Audacious assumptions: centre on allegations of undercounting of India’s COVID deaths

In a statement, the health ministry addressed media reports that alleged a 'vast undercounting' of excess deaths in India during the pandemic .

New Delhi : The union health ministry on Thursday slammed news reports that claim India’s COVID-19 death count to be much higher than reported by the government, saying that they were based on studies conducted on ‘audacious assumptions’.

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In a statement, the health ministry addressed media reports that alleged a ‘vast undercounting’ of excess deaths in India during the pandemic and said that in these news reports, US and European countries’ age-specific infection fatality rates have been used to calculate excess deaths in India based on the sero-positivity.

“The extrapolation of deaths has been done on an audacious assumption that the likelihood of any given infected person dying is the same across countries, dismissing the interplay between various direct and indirect factors such as race, ethnicity, genomic constitution of a population, previous exposure levels to other diseases and the associated immunity developed in that population,” the statement said.

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The Centre further said that sero-prevalence studies are not only used to guide strategy and measures to further prevent the spread of infection to the vulnerable population but are also used as another basis to extrapolate deaths.
It flagged another potential concern that the antibody titers may diminish over time, leading to underestimation of true prevalence and corresponding overestimation of Infection Fatality Rate.

“The reports assume that all the excess mortality figures are COVID deaths, which is not based on facts and totally fallacious. Excess mortality is a term used to describe an all-cause mortality figure and attributing these deaths to COVID-19 is completely misleading,” it said.

The health ministry further emphasised that India has a thorough contact tracing strategy and all primary contacts of an infected person, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, were tested for COVID-19.

While some could go undetected as per the principles of Infectious Disease and its management, missing out on deaths is unlikely, it said, given the robust and statute-based Death Registration System in India.

Moreover, the reporting of daily new cases and deaths in India follows a bottom-up approach, where districts report the number of cases and deaths to the State Governments and to the Union Ministry on a continuous basis.

The ministry further quoted health minister Mansukh Mandaviya’s statement in Rajya Sabha yesterday, where he refuted allegations of hiding COVID-19 deaths and said that the Central government only compiles and publishes data sent by the state governments.

It added that the Health Ministry repeatedly advised States and UTs for the recording of deaths in accordance with laid down guidelines and emphasized the need for a robust reporting mechanism for monitoring district-wise cases and deaths on a daily basis.

“States have been advised to conduct thorough audits in their hospitals and report any cases or deaths that could have been missed with a district and date-wise details so as to guide a data-driven decision making,” the statement said.

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