Researchers reported Thursday that COVID-19 vaccines saved nearly 20 million lives within their first year, but more deaths could have been prevented if international targets for the shots were reached.
On December 8, 2020, a retired shop clerk in England received the first shot of what would become a global vaccination campaign. Over the next 12 months, more than 4.3 billion people around the world queued up for vaccinations.
Although these efforts were marred by persistent inequality, they prevented deaths on an unimaginable scale, said Oliver Watson of Imperial College London, who led the new modeling study.
“Disaster will be the first word that comes to mind,” Watson said of the outcome if vaccines were not available to fight the coronavirus. The results “quantify how much worse the epidemic would have been if we didn’t have these vaccines.”
The researchers used data from 185 countries to estimate that vaccines prevented 4.2 million deaths from Covid-19 in India, 1.9 million in the United States, 1 million in Brazil, 631,000 in France and 507 thousand in the United Kingdom.
An additional 600,000 deaths could have been prevented if the World Health Organization’s goal of 40% vaccination coverage had been met by the end of 2021, according to the study published Thursday in the Lancet Infectious Diseases.
The main finding – 19.8 million deaths from COVID-19 averted – is based on estimates of the number of deaths that occurred more than usual during the time period. Using only reported deaths from coronavirus, the same model resulted in 14.4 million deaths averted by vaccines.
London scholars have excluded China due to uncertainty about the impact of the pandemic on deaths there and its huge population.
The study has other limitations. The researchers did not say how the virus might mutate differently in the absence of vaccines. And they didn’t take into account 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 deaths from COVID-19 were averted by vaccines. This work has not been published, by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle.
In the real world, people often wear masks when cases spike, Ali Mokdad said, and a 2021 Delta wave without vaccines would have spurred a major political response.
“We may disagree on the number as scientists, but we all agree that COVID vaccines have saved many lives,” Mikdad said.
The findings underscore the achievements and shortcomings of the vaccination campaign, said Adam Fane of Bristol Medical College in England, who was not involved in the study like Mokdad.
“Even though we did well this time around – saving millions upon millions of lives – we could have done better and we have to do better in the future,” Finn said.
Funding came from several groups including the World Health Organization; UK Medical Research Council; Gavi, Vaccine Alliance; The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Havovi Todd, health and science reporter for the Associated Press contributed.
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