An additional 599,300 deaths could have been prevented if countries had managed to meet the WHO target of vaccinating 40% of the population in all countries by the end of 2021. Image Credit: Prostock/Shutterstock.com
The first study to model the impact of COVID vaccines on the pandemic on a global scale found that 19.8 million deaths out of a total of 31.4 million were averted in the first year after the vaccines were first introduced in December 2020.
It’s understandable to be disappointed in the various COVID-19 vaccines, even, perhaps especially, for people who are by no means against vaccines. The speed and success with which they were developed and deployed was impressive, but the hope that vaccines would stop the pandemic entirely has not panned out.
However, a study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases looks at the donut, not the hole. Without vaccines, the number of deaths from COVID-19 would have more than doubled, the authors conclude. These were some of the most life-saving developments of all time, an amazing feat given the exceptional time pressure everyone was under.
Estimates of how many people have died from COVID-19 are disturbingly vague. Tracking reported deaths puts numbers at just over 6 million. However, in countries where testing was not widely available, this is a huge underestimate. Looking at the number of excess deaths compared to ordinary years, figures of 15 million in 2020 and 2021 are obtained.
If it’s hard to be precise about how many died, it’s inevitably even harder to know how many might have died in an alternate reality. However, Dr. Oliver Watson of Imperial College London has gone to some lengths, restricting the task to 365 days after December 8, 2020, the day the first person received the first vaccination.
“Our findings offer the most comprehensive assessment to date of the remarkable global impact vaccination has had on the COVID-19 pandemic,” Watson said in a statement.
Watson and his co-authors estimate that 12.2 million deaths were averted in high- and upper-middle-income countries during that time, accounting for countries able to pay for the vaccines they needed, even if procurement was painfully slow. Despite reports the COVID-19 Vaccine Access Initiative (COVAX) program was a failure thanks to rich nations hoarding the supply, an additional 7.5 million lives were saved in beneficiary countries.
Taking into account country-level mortality rates before vaccines were available and varying vaccination rates thereafter, the authors estimate that 15.5 million of the lives saved were due to direct vaccine protection. . Another 4.3 million were due to interruption of transmission, making unvaccinated people less likely to become infected or reducing pressure on health care systems.
Most of the initial lives saved were in India, even though vaccination rates were lower than in the West early on. Later in 2021, the main beneficiaries were developed countries with older populations that relaxed movement restrictions and mask-wearing mandates.
Despite numerous delays in vaccine implementation in low-income countries, two-thirds of the world’s population have received at least one dose of vaccine. The World Health Organization (WHO) target of 70 percent by mid-2022 is almost within reach.
However, the world could still have done better. Another 600,000 lives would have been saved if the WHO target of vaccinating 40 percent of even the most neglected countries, for example, had been met. The authors note that vaccine hesitancy, fueled by misinformation, has cost lives around the world. They do not attempt to quantify this number, but an accompanying commentary notes that almost 100,000 lives could have been saved in Nigeria had the WHO targets been met, and widespread anti-vaccine myths are a contributing factor to failure.
Imperial College’s COVID-19 model became a favorite target for opponents of government interventions early in the pandemic when they predicted a large number of deaths if the virus was allowed to spread unchecked. While his work continues to be criticized by other epidemiologists, the much-mocked estimate of 2 million COVID-19 deaths in the United States without action seems tragically believable now that the death toll has surpassed one million.