British Pathologist: Why COVID-19’s Death Rate May Be Lower Than We Feared
Digital generated image of macro view of the corona virus from the 2020.
Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

In an op-ed published Thursday by the Spectator, recently-retired Professor of Pathology and National Health Service
(NHS) consultant pathologist John Lee raises what he describes as some perspectives on the coronavirus death rate that have “hardly been aired in the past weeks” and which “point to an interpretation of the figures rather different from that which the [British] government is acting on.”

“The simplest way to judge whether we have an exceptionally lethal disease is to look at the death rates,” Lee explains. “Are more people dying than we would expect to die anyway in a given week or month?”

Lee writes that statistically Britain experiences about 51,000 deaths a month. “At the time of writing, 422 deaths are linked to COVID-19 — so 0.8 percent of that expected total,” he notes. “On a global basis, we’d expect 14 million to die over the first three months of the year. The world’s 18,944 coronavirus deaths represent 0.14 percent of that total.”

While Lee makes a point of stressing that the number of deaths from the virus “might shoot up,” as of right now they are “lower than other infectious diseases that we live with (such as flu)” and at the current level would not, “in and of themselves, cause drastic global reactions.”

So why are such “drastic” responses being taken by governments? The initial reporting out of China and Italy, Lee explains, suggested an alarming death rate of between 5 and 15%, which would be comparable to the Spanish flu, which resulted in about 50 million deaths. If that were true, given the rate of spread of COVID-19, healthcare systems the world over would be quickly overwhelmed. Thus, drastic measures have been implemented.

“At the time of writing, the UK’s 422 deaths and 8,077 known cases give an apparent death rate of 5 percent,” Lee writes, an apparent death rate that is rightfully causing serious alarm.

But, Lee suggests, there’s reason to believe that figure might be significantly inflated. One reason, he posits, is that “most of the UK testing has been in hospitals, where there is a high concentration of patients susceptible to the effects of any infection.”

“As anyone who has worked with sick people will know, any testing regime that is based only in hospitals will over-estimate the virulence of an infection,” Lee explains. “Also, we’re only dealing with those COVID-19 cases that have made people sick enough or worried enough to get tested. There will be many more unaware that they have the virus, with either no symptoms, or mild ones.”

It’s for that reason that when the country had diagnosed about 600 cases, its lead chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, “suggested that the real figure was probably between 5,000 and 10,000 cases, 10 to 20 times higher” — which, if accurate, would put the true death rate between “0.25 percent to 0.5 percent,” closer to flu mortality rates, Lee writes.

The way deaths are recorded, Lee says, is another “potentially even more serious problem” with accurately calculating COVID-19’s mortality rate. Lee explains that in the U.K. if someone dies of a respiratory infection, the specific cause of that infection is not usually noted unless it is identified as a rare “notifiable disease,” not seasonal infections, like the flu.

“So the vast majority of respiratory deaths in the UK are recorded as bronchopneumonia, pneumonia, old age or a similar designation,” writes Lee. “We don’t really test for flu, or other seasonal infections. If the patient has, say, cancer, motor neurone disease or another serious disease, this will be recorded as the cause of death, even if the final illness was a respiratory infection.” The result, he says, is that U.K. certifications “normally under-record deaths due to respiratory infections.”

But COVID-19 is now included in the updated list of “notifiable diseases,” Lee explains. “That means every positive test for COVID-19 must be notified, in a way that it just would not be for flu or most other infections.” If any patient dies after having tested positive for COVID-19, “staff will have to record the COVID-19 designation on the death certificate — contrary to usual practice for most infections of this kind.” That might give COVID-19 “the appearance of it causing an increasing numbers of deaths, whether this is true or not,” writes Lee. (Read Lee’s op-ed here.)

Some of Lee’s arguments have been echoed by other experts, like Stanford University’s Meta-Research Innovation Center Co-Director John P.A. Ioannidis, who have cautioned authorities about making major policy decisions based on incomplete and potentially misleading data that does not fully take into account factors that might skew the results. Others, like founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center Dr. David L. Katz and Stanford biophysicist and Nobel laureate Michael Levitt, have been calling attention to the potential health risks of widespread lockdowns and other drastic measures.

Related: Harvard Researchers: One Long Lockdown Is Not The Right Approach