COVID-19 vaccines prevented nearly 20 million deaths, study reveals

By Joan Conrow

June 24, 2022

Vaccines do make a difference, preventing some 19.8 million deaths from COVID-19 in the first year alone, a new study shows.

More than 3.5 million deaths due to COVID-19 have been reported globally since the first vaccine was administered.

The study, published June 23 in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, used mathematical modeling to quantify the impact of COVID-19 vaccines in 185 countries and territories between Dec 8, 2020 — the day the first jab was administered outside a clinical trial — and Dec 8, 2021.

Vaccines directly prevented about 80 percent of the deaths, the study found, while indirect protection through collective vaccination accounted for the rest.

“COVID-19 vaccination has substantially altered the course of the pandemic, saving tens of millions of lives globally,” the authors wrote. “More lives could have been saved if vaccines had been distributed more rapidly to many parts of the world and if vaccine uptake could have been strengthened worldwide.”

An additional 599,000 deaths — primarily in Africa and Eastern Mediterranean regions — could have been avoided if the World Health Organization’s (WHO) target of vaccinating 40 percent of the world’s population by the end of 2021 had been met, the study found.

“From mid-2021 onwards those countries with access to plentiful vaccine supply opted for mass vaccination of the adult population, later including children and subsequent boosting to maintain high levels of protection given the waning in vaccine efficacy and the emergence of new variants of concern,” the authors wrote. “This approach has resulted in vast inequalities in global vaccine distribution.”

The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facility was created to facilitate the fair allocation of vaccines. But its effectiveness was hindered in developing nations by various logistical challenges, as well as vaccine hesitancy.

“Vaccine intellectual property needs to be shared more quickly in the future, with more open technology and knowledge transfer surrounding vaccine production and allocation,” the authors wrote.

They called for better efforts to combat misinformation in order to improve demand for the vaccine.

The study also noted that its estimates of vaccine impact do not account for the potential under-reporting of deaths related to COVID-19.

The study was funded by Schmidt Science Fellowship in partnership with the Rhodes Trust; WHO; UK Medical Research Council; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; National Institute for Health Research; Community Jameel and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Disclosure: The Gates Foundation funds the Alliance for Science.)

Image: Grave diggers wear protective clothing in  funeral procession for a COVID-19 victim in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Shutterstock/Photocarioca