- A new study estimates that COVID-19 vaccines helped prevent 19.8 million deaths worldwide in the first year after vaccination campaigns started.
- The study found that vaccine inequality resulted in a disproportionately higher number of vaccine-prevented deaths in high-income countries than in lower-income countries.
- Several low-income countries have failed to meet the World Health Organization (WHO) target of vaccinating 40% of their population, and meeting this target could have doubled the number of lives saved in those regions.
A recent study published in the journal
dr. Oliver Watson, a researcher at Imperial College London, said: “Our findings provide the most complete assessment to date of the remarkable global impact vaccination has had on the COVID-19 pandemic. […] Our findings show that making vaccines available to people everywhere, regardless of wealth, may have saved millions of lives.”
“However, more could have happened. If the WHO targets had been met, we estimate that about 1 in 5 of the estimated lives lost to COVID-19 in low-income countries could have been prevented,” he added.
The first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine was delivered outside a clinical trial setting on December 8, 2020.
Since the approval of the first COVID-19 vaccine, nearly 62% of the world’s population has been fully vaccinated with two doses of the vaccine.
The approved COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing serious illness and reducing mortality and have changed the trajectory of the pandemic. Studies of the impact of COVID vaccines on reducing mortality have so far been limited to specific regions and have only assessed the direct effects of vaccination on the prevention of deaths in individuals.
Researchers from Imperial College London recently assessed the global impact of COVID-19 vaccination by quantifying the deaths prevented by these vaccines during the first year of vaccination.
In addition to the direct effects of vaccines on mortality, the researchers also explained the indirect benefits of vaccines, such as reducing transmission of the virus in the community, including unvaccinated individuals.
The researchers used mathematical models of SARS-CoV-2 transmission to estimate the number of lives that would have been lost in an alternative scenario with the lack of COVID-19 vaccines.
They included data on variables such as vaccination rates, vaccine rollout dates, deaths from COVID-19, variants in circulation, and demographics for each country in the model to arrive at estimates of the number of deaths avoided due to vaccination .
Based on the number of COVID-19 deaths officially reported by each country, the researchers estimate that vaccines helped prevent 14.4 million deaths worldwide during the first year of COVID-19 vaccination.
However, studies suggest that official reports have significantly underestimated the true number of deaths from COVID-19.
Therefore, the researchers assessed the excess of all-cause deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is the difference between the number of deaths observed during a year of the pandemic and the expected deaths in a non-pandemic year.
The researchers used national vital registries that track deaths and births to obtain data on excess deaths from COVID-19. However, in many developing countries these registers are incomplete. Therefore, the researchers used models to predict the additional deaths in these countries.
Based on estimates of additional deaths during the pandemic, the researchers found that vaccinations helped prevent 19.8 million deaths, reducing the death toll during the first year of vaccinations by 63%.
Vaccination rates in low- and middle-income countries have lagged behind that in high-income countries due to unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines.
COVAX AMC has set a target of immunizing 20% of the population in developing countries by the end of 2021. Likewise, the World Health Organization had set a target of immunizing 40% of the world’s population during the same period.
However, many developing countries have failed to meet these targets. The inadequate vaccine supply and hoarding of vaccine doses by wealthier countries meant that low- and middle-income countries had limited access to vaccines.
The lack of the necessary infrastructure for vaccine storage and the reluctance to use vaccines has also contributed to lower vaccination rates in some countries.
In the current study, the researchers assessed the number of lives that could have been saved if the distribution of vaccines had been more equitable. They found that the number of deaths prevented by vaccination was greater in high-income countries than in low- and middle-income countries.
Nevertheless, COVID-19 vaccines have reduced the death toll in 83 COVAX AMC countries by an estimated 41% (7.4 million). Of these COVAX AMC participants, 41 countries failed to meet the target of vaccinating 20% of their population. This included 25 low-income countries and meeting the 20% vaccination target could have reduced the death toll in these countries by an additional 45%.
In addition, 96 countries failed to meet the WHO target of vaccinating 40% of the population. Most of these were low-income countries and meeting the WHO target in those countries could have prevented more than twice (111%) the number of deaths in these countries.
These results emphasize the need for mechanisms to achieve a more equitable distribution of vaccines.
dr. Ingrid Katz, a professor at Harvard Medical School, said: “There are many measures that can help achieve global vaccine equality. At the heart of any proposal is that we need a strong intergovernmental body that can help bring about a convention or agreement to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.”
“This must be embedded in global health equality and a commitment for the international community to work together and ensure the strengthening of health care at the community level. This must be supported by sustainable financing for pandemic preparedness and oversight mechanisms that can ensure accountability and transparency while guaranteeing trust,” she said.
“We can begin to strengthen national sovereignty, promote bilateral donations to programs such as COVAX, provide financial and operational support to low and middle-income nationals to support the scale-up of effective vaccine programs, share intellectual property and technology transfer for vaccine production, and support the development of a generation of researchers and institutions that can provide regulatory support.”
— Dr. Ingrid Katz
“All this can and should be done now, not as a global pandemic is unleashed. It is the only way we can ensure that we can effectively tackle this and all future pandemics,” added Dr. Katz to it.
dr. Watson noted that combating misinformation and improving the infrastructure for vaccine delivery and distribution can also help achieve vaccine equality.