COVID vaccines saved 20 million lives in first year, say scientists

COVID vaccines saved 20 million lives in first year, say scientists

Nearly 20 million lives were saved by COVID-19 vaccines during its first year, but even more deaths could have been avoided if international vaccine targets had been met, researchers reported Thursday.

On December 8, 2020, a retired clerk in England received the first dose of what would become a global vaccination campaign. In the next 12 months, more than 4.3 billion people worldwide queued for vaccines.

The effort, while marred by persistent inequalities, prevented deaths on an unimaginable 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 outcome if vaccines were not available to fight the coronavirus. The findings “quantify how much worse the pandemic could 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 507,000 in the United Kingdom.

Another 600,000 deaths would have been avoided if the World Health Organization’s target of 40% vaccine coverage by the end of 2021 had been met, according to the study published Thursday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The main finding – 19.8 million deaths from COVID-19 were averted – is based on estimates of how many more deaths than normal occurred during the period. Using just reported COVID-19 deaths, the same model generated 14.4 million vaccine-prevented deaths.

London scientists excluded China because of uncertainty surrounding the effect of the pandemic 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 use 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 prevented by vaccines. This work, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, has not been published.

In the real world, people wear masks more often when cases are on the rise, 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 of scientists, but we all agree that COVID vaccines have saved many lives,” Mokdad said.

The findings underscore both the achievements and shortcomings of the vaccination campaign, said Adam Finn of Bristol Medical School in England, who, like Mokdad, was not involved in the study.

“While we did really well this time – we saved millions and millions of lives – we could have done better and we 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.

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AP health and science reporter Havovi Todd contributed.

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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.

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