KEY POINTS

  • Researchers estimate that only 6% of actual COVID-19 infections have been detected
  • The real numbers could be in the tens of millions
  • Delayed testing could explain why the virus seems deadlier in some places than others

How much of actual COVID-19 infections is the world really detecting? According to a new report, the official reports submitted by countries worldwide "dramatically understates" the true number of infections. In fact, according to the researchers, on average, only 6% of the infections have been detected worldwide and, the actual number could already be in the tens of millions.

Even hard-hit countries have only been detecting small percentages of the infected individuals, with Italy detecting only 3.5% of infections and the U.S. detecting only 1.59% of infections as of March 31. By comparison, Germany's detection rate is at 15.58% while South Korea's is at 49.47% and Japan's is at 25.16%.

On average, according to the researchers, as of March 31, the world had only detected about 6% of all COVID-19 infections. Based on these numbers, they estimate that by March 31, Germany actually had 460,000 infections, the U.S. had over 11 million, Italy had about three million and the U.K. had about two million.

Since the March 31 tally of COVID-19 cases noted less than 900,000 infections, this means that most of the actual cases were actually undetected.

"These results mean that governments and policy-makers need to exercise extreme caution when interpreting case numbers for planning purposes," report co-author Professor Sebastian Vollmer of Göttingen University said. "Such extreme differences in the amount and quality of testing carried out in different countries mean that official case records are largely uninformative and do not provide helpful information."

According to the authors of the report, insufficient testing could help explain why the virus appears to be deadlier in some European countries such as Spain and Italy than in others such as Germany.

For instance, by March 31, Italy had a total of 12,428 deaths and 105,792 cases while Germany had 775 deaths and 71,808 cases. Based on these numbers alone, it looks as though the virus is much deadlier in Italy but, according to the researchers, it could actually be because Germany had already detected significantly more of their cases with a 15.58% detection rate than Italy had with 3.5%. 

Overall, the report is a good reminder that the figures we see changing each day do not accurately represent the reality of the pandemic but, are the best attempts to monitor the situation.

Billions of people around the world are in lockdown to limit the spread of the coronavirus, which has put a huge strain on the global economy Billions of people around the world are in lockdown to limit the spread of the coronavirus, which has put a huge strain on the global economy Photo: AFP / CHARLY TRIBALLEAU