Nearly 20 million lives were saved by COVID-19 vaccines during the first year, but more deaths could have been prevented if international vaccination targets had been met, researchers said on Thursday.
On December 8, 2020, a retired salesman in England received his first shot as part of a global vaccination campaign. Over the next 12 months, more than 4.3 billion people around the world lined up for vaccines.
The effort, though marred by persistent inequalities, has prevented deaths on an unimaginable scale, said Imperial College London’s Oliver Watson, who led the new modeling study.
“Catastrophic would be the first word that comes to mind,” Watson said of the outcome if vaccines weren’t available to fight the coronavirus. The findings “quantify how much worse the pandemic could have been had we not 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 US, 1 million in Brazil, 631,000 in France and 507,000 in the UK.
An additional 600,000 deaths could have been averted if the World Health Organization’s goal of 40% vaccination coverage by the end of 2021 was met, according to a study published Thursday in the 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 usual occurred during this time period. Using only reported COVID-19 deaths, the same model yielded 14.4 million vaccine-prevented deaths.
London-based scientists ruled out China due to uncertainty about the impact of the pandemic on mortality there and its huge population.
The study has other limitations as well. The researchers did not consider how the virus could mutate differently in the absence of vaccines. And they didn’t consider how lockdowns or mask-wearing might change if vaccines weren’t available.
Another modeling group used a different approach to estimate that 16.3 million COVID-19 deaths were prevented by vaccines. This work by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle has not been published.
In the real world, people are more likely to wear masks when the number of cases is on the rise, said Ali Mokdad of the institute, and a 2021 delta wave without vaccines would cause a major political backlash.
“We may not agree with the numbers as scientists, but we all agree that COVID vaccines have saved many lives,” Mokdad said.