* We find that over 20.5 million years of life have been lost to COVID-19 globally. As of January 6, 2021, YLL in heavily affected countries are 2–9 times the average seasonal influenza; three quarters of the YLL result from deaths in ages below 75 and almost a third from deaths below 55; and men have lost 45% more life years than women. The results confirm the large mortality impact of COVID-19 among the elderly. They also call for heightened awareness in devising policies that protect vulnerable demographics losing the largest number of life-years.
* The average years of life lost per death is 16 years.
* We find that in heavily impacted highly developed countries, COVID-19 is 2–9 times that of the common seasonal influenza (as compared to a median flu year for the same country), between 2 and 8 times traffic related YLL (years of life lost) rates, between a quarter and a half of the YLL rates attributable to heart conditions in countries (with rates as high as parity to twice that of heart conditions in Latin America).
* A noted problem in attributing deaths to COVID-19 has been systematic undercounting of deaths due to COVID-19, as official death counts may reflect limitations in testing as well as difficulties in counting in out-of-hospital contexts… Our results support the claim that the true mortality burden of COVID-19 is likely to be substantially higher. Comparisons of COVID-19 attributable deaths and excess deaths approaches to calculating YLL suggests that the former on average may underestimate YLL by a factor of 3 [meaning, multiply the covid death toll by three to get a more accurate number].
* This study’s sample presents an average age-at-death of 72.9 years; yet only a fraction of the YLL can be attributed to the individuals in the oldest age brackets. Globally, 44.9% of the total YLL can be attributed to the deaths of individuals between 55 and 75 years old, 30.2% to younger than 55, and 25% to those older than 75. That is, the average figure of 16 YLL includes the years lost from individuals close to the end of their expected lives, but the majority of those years are from individuals with significant remaining life expectancy.
* These results must be understood in the context of an as-of-yet ongoing pandemic and after the implementation of unprecedented policy measures. Existing estimates on the counterfactual of no policy response suggest much higher death tolls and, consequently, YLL. Our calculations based on the projections by8 yield a total impact several orders of magnitude higher, especially considering projections based on a complete absence of interventions (see Supplementary Information for details on projections). This is in line with further evidence of the life-saving impacts of lockdowns and social distancing measures15.
There are two key sources of potential bias to our results, and these biases operate in different directions. First, COVID-19 deaths may not be accurately recorded, and most of the evidence suggests that on the aggregate level, they may be an undercount of the total death toll. As a result, our YLL estimates may be underestimates as well. We compare our YLL estimates to estimates based on excess death approaches that require more modeling assumptions but are robust to missclassification of deaths. The results of this comparison suggest that on average across countries, we might underestimate COVID-19 YLL rates by a factor of 3.
Second, those dying from COVID-19 may be an at-risk population whose remaining life expectancy is shorter than the average person’s remaining life expectancy16,17,18. This methodological concern is likely to be valid, and consequently our estimate of the total YLL due to COVID-19 may be an overestimate.