Nearly 20 million lives were saved by COVID-19 vaccines during their first year, but even more deaths could have been avoided if the international targets for the shootings had been met, the researchers said on Thursday.
On December 8, 2020, a retired store clerk in England received his first shot in a global vaccination campaign. Over the next 12 months, more than 4.3 billion people around the world queued for vaccines.
The effort, though tarnished by persistent inequalities, prevented deaths on an inconceivable 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 result, if no coronavirus vaccines were available. The findings “quantify how much worse the pandemic could be if we did not 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 507,000 in the United Kingdom.
An additional 600,000 deaths would have been avoided if the World Health Organization’s goal of 40% vaccination coverage had been met by the end of 2021, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.
The main finding – 19.8 million deaths from COVID-19 prevented – is based on estimates of how many more deaths than usual occurred during the period. Using only reported COVID-19 deaths, the same model reported 14.4 million vaccine-preventable deaths.
Scientists in London have ruled out China over uncertainty about the impact of the pandemic on deaths there and its vast population.
The study has other limitations. The researchers did not include how the virus could have mutated differently in the absence of vaccines. And they did not figure out how lockdowns or mask use could have changed if vaccines were not available.
Another modeling team used a different approach to estimate that 16.3 million deaths from COVID-19 were prevented by vaccines. This work, from the Seattle Institute for Health Measurement and Evaluation, has not been published.
In the real world, people wear masks more often when the cases increase, said Ali Mokdad of the institute, 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 findings underscore both the achievements and the shortcomings of the vaccination campaign, said Adam Finn of Bristol Medical School in England, who, like Mockdand, did not participate in the study.
“Although we did very well this time – we saved millions and millions of lives – we could have done better and we should have done better in the future,” Finn said.
Funding came from various groups including the WHO. the Medical Research Council of the United Kingdom; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
AP health and science journalist Havovi Todd contributed.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Science Education Department of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.