More than any other time in my career as a data journalist, the general public is obsessed with numbers.
The number of coronavirus cases, the number of coronavirus deaths, the number of tests administered – as well as any analysis that slices and dices these data, whether that’s daily increases or per-person rates.
The crucial problem is that, while everyone is saying that the total number of global coronavirus cases currently stands at 435,006, we actually don’t know this basic number.
What we do know is the total number of confirmed global coronavirus (435,006). The real total is likely to be far higher, perhaps by as much as a factor of 20 in some countries. It would only be known if every single country tested every single one of their citizens with a test that was 100 per cent accurate.
Below, we talk to the experts on the issues with the data that we all, rightly, are examining on a day-to-day basis.
Testing inconsistencies may mislead the public
The way we know if a country has a coronavirus case is if an individual is tested and a laboratory confirms a diagnosis of COVID-19. This might sound an obvious point, but it has huge implications for a country’s recorded cases and death rate.
A country’s case fatality rate will look a lot worse if there are no active steps to test for coronavirus in the community. States such as Germany and South Korea stepped up testing much faster than the UK, which is only testing those people who are in hospital. This means that the vast majority of UK cases are not tracked and, as a result, our fatality rate will look high.
While Germany’s case fatality rate is 0.5 per cent, the UK’s currently stands at 5.2 per cent. Experts say that, because of the differences in testing policies between the countries, this is to be expected and does not necessarily mean that German doctors are better at treating the disease. Germany may also not have been recording all deaths from the outset, other experts warn.
Research from Timothy W Russell at the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases indicates that as few as six per cent of cases – just one in twenty – are being recorded in the UK. Germany is estimated to be recording 69 per cent of their cases – over two thirds.
This is because, despite promises of the UK getting up to a daily count of 25,000 tests, the maximum number of tests performed in one day stands at 8,400 on Thursday 19 March. Since then the average daily figure for testing has been around 4,500.