The number of deaths in China - excluding the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan - fell slightly during the first three months of 2020, suggesting efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 reduced fatalities from other causes, a new study showed.
Researchers from the University of Oxford and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analysed official death registry data from Jan. 1 to March 31 last year for changes in overall and cause-specific deaths.
The death rate in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was first identified, stood at 1,147 per 100,000 over the period, 56% higher than expected, they found in the study published on Wednesday by BMJ, the journal of the British Medical Association.
However, outside Wuhan the death rate was 675 per 100,000, lower than the expected rate of 715, after lockdowns reduced deaths from other causes such as ordinary pneumonia or traffic accidents, the study showed.
"It would appear that the lockdown and associated behavioural changes - such as wearing facemasks, increased hygiene, social distancing and restricted travel - actually had unintended health benefits beyond those of reducing the spread of SARS-CoV-2," said Zhengming Chen, professor in epidemiology at Oxford and one of the study's authors.
It also appears to have had a lasting impact. Official data showed there were 542,172 recorded cases of infectious disease in December 2020, down from 1.7 million a year earlier. Deaths fell to 2,379 from 2,636 in Dec. 2019.
The study showed there were around 6,000 additional deaths in Wuhan over the Jan-March 2020 period, including 4,573 caused by pneumonia - most of which were COVID-related.
The 1,400 additional non-COVID deaths were probably a result of difficulties in accessing hospital care, it said.
China's official mainland COVID-19 death toll stands at 4,636, of which 83.5%, or 3,869 deaths, were in Wuhan. COVID-19 deaths in the United States rose above 500,000 this week.
Beijing has rejected claims it under-reported both the total number of cases and the death toll from COVID-19.
However, a U.S. study of cremation services in Wuhan released last June said 36,000 people could have died, 10 times the official figure. Local studies also show the number of people carrying the virus might have been far higher than first thought.
Last month, a World Health Organization team said after a month-long investigation in Wuhan that the coronavirus could have been circulating in other regions before it was first identified in early 2020, but there was no evidence of other large outbreaks.