What is wrong with Russian statistics on mortality from coronavirus?

US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — Publications in the FT and NYT on mortality from coronavirus in Russia again raised the question of the relevance of death statistics from COVID-19 in the country. How convincing is the position of the Russian authorities in a dispute with Western publications?

Recent publications in the British Financial Times and the American The New York Times on Russian statistics on coronavirus mortality unexpectedly led to as much as an international scandal. In their publications, the publications claimed that the real mortality rate in Russia from COVID-19 could be much higher than what follows from official data. The FT and NYT materials attracted the attention of the Duma commission investigating the facts of interference in the affairs of Russia, which asked the Foreign Ministry to take measures for Western publications.

“In the West, they talk a lot about fake news, but for some reason they easily allow the appearance of such biased materials about Russia in their newspapers,” said the head of the commission, Vasily Piskarev. As a result, the Foreign Ministry decided not to deprive FT and NYT journalists of accreditation in Russia, as the commission demanded.

What so outraged the deputies and the foreign ministry? FT in an article dated May 11 relied on official data on the total mortality rate in Moscow and St. Petersburg in April: over the past month in the two largest cities of the country 2073 people died more than died on average in the previous five years this month. At the same time, according to official data, in April in these two cities, 629 deaths from a coronavirus were recorded, the publication indicates, and another 1,444 cases exceeding the norm “remained unaccounted for.” If we add this figure to 2009 “officially” dead from coronavirus in the country by May 11, then the mortality rate in Russia from COVID-19 will be 72% higher, FT concludes. Similar data leads and the NYT publication cited the demographics of Alexei Raksha, according to which about 70% of coronavirus deaths in Moscow and 80% in the regions remain unregistered. The article also cited the opinion of Tatyana Mikhailova, senior researcher at the RANEPA, according to which the real number of victims of COVID-19 can be three times higher than official statistics provide.

The Moscow Department of Health, in response to publications, indicated that in 100% of cases, an autopsy of the dead with suspected coronavirus is performed. “Of the total number of deaths in April this year, 639 are people whose cause of death is coronavirus and its complications, most often pneumonia. In other cases, it is impossible to name the cause of death COVID-19, ”the capital’s Health Department emphasized. They also pointed out that even if all the additional mortality in Moscow in April was attributed to coronavirus, the mortality rate would be “just over 3%, the mortality rate would be lower than in New York and London.”

According to official data, on May 13, 242 271 cases of the disease and 2212 deaths were detected in Russia, in other words, the mortality rate is 0.9%. And if Russia takes the second place in the world in the number of registered cases of COVID, and the third in the number of active cases of the disease, then the country is only in 18th place in the number of deaths, behind Sweden, for example, with 3460 deaths , and Canada, where of the 72,000 infected, 5,000 died.

Low mortality from coronavirus is what is discussed at meetings with President Vladimir Putin. So, at a meeting on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova noted that mortality rates from COVID in Russia are 7.4 times lower than in the world as a whole. Mortality rates, according to her, are kept at a low level due to the fact that sick people are promptly hospitalized, and also because the growth rate of sick people has slowed down. Academician Vasily Akimkin, director of the Central Research Institute of Epidemiology of Rospotrebnadzor, explains the low mortality rates in the country by early diagnosis.

The discrepancy between the increase in mortality compared to “peacetime” and the official data on deaths from a coronavirus cannot be called a specifically Russian phenomenon. The same The New York Times analyzed the general data on mortality in 22 countries and concluded that in reality the number of deaths from coronavirus may be higher by about 70,000 people. For example, in the UK, mortality from mid-March to early May was higher than usual levels by 67%, or 53,300 compared with the average values ​​for previous years. At the same time, official statistics on the deaths from COVID in the country during this time are 36,586 people. Equally significant differences in the numbers NYT revealed in Italy.

A possible reason for the discrepancy is that concomitant severe pathologies, which are usually present in patients with coronavirus, can often indicate the cause of death. In addition, tests used by doctors often give negative results – according to the chief freelance pulmonologist of the Ministry of Health Sergey Avdeev, their sensitivity is only 70-80%. Tests can “misfire” for a number of reasons, ranging from irregularities in sampling to incorrect sample transport. Thus, a situation is possible in which, for example, pneumonia will be indicated as the cause of death of a person with a coronavirus.

Registration of the cause of death is a rather subjective matter, Vladimir Shkolnikov, a demographer from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research , noted at the end of April. “There is some basic pathology, it can be complicated by virtue of its progression or concomitant diseases, and finally death occurs. As the main cause of death, it should be indicated exactly the initial, basic pathology. But WHO sometimes changes the rules, that’s how it is now. But here is how this initiative will work in different countries … For many years, doctors have become accustomed to a certain algorithm of actions, and it’s not so easy to change it, ”the researcher suggested in an interview with Radio Liberty. In Russia, if the death of a patient with COVID-19 is caused by complications of his chronic disease, then they can be called the main cause of death, Deputy Head of the HSE International Laboratory for Population and Health Research, Sergei Timonin, told Meduza. According to him, no more than a third of the dead “with coronavirus” fall into official statistics, he said. Shkolnikov notes that the most objective way to measure the impact of a pandemic on mortality is to fix the “excess” mortality compared to previous levels of past years.

WHO has already responded to reports of under-mortality in Russia. The representative of the organization in the country, Melita Vujnovic, said that “there is no such conscious understatement,” not excluding, however, that recalculation of data on mortality due to COVID.

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