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COVID-19 vaccines 'prevented 20 million deaths' in first year

Friday June 24th 2022

In the first year of the vaccination programme, COVID-19 vaccines prevented about 20 million deaths globally, according to an analysis published today.

The research, led by Imperial College London, UK, and published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, estimates that 19.8 million out of a potential 31.4 million deaths were prevented between 8 December 2020 and 8 December 2021.

The team, led by Dr Oliver Watson, say high and upper-middle income countries accounted for the greatest number of prevented deaths at 12.2 million out of the total 19.8 million, which only highlights inequalities in vaccine access globally.

They add that a further 599,300 deaths could have been prevented if the World Health Organization (WHO) had met its target of vaccinating 40% of the population in every country by the end of 2021.

The study uses data from 185 countries and territories and is the first to assess deaths averted directly and indirectly as a result of COVID-19 vaccination, using COVID-19 death records and total excess deaths from each country – or estimates where official data was not available.

Dr Watson said: “Our findings offer the most complete assessment to date of the remarkable global impact that vaccination has had on the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Of the almost 20 million deaths estimated to have been prevented in the first year after vaccines were introduced, almost 7.5 million deaths were prevented in countries covered by the COVID-19 Vaccine Access initiative (COVAX).

“This initiative was set up because it was clear early on that global vaccine equity would be the only way out of the pandemic. 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 one in five of the estimated lives lost due to COVID-19 in low-income countries could have been prevented.”

The researchers used an established model of COVID-19 transmission using country-level data for officially recorded COVID-19 deaths occurring between 8 December 2020 and 8 December 2021.

A separate analysis on excess deaths was completed for countries with weaker surveillance systems and these were compared with an alternative hypothetical scenario in which no vaccines were delivered.

The model accounted for variation in vaccination rates between countries, as well as differences in vaccine efficacy in each country based on the vaccine types known to have been predominately used in those areas.

China was not included in the analysis because of its large population and very strict lockdown measures, which would have slanted the findings.

The team estimated about 18.1 million deaths would have occurred during the study period if there had been no vaccinations. Of these, the model estimates that vaccination prevented 14.4 million deaths, representing a global reduction of 79%.

However, these figures do not account for under-reporting of COVID-19 deaths.

A further analysis based on total excess deaths during the same time period found that COVID-19 vaccination prevented an estimated 19.8 million deaths out of a total of 31.4 million potential deaths that would have occurred without vaccination, a reduction of 63%.

The direct protection created by the vaccine accounted for 79% (15.5 million out of the 19.8 million) deaths, while the remaining 4.3 million averted deaths were estimated to have been prevented by indirect protection from reduced transmission of the virus in the population and reduced burden on healthcare systems.

Prof Azra Ghani, chair in infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College London, said: “Our study demonstrates the enormous benefit that vaccines had in reducing deaths from COVID-19 globally.

“Whilst the intense focus on the pandemic has now shifted, it is important that we ensure the most vulnerable people in all parts of the world are protected from ongoing circulation of COVID-19 and from the other major diseases that continue to disproportionately affect the poorest.

“Ensuring fair access to vaccines is crucial but requires more than just donating vaccines. Improvements in vaccine distribution and infrastructure, as well as coordinated efforts to combat vaccine misinformation and improve vaccine demand, are needed. Only then can we ensure that everyone has the opportunity to benefit from these life-saving technologies.”

The authors note several limitations to their findings, including that their model is based on a number of necessary assumptions, including the precise proportions of which vaccine types have been delivered, how they were delivered and the precise timing of when new virus variants arrived in each country.

Since the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered outside of a clinical trial setting on 8 December 2020, almost two thirds of the world’s population have received at least one dose.

COVAX has facilitated access to affordable vaccines for lower income countries, with an initial target of giving two vaccine doses to 20% of the population in countries covered by the commitment by the end of 2021.

The WHO expanded this target by setting a global strategy to fully vaccinate 70% of the world’s population by mid-2022, with an interim target of vaccinating 40% of the population of all countries by the end of 2021.

Despite the speed of the vaccine roll-out worldwide, more than 3.5 million COVID-19 deaths have been reported since the first vaccine was administered in December 2020.

Watson OJ, Barnsley G, Toor J et al. Global impact of the first year of COVID-19 vaccination: a mathematical modelling study. The Lancet Infectious Diseases 24 June 2022

[abstract]

Tags: Flu & Viruses | Pharmaceuticals | UK News | World Health

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