Background Crude case-fatality rates (CFRs) for COVID-19 vary widely between countries. There are serious limitations in the CFRs when making comparisons. We examined how the age distribution of the cases is responsible for the COVID-19 CFR differences between countries. Methods COVID-19 cases and deaths, by ten-year age-groups, were available from the reports of seven countries. The overall and age-specific CFRs were computed for each country. The age-adjusted CFRs were computed by the direct method, using the combined number of cases in all seven countries in each age group as the standard population. A meta-analytic approach was used to obtain pooled age-specific CFRs. Findings The crude overall CFRs varied between 0.82% and 14.2% in the seven countries and the variation in the age-specific CFRs were much smaller. There was wide variation in the age distribution of the cases between countries. The ratio of the crude CFR for the country with the highest CFR to that with the lowest (6.28) was much lower for the age-adjusted CFRs rates (2.57). Conclusions The age structure of the cases explains much of differences in the crude CFRs between countries and adjusting for age substantially reduces this variation. Other factors such as the definition of cases, coding of deaths and the standard of healthcare are likely to account for much of the residual variation. It is misleading to compare the crude COVID-19 CFRs between countries and should be avoided. At the very least, age-specific and age-adjusted CFRs should be used for comparisons.
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© 2020 Green et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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