The Colosseum in Rome illuminated in the colours of the Italian flag
More than 130,000 people in Italy have died due to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Image by AP

Claims of a drastically reduced COVID-19 toll are a real Italian job

AAP FactCheck November 24, 2021

Italian health authorities recently reduced the country’s official COVID-19 death toll by 97 per cent.


False. The figure is based on a misinterpretation of Italian data that highlighted comorbidities among fatal COVID-19 cases. The country's death toll is unchanged.

A string of social media posts have latched onto a false claim that Italian health authorities reduced the country’s official COVID-19 death toll by 97 per cent – from about 130,000 to less than 4000.

The claim is based on a misinterpretation of official data from Italian health authorities, which released a statement to correct the misuse of its figures.

The Facebook page for former West Australian senator Rod Culleton posted a screenshot of a tweet about the “recalculated” toll and a link to an Italian newspaper article. The post’s caption labels COVID-19 “a pandemic of lies” and claims the sources show “the realistic percentage of people who died from a certain virus globally”.

Reignite Democracy Australia, an anti-lockdown group that has shared various misinformation regarding COVID-19, posted a similar meme on its Instagram account with the caption: “Italian Institute of Health drastically reduces its official COVID death toll number. Changing died FROM COVID to WITH COVID.”

While the posts were shared in November, the claim stems from an online article from Italian news outlet Il Tempo from October 21. A translated version of the article references a report from Italy’s Higher Institute of Health (Istituto Superiore di Sanità, or ISS) to claim a statistical sample of medical records had shown only 2.9 per cent of the deaths registered since February 2020 were due to COVID-19. It said the rest were due to pre-existing conditions – or comorbidities – such as high blood pressure, dementia, diabetes and other heart conditions.

But the Il Tempo article misinterprets how the COVID-19 deaths, both with and without pre-existing conditions, are classified. The ISS says only 2.9 per cent of the 130,468 COVID deaths at the time of the report had zero comorbidities, but this did not mean that only these deaths were classed as being due to the virus.

The World Health Organisation’s guidelines for classifying COVID-19 as the cause of death state (page 3) that a death due to COVID-19 should be “counted independently of pre-existing conditions that are suspected of triggering a severe course of COVID-19”. It notes elsewhere (page 4) that there is evidence that people with existing chronic conditions are at higher risk of death due to COVID-19.

The Higher Institute of Health released a statement addressing the claims on October 25. According to a translated version of the text, the ISS clarified that its report did not state only 2.9 per cent of deaths attributed to COVID-19 were due to the virus. The figure represented only those who died with no pathologies diagnosed before the infection.

The ISS also said death certificates had shown COVID-19 was directly responsible for 89 per cent of deaths among the positive cases.

It added that it was not correct to say comorbidities would have soon led to the same fatal outcome without the virus. It said people with multiple pre-existing conditions would have been undergoing appropriate therapies, but contracting COVID led to an increased risk of complications and death.

It also noted there had been “an excess of mortality in the population” since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as illustrated in this chart tracking excess deaths across countries.

A spokesperson for the Italian National Institute of Health told USA Today the Il Tempo article’s conclusion that only 2.9 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in the country were caused by the virus was “completely wrong”.

According to the WHO, between January 3, 2020 and November 18, 2021 there were 132,965 deaths from 4,883,242 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Italy.

Other versions of the claim have also been fact-checked here, here, here and here.

The false suggestion that COVID-19 death tolls have been vastly inflated due to the presence of comorbidities in many fatal coronavirus cases has been circulated throughout the pandemic.

In September 2020, AAP FactCheck debunked claims US health authorities updated their data to show only six per cent of COVID fatalities were caused solely by the virus, while similar misinterpretations were also addressed in October 2020 and October 2021.

The Verdict

Italian health authorities have not reduced the country’s official COVID-19 death toll by 97 per cent as claimed. Rather, the country’s institute of health found that only 2.9 per cent of a sample set of cases were among people with no comorbidities. It said these cases were still counted in the official toll because in the vast majority COVID-19 directly led to the deaths.

False – The claim is inaccurate

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