early can cut death numbers by up to 95 per cent, but failing to curb the effects of Covid-19 could lead to huge loss of life, they found.
The study concludes that testing and isolation of suspected cases as well as wide social distancing measures early on can have a dramatic impact.
Scientists at Imperial College London studied the health impacts of the pandemic in 202 countries, to compare three scenarios: theoretical death rates without any interventions or distancing with two that could be achieved by policies to curb or suppress spread of the disease.
In all three cases, health systems in all countries would still be quickly overwhelmed without high-cost steps to prevent coronavirus, the report warns.
If governments globally did nothing to combat the virus, the pandemic in all likelihood would have caused around 7 billion infections and 40 million deaths this year, they concluded.
But by taking strict measures as soon as possible, 95 per cent of deaths could be prevented, saving 38.7 million lives, based on an average of 0.2 deaths per 100,000 population per week.
If these strict measures are delayed, 30.7 million people’s lives are saved, the research found.
“Delays in implementing strategies to suppress transmission will lead to worse outcomes and fewer lives saved,” the academics report.
A midway scenario that involved shielding the elderly and slowing but not interrupting transmission – with a 40 per cent reduction in social contacts among the general population – only halved the number of lives lost.
“How individual countries respond in the coming weeks will be critical in influencing the trajectory of national epidemics,” the report says.
But lower-income countries are likely to face a much higher burden than wealthier nations, with 25 times more patients in poor nations needing critical care than beds available, while in high-income countries demand outstrips supply by seven times, the report says.
Dr Patrick Walker, an author of the report, said: “We estimate that the world faces an unprecedented acute public-health emergency in the coming weeks and months.
“Our findings suggest that all countries face a choice between intensive and costly measures to suppress transmission or risk health systems becoming rapidly overwhelmed. However, our results highlight that rapid, decisive and collective action now will save millions of lives in the next year.”
Co-author Charlie Whittaker said: “This work highlights the need for swift and effective implementation of suppression measures if catastrophe is to be averted, but also that serious consideration needs to be given to these strategies – particularly in resource-poor settings where the wider societal and economic impact of such intensive approaches might be higher.”
More than 28,000 people worldwide have died so far, official figures show.