Study estimates COVID vaccines saved nearly 20 million lives last year
New modeling from researchers at Imperial College London has estimated COVID-19 vaccines prevented nearly 20 million deaths worldwide in 2021. The study also concluded millions more lives could have been saved last year if vaccine distribution was more equitably spread around the globe.
“Quantifying the impact that vaccination has made globally is challenging because access to vaccines varies between countries, as does our understanding of which COVID-19 variants have been circulating, with very limited genetic sequence data available for many countries,” explained co-first author on the new study, Gregory Barnsley. “It is also not possible to directly measure how many deaths would have occurred without vaccinations. Mathematical modeling offers a useful tool for assessing alternative scenarios, which we can’t directly observe in real life.”
The computer model used in the study first tracked excess death reports from 185 countries and territories. COVID-19 transmission in each country was then accounted for, alongside individual country vaccination rates. From this the model could estimate how many deaths were averted in each country that rolled out vaccines across the course of 2021.
Overall, the model estimated the global death toll from COVID-19 in 2021 would have been 31.4 million if vaccines had not been developed and distributed. The real death toll across 2021, including excess deaths not officially attributed to COVID-19, was estimated by the model to be 11.6 million, a number roughly in between the official death toll and more recent estimates of numbers as high as 20 million. This means the model estimates vaccines likely saved 19.8 million lives last year.
Nearly 80 percent of those lives saved by vaccines were attributed to the direct effect of the vaccines reducing a person’s likelihood of severe disease and hospitalization. The other four million deaths averted in the model were due to vaccine-related reductions in transmission.
Oliver Watson, lead author on the study, is particularly critical of the failure of the COVAX initiative, a global plan that tried to make sure low-income countries were at least 40 percent vaccinated by the end of 2021. The study indicated nearly 600,000 COVID-19 deaths in 2021 could have been averted if it had met its goals and vaccines had been more equitably distributed in countries with less access to supplies.
“This initiative was set up because it was clear early on that global vaccine equity would be the only way out of the pandemic,” said Watson. “Our findings show that millions of lives have likely been saved by making vaccines available to people everywhere, regardless of their wealth. However, more could have been done. If the targets set out by the WHO had been achieved, we estimate that roughly 1 in 5 of the estimated lives lost due to COVID-19 in low-income countries could have been prevented. ”
Ultimately these estimates are a testament to the incredible life-saving properties of COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines were developed at a pace never before seen in scientific research and the quick distribution in 2021 led to millions of lives saved.
However, the study does point to areas that must be improved in the future citing millions of lives that were lost last year due to problems with vaccine distribution infrastructure and equity issues with rich countries hoarding large volumes of doses.
“Vaccine intellectual property needs to be shared more quickly in the future, with more open technology and knowledge transfer surrounding vaccine production and allocation,” the new study concluded. “Vaccine distribution and delivery infrastructure also needs to be scaled up worldwide and misinformation combatted to improve vaccine demand.”
The new study was published in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
Source: The Lancet