year had the coronavirus not got them first. One who has taken this view is Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London professor whose projections have largely informed the British government’s response to the outbreak. 

But if this Scottish model is accurate, then when the crisis is over, Covid-19 will definitely have caused many additional or extra deaths. It is of course killing additional people every day, but this refers to the fact that they are ‘additional’ only over what we would normally expect to see in a given day, week or month at this time of year.

As the total number of global dead from Covid-19 approaches a quarter of a million, a rough calculation based on this study’s findings suggests that around two to three million life years have been lost to the disease. Whether the figures are accurate or not, this measure should no doubt inform governments’ policies in relation to an exit strategy.

The fact that the researchers found such a high average number of years – over a decade – does suggest that Covid-19 is ending many lives prematurely. It also indicates that the virus is not simply a ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ when it comes to ending lives, but is a killing machine in its own right.

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