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Are we overestimating how many Canadians are dying of COVID-19?

Montreal, May 20, 2020 – Every day, Canadians are informed via press conference of the number of new deaths attributed to COVID-19. A new publication launched today by the Montreal Economic Institute raises questions about the accuracy of these statistics.

Peter St. Onge, Senior Fellow at the MEI, explains that data about the prevalence of the virus in the population are essential in order to identify the number of deaths that it causes. “NHS consultant Dr. John Lee worried that Britain would overestimate deaths in the absence of relevant data. The same risk exists here in Canada,” argues Mr. St. Onge.

In early May, known cases of COVID-19 in Canada represented 0.2% of the total population. The Angus Reid Institute, for its part, published an epidemiological survey estimating that between 1% and 8% of Canadian households had already been infected. “A higher number of people already infected is a good thing, as it indicates that the virus is less lethal than we thought,” says the researcher.

“Prevalence tells us how many people are dying ‘with COVID-19’ as opposed to ‘from COVID-19’.” Points out Mr. St. Onge. “After all, one can be infected with the coronavirus, but die of heart disease related to a pre-existing condition.”

Gaël Campan, co-author of the publication, highlights the fact that the Angus Reid Institute study has some interesting implications. “A prevalence rate of 1% implies that COVID-19 could be incidental in 10% of the deaths counted,” says Mr. Campan. The higher range identified by Angus Reid, namely 8%, could mean that the coronavirus is incidental in up to 80% of cases.

Prevalence data also allow for a more exact estimation of the mortality rate from the coronavirus. “A 1% prevalence implies a COVID-19 mortality rate of 1.1%. That’s far lower than early estimates,” says Mr. Campan.

With prevalence in the population of 8%, the mortality rate would fall to just 0.13%. “This scenario, which is possible according to the Angus Reid study, would mean that the coronavirus is roughly as deadly as the seasonal flu,” points out Gaël Campan.

In any case, according to the researchers, we need reliable data about the prevalence of the virus among the Canadian population in order to properly understand the situation we are facing.

The Viewpoint entitled “Are We Overestimating How Many Canadians Are Dying of COVID-19?” was prepared by Peter St. Onge, Senior Fellow at the MEI, with the collaboration of Gaël Campan, Senior Economist at the MEI. This publication is available on our website.

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The MEI is an independent public policy think tank. Through its publications, media appearances, and advisory services to policy-makers, the MEI stimulates public policy debate and reforms based on sound economics and entrepreneurship.


Interview requests: Daniel Dufort, Senior Director of External Relations, Communications and Development, MEI. Tel.: 438-886-9919 / Email: ddufort@iedm.org

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