The contribution of the age distribution of cases to covid-19 case fatality across countries a nine-country demographic study

Nikkil Sudharsanan, Oliver Didzun, Till Bärnighausen, Pascal Geldsetzer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Scopus citations


Background: There is wide variation in coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) case-fatality rates (CFRs) across countries, leading to uncertainty about the true lethality of the disease. A large part of this variation may be due to the ages of individuals who are tested and identified. Objective: To measure the contribution of distortions from the age distributions of confirmed cases to CFRs within and across populations. Design: Cross-sectional demographic study using aggregate data on COVID-19 cases and deaths by age. Setting: Population-based data from China, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States. Participants: All individuals with confirmed COVID-19, as reported by each country as of 19 April 2020 (n = 1 223 261). Measurements: Age-specific COVID-19 CFRs and age-specific population shares by country. Results: The overall observed CFR varies widely, with the highest rates in Italy (9.3%) and the Netherlands (7.4%) and the lowest rates in South Korea (1.6%) and Germany (0.7%). Adjustment for the age distribution of cases explains 66% of the variation across countries, with a resulting age-standardized median CFR of 1.9%. Among a larger sample of 95 countries, the observed variation in COVID-19 CFRs is 13 times larger than what would be expected on the basis of just differences in the age composition of countries. Limitation: The age-adjusted rates assume that, conditional on age, COVID-19 mortality among diagnosed cases is the same as that among undiagnosed cases and that individuals of all ages are equally susceptible to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 infection. Conclusion: Selective testing and identification of older cases considerably warps estimates of the lethality of COVID-19 within populations and comparisons across countries. Removing age distortions and focusing on differences in age-adjusted case fatality will be essential for accurately comparing countries' performance in caring for patients with COVID-19 and for monitoring the epidemic over time.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)714-720
Number of pages7
JournalAnnals of Internal Medicine
Issue number9
StatePublished - 3 Nov 2020
Externally publishedYes


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