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Assessing the burden of COVID-19 in developing countries: systematic review, meta-analysis and public policy implications

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Andrew T Levin, Nana Owusu-Boaitey, Sierra Pugh, Bailey K Fosdick, Anthony B Zwi, Satej Soman, Lonni Besançon, Ilya Kashnitsky, Sachin Ganesh, Aloysius McLaughlin, Gayeong Song, Rine Uhm, Daniel Herrera-Esposito, Gustavo de los Campos, Ana Carolina Pecanha Peçanha Antonio, Enyew Birru Tadese, Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz


Introduction The infection fatality rate (IFR) of COVID-19 has been carefully measured and analysed in high-income countries, whereas there has been no systematic analysis of age-specific seroprevalence or IFR for developing countries.

Methods We systematically reviewed the literature to identify all COVID-19 serology studies in developing countries that were conducted using representative samples collected by February 2021. For each of the antibody assays used in these serology studies, we identified data on assay characteristics, including the extent of seroreversion over time. We analysed the serology data using a Bayesian model that incorporates conventional sampling uncertainty as well as uncertainties about assay sensitivity and specificity. We then calculated IFRs using individual case reports or aggregated public health updates, including age-specific estimates whenever feasible.

Results In most locations in developing countries, seroprevalence among older adults was similar to that of younger age cohorts, underscoring the limited capacity that these nations have to protect older age groups.

Age-specific IFRs were roughly 2 times higher than in high-income countries. The median value of the population IFR was about 0.5%, similar to that of high-income countries, because disparities in healthcare access were roughly offset by differences in population age structure.

Conclusion The burden of COVID-19 is far higher in developing countries than in high-income countries, reflecting a combination of elevated transmission to middle-aged and older adults as well as limited access to adequate healthcare. These results underscore the critical need to ensure medical equity to populations in developing countries through provision of vaccine doses and effective medications.