German researchers say the United States is only detecting 1.6% of novel coronavirus cases, suggesting there may already be some 26 million infections nationally, 1 million in Florida and several tens of millions worldwide.
In a way, a potentially much higher denominator portends good news of much lower death rates than previously feared. But because of delayed or insufficient testing, the German researchers also conclude that current case counts aren’t very useful information, especially in the U.S., Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, where response to COVID-19 outbreaks has been slower. So they call for urgent improvement in detecting new infections to contain the virus and prevent second and subsequent “waves” of spread.
“These results mean that governments and policy-makers need to exercise extreme caution when interpreting case numbers for planning purposes,” Sebastian Vollmer, professor of development economics at the University of Göttingen, said in a prepared statement.
The study by Vollmer and Christian Bommer, another economist at Göttingen University, was published recently in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
Their findings come in the wake of researchers at the University of Washington this week vastly reducing their prediction of deaths and hospital bed shortages in Florida and elsewhere, after an influx of new data.
The German study also comes on the heels of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine dashing hopes that warm, humid summer weather might slow spread of the new virus. The panel sent a report to the White House recently, saying current research does not support that hypothesis.
In their study, Vollmer and Bommer used estimates of COVID-19 mortality and time until death to test the quality of official coronavirus case records. They found that countries have only discovered on average about 6% of coronavirus infections. The U.S. detected only 1.6% of COVID-19 infections detected, and the United Kingdom only 1.2%.
The researchers say insufficient testing and resulting failure to contain the virus may explain why some European countries are suffering much higher COVID-19 casualty numbers than Germany, which detected an estimated 15.6% of infections compared with only 1.7% in Spain and 3.5% in Italy. South Korea detected almost half of its infections.