India's COVID Deaths Could Be 10 Times Higher Than Country's Official Toll: Report

India's total number of COVID-19 deaths could be 10 times higher than the official toll, the Associated Press reported.

A report authored by Arvind Subramanian, the Indian government's former chief economic adviser, and two other researchers at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, and Harvard University was released Tuesday and estimated excess deaths to be 3 million to 4.7 million from January 2020 to June 2021. If stated that while the precise number of deaths may "prove elusive," the actual death toll "is likely to be an order of magnitude greater than the official count."

The report said the official count could have missed deaths that occurred in packed hospitals or while health care was disrupted, especially during the devastating virus surge earlier in 2021.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

India's Excess COVID-19 Deaths
A report published on Tuesday said that COVID-19 deaths in India could be 10 times higher than what has been officially documented. Pictured, golfer Jeev Milkha offer prayers in front of the funeral pyre of his dad and track legend Milkha Singh, who died aged 91 following a long battle with Covid-19, at a crematorium in Chandigarh on June 19, 2021. Getty Images

"True deaths are likely to be in the several millions, not hundreds of thousands, making this arguably India's worst human tragedy since Partition and independence," the report said.

The Partition of the British-ruled Indian subcontinent into independent India and Pakistan in 1947 led to the killing of up to 1 million people as gangs of Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other.

The report on India's virus toll used three calculation methods: data from the civil registration system that records births and deaths across seven states, blood tests showing the prevalence of the virus in India alongside global COVID-19 fatality rates, and an economic survey of nearly 900,000 people done thrice a year.

Researchers cautioned that each method had weaknesses, such as the economic survey omitting the causes of death.

Instead, researchers looked at deaths from all causes and compared that data to mortality in previous years — a method widely considered an accurate metric.

Researchers also cautioned that virus prevalence and COVID-19 deaths in the seven states they studied may not translate to all of India, since the virus could have spread more in urban versus rural states and since health care quality varies greatly around India.

Other nations are also believed to have undercounted deaths in the pandemic. But India is thought to have a greater gap due to having the world's second-highest population of 1.4 billion and because not all deaths were recorded even before the pandemic.

The health ministry did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment on the report.

Dr. Jacob John, who studies viruses at the Christian Medical College at Vellore in southern India and was not part of the research, reviewed the report for the AP and said it underscores the devastating impact COVID-19 had on the country's underprepared health system.

"This analysis reiterates the observations of other fearless investigative journalists that have highlighted the massive undercounting of deaths," Jacob said.

The report also estimated that nearly 2 million Indians died during the first surge in infections last year and said not "grasping the scale of the tragedy in real-time" may have "bred collective complacency that led to the horrors" of the surge earlier this year.

Over the last few months, some Indian states have increased their COVID-19 death toll after finding thousands of previously unreported cases, raising concerns that many more fatalities were not officially recorded.

Several Indian journalists have also published higher numbers from some states using government data. Scientists say this new information is helping them better understand how COVID-19 spread in India.

Murad Banaji, who studies mathematics at Middlesex University and has been looking at India's COVID-19 mortality figures, said the recent data has confirmed some of the suspicions about undercounting. Banaji said the new data also shows the virus wasn't restricted to urban centers, as contemporary reports had indicated, and that India's villages were also badly impacted.

"A question we should ask is if some of those deaths were avoidable," he said.

India's Excess COVID Deaths
India's excess deaths during the pandemic could be a staggering 10 times the official COVID-19 toll, likely making it modern India's worst human tragedy, according to the most comprehensive research yet on the ravages of the virus in the south Asian country. In this Sept. 14, 2020, file photo, Ramananda Sarkar, 43, who has cremated more than 450 COVID-19 victims stands by burning funeral pyres of COVID-19 victims in Gauhati, India. Anupam Nath/Associated Press