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Background Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) epidemics strain health systems and households. Health systems in Africa and South Asia may be particularly at risk due to potential high prevalence of risk factors for severe disease, large household sizes and limited healthcare capacity. Methods We investigated the impact of an unmitigated COVID-19 epidemic on health system resources and costs, and household costs, in Karachi, Delhi, Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Johannesburg. We adapted a dynamic model of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and disease to capture country-specific demography and contact patterns. The epidemiological model was then integrated into an economic framework that captured city-specific health systems and household resource use. Findings The cities severely lack intensive care beds, healthcare workers and financial resources to meet demand during an unmitigated COVID-19 epidemic. A highly mitigated COVID-19 epidemic, under optimistic assumptions, may avoid overwhelming hospital bed capacity in some cities, but not critical care capacity. Interpretation Viable mitigation strategies encompassing a mix of responses need to be established to expand healthcare capacity, reduce peak demand for healthcare resources, minimise progression to critical care and shield those at greatest risk of severe disease. Funding Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, European Commission, National Institute for Health Research, Department for International Development, Wellcome Trust, Royal Society, Research Councils UK. Research in context Evidence before this study We conducted a PubMed search on May 5, 2020, with no language restrictions, for studies published since inception, combining the terms (“cost” OR “economic”) AND “covid”. Our search yielded 331 articles, only two of which reported estimates of health system costs of COVID-19. The first study estimated resource use and medical costs for COVID-19 in the United States using a static model of COVID 19. The second study estimated the costs of polymerase chain reaction tests in the United States. We found no studies examining the economic implications of COVID-19 in low- or middle-income settings. Added value of this study This is the first study to use locally collected data in five cities (Karachi, Delhi, Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Johannesburg) to project the healthcare resource and health economic implications of an unmitigated COVID-19 epidemic. Besides the use of local data, our study moves beyond existing work to (i) consider the capacity of health systems in key cities to cope with this demand, (ii) consider healthcare staff resources needed, since these fall short of demand by greater margins than hospital beds, and (iii) consider economic costs to health services and households. Implications of all the evidence Demand for ICU beds and healthcare workers will exceed current capacity by orders of magnitude, but the capacity gap for general hospital beds is narrower. With optimistic assumptions about disease severity, the gap between demand and capacity for general hospital beds can be closed in some, but not all the cities. Efforts to bridge the economic burden of disease to households are needed.

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CMMID COVID-19 Working Group