Nearly 20 million lives were saved by COVID-19 vaccines in the first year, but even more deaths could have been prevented if international targets for immunizations had been met, researchers reported Thursday.
On December 8, 2020, a retired salesman in England received the first vaccination as part of a subsequent global vaccination campaign. Over the next 12 months, more than 4.3 billion people around the world lined up for the vaccines.
The effort, while hampered by persistent inequalities, prevented deaths on an unimaginable scale, said Oliver Watson of Imperial College London, who led the new model study.
“Catastrophic would be the first word that comes to mind,” Watson said of the outcome if vaccines to fight the coronavirus had not been available. The results “quantify how much worse the pandemic could have been if we hadn’t had these vaccines.”
The researchers used data from 185 countries to estimate that vaccines prevented 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 United Kingdom.
Another 600,000 deaths would have been prevented if the World Health Organization’s target of 40% vaccination coverage by the end of 2021 had been met, according to the study published Thursday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.
The key finding – 19.8 million COVID-19 deaths were prevented – is based on estimates of how many more deaths than usual have occurred during that period. Using only the reported COVID-19 deaths, the same model found 14.4 million deaths averted by vaccines.
The London scientists ruled out China because of uncertainty about the pandemic’s impact 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 take into account how lockdowns or mask-wearing would have changed if vaccines hadn’t been available.
Another modeling group used a different approach to estimate that 16.3 million COVID-19 deaths were averted by vaccines. This work by the Seattle Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has not been published.
In the real world, people are wearing masks more often as cases rise, the institute’s Ali Mokdad said, and the delta wave of 2021 without vaccines would have sparked a major political reaction.
“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 successes and shortcomings of the vaccination campaign, said Adam Finn of Bristol Medical School in England, who, like Mokdad, was not involved in the study.
“Even though we did pretty well this time around — we saved millions and millions of lives — we could have done better and should do better in the future,” Finn said.
Funding came from several groups including WHO; the UK Medical Research Council; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
AP Health and Science reporter Havovi Todd contributed.
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