Nearly 20 million lives were saved by COVID-19 vaccines in their first year, but even more deaths could have been prevented if international vaccine targets had been met, researchers reported Thursday.
On December 8, 2020, a retired shop worker in England received the first vaccine in what was to become a global vaccination campaign. Over the next 12 months, more than 4.3 billion people around the world lined up for vaccines.
The effort, though marred by lingering inequalities, has averted deaths on an unimaginable scale, said Oliver Watson of Imperial College London, who led the new modeling study.
“Catastrophic would be the first word that comes to mind,” Watson said of the outcome if vaccines hadn’t been available to fight the coronavirus. The results “quantify how much worse the pandemic could have been had we not had these vaccines”.
Researchers used data from 185 countries to estimate that vaccines averted 4.2 million COVID-19 deaths in India, 1.9 million in the United States, 1 million in Brazil, 631,000 in France and 507 000 in the UK.
According to the study published Thursday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, 600,000 additional deaths would have been avoided if the World Health Organization’s goal of 40% vaccination coverage by the end of 2021 had been reached.
The main finding – 19.8 million COVID-19 deaths were averted – is based on estimates of how many more deaths than usual occurred during the period. Using only reported COVID-19 deaths, the same model yielded 14.4 million vaccine-prevented deaths.
London scientists ruled out China due to uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s effect on deaths there and its huge population.
The study has other limitations. The researchers did not include how the virus might have mutated differently in the absence of vaccines. And they didn’t consider how lockdowns or mask-wearing might have changed if vaccines weren’t available.
Another modeling group used a different approach to estimate that 16.3 million COVID-19 deaths were averted by vaccines. This work, carried out by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, has not been published.
In the real world, people wear masks more often when cases rise, the institute’s Ali Mokdad said, and the 2021 delta wave without vaccines would have sparked a major political response.
“We may disagree on the number as scientists, but we all agree that COVID vaccines have saved many lives,” Mokdad said.
The results underscore both the achievements and shortcomings of the vaccination campaign, said Adam Finn of Bristol Medical School in England, who, like Mokdad, was not involved in the study.
“Although we did pretty well this time – we saved millions and millions of lives – we could have done better and we should do better in the future,” Finn said.
Funding came from several groups, including the WHO; the UK Medical Research Council; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Havovi Todd, an AP health and science reporter, contributed.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.