The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 15 million people were killed either by the coronavirus or by its effects on health care systems in the past two years.
The number is much higher than the official death count of 6 million. Most of the deaths were in Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas.
In a report released on Thursday, the U.N. agency's chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described the figure as "sobering." Sobering is a term that suggests a feeling of seriousness and thoughtfulness.
Tedros said the number should lead countries to invest more in their abilities to deal with future health emergencies.
How did researchers arrive at their estimate?
WHO researchers estimated there were between 13.3 million and 16.6 million more deaths, called "excess mortality," from January 2020 to the end of last year.
The health organization said the number 14.9 million is the difference between the number of deaths that have happened and the number that would be expected based on data from earlier years. The number 14.9 million is at the middle of the upper and lower ends of the estimate.
They were either caused directly by the coronavirus or were somehow related to the pandemic's effects on health care systems. For example, some people with cancer were unable to seek treatment when hospitals were full of COVID patients.
The WHO did not immediately break down the figures to show the difference between direct deaths from COVID-19 and others caused by the pandemic.
Albert Ko of the Yale School of Public Health was not involved in the WHO research. He said, "having these WHO numbers is so critical to understanding how we should combat future pandemics and continue to respond to this one."
For example, Ko said, South Korea invested heavily in public health after it suffered a Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2015. The decision helped the country to limit its death rate to 5 percent of that of the United States.
The exact numbers of COVID-19 deaths have been difficult to come by because of limited testing and differences in how countries count COVID-19 deaths.
Official government figures reported to the WHO and a separate count kept by Johns Hopkins University show just more than 6 million reported coronavirus deaths to date.
In a recent study published in Lancet, scientists at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington estimated there were more than 18 million COVID deaths from January 2020 to December 2021.
The Washington scientists estimated that there were more than 3 million uncounted coronavirus deaths in India alone. And the WHO's new estimate said there were more than 4 million missed deaths in the country.
Ko said the new WHO estimate might also explain some open questions about the pandemic, like why Africa appears to have been one of the least affected by the virus, despite its low vaccination rates. "Were the mortality rates so low because we couldn't count the deaths or was there some other factor to explain that?" he said.
Dr. Bharat Pankhania of Britain's University of Exeter said we may never get close to the true number of COVID deaths, especially in poor countries.
Although the number of COVID deaths is still much lower than the 100 million deaths during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, Pankhania said it is shameful that so many people died despite the advances in modern medicine and vaccines.
He also warned the cost of COVID-19 could be far more damaging in the long term to care for people with long COVID.
I'm Jill Robbins.