COVID-19 vaccines saved 20 million deaths worldwide in their first year

According to a new modeling study published in Infectious diseases of the lancetCOVID-19 vaccines are estimated to have prevented 20 million deaths worldwide in the first year of the vaccination program.

  • The first modeling study to quantify the effect[{” attribute=””>COVID-19 vaccines on a global scale estimates that 19.8 million out of a potential 31.4 million deaths were prevented in the first year after vaccines were introduced (December 8, 2020 – December 8, 2021).
  • A further 599,300 deaths could have been averted if the World Health Organisation’s target of vaccinating 40% of the population in every country by the end of 2021 had been met.
  • High- and upper-middle-income countries accounted for the greatest number of prevented deaths (12.2 million/ 19.8 million), highlighting inequalities in access to vaccines around the world.
  • The study is based on 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). 

COVID-19 vaccines reduced the potential global death toll during the pandemic by more than half in the year following their implementation, according to estimates from a mathematical modeling study published on June 23, 2022, in

The researchers estimate that a further 599,300 lives could have been saved if the World Health Organisation’s target of vaccinating 40% of the population in each country with two or more doses by the end of 2021 had been met.

Dr. Oliver Watson, lead author of the study, from

Despite the incredible 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.

Several studies have sought to estimate the impact of vaccination on the course of the pandemic. These studies have focused on specific regions, such as individual countries, states, or cities. The latest study is the first to estimate the impact of COVID-19 vaccinations on a global scale and the first to assess the number of deaths averted both directly and indirectly.

Mr. Gregory Barnsley, co-first author of the study, from Imperial College London, said: “Quantifying the impact that vaccination has made globally is challenging because access to vaccines varies between countries, as does our understanding of which COVID-19 variants have been circulating, with very limited genetic sequence data available for many countries. It is also not possible to directly measure how many deaths would have occurred without vaccinations. Mathematical modeling offers a useful tool for assessing alternative scenarios, which we can’t directly observe in real life.”

To estimate the impact of global vaccination programs, 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. To account for the under-reporting of deaths in countries with weaker surveillance systems, they carried out a separate analysis based on the number of excess deaths recorded above those that would have been expected during the same time period. Where official data was not available, the team used estimates of all-cause excess mortality. These analyses 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. Notably, China was not included in the analysis owing to its large population and very strict lockdown measures, which would have skewed the findings.

The team found that, based on officially recorded COVID-19 deaths, an estimated 18.1 million deaths would have occurred during the study period if vaccinations had not been implemented. Of these, the model estimates that vaccination has prevented 14.4 million deaths, representing a global reduction of 79%. These findings do not account for the under-reporting of COVID-19 deaths, which is common in lower-income countries. The team did a further analysis based on total excess deaths during the same time period to account for this. They 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%.

More than three quarters (79%, 15.5 million/ 19.8 million) of deaths averted were due to the direct protection against severe symptoms provided by vaccination, leading to lower mortality rates. 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, thereby improving access to medical care for those most in need.

Vaccine impact changed over time and in different areas of the world as the pandemic progressed, the study found. In the first half of 2021, the greatest number of deaths averted by vaccination was seen in lower middle-income countries, resulting from the significant epidemic wave in India as the Delta variant emerged. This subsequently shifted to the greatest impact being concentrated in higher income countries in the second half of 2021, as restrictions on travel and social mixing were eased in some areas leading to greater virus transmission.

Overall, the number of estimated deaths prevented per person was greatest in high-income countries, reflecting the earlier and wider rollout of vaccination campaigns in these areas (66 deaths prevented per 10,000 people in high-income countries vs 2.711 deaths prevented per 10,000 people in low-income countries). High- and upper-middle-income countries accounted for the greatest number of deaths averted (12.2 million/ 19.8 million), highlighting inequalities in access to vaccines around the world.

For the 83 countries included in the analysis that are covered by the COVAX commitment to affordable vaccines, an estimated 7.4 million deaths were averted out of a potential 17.9 million (41%). However, failure to meet the COVAX target of fully vaccinating 20% of the population in some countries is estimated to have resulted in an additional 156,900 deaths. Though this figure represents a small proportion of the total global deaths, these preventable deaths were concentrated in 31 African nations, where 132,700 deaths could have been averted if the target had been met.

Similarly, the shortfall in the WHO target of fully vaccinating 40% of the population of each country by the end of 2021 is estimated to have contributed to an additional 599,300 deaths worldwide that could have been prevented. Lower-middle income countries accounted for the majority of these deaths (347,500/599,300 [59.7%]). Regionally, most of these deaths occurred in Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean (348,900 / 599,300). [58.2%] and 126,800 / 599,300 [21.2%] respectively). If the target of 40% were met in all low-income countries, the number of preventable deaths in these areas would double (according to current vaccination rates, 180,000 additional deaths were prevented from 200,000 additional vaccination deaths). ).

Professor Azra Ghani, Chair of Epidemiology, Infectious Diseases, Imperial College London, said: “Our study demonstrates the tremendous benefits of vaccines in reducing COVID-19 mortality. Despite the strong focus on the pandemic, it is important that we protect the most vulnerable people in all parts of the world from the constant circulation of COVID-19 and other major diseases that affect the poorest in proportion. Ensuring fair access to vaccines is crucial, but not just vaccination. Coordinated efforts are needed to improve the distribution and infrastructure of vaccines, as well as to combat misinformation about vaccines and to improve the demand for vaccines. Only then can we guarantee that everyone will have the opportunity to benefit from this life-saving technology. ”

The authors note several limitations to their results. It should be noted that their model is based on a number of necessary assumptions, including the exact proportions of which types of vaccines, how they are delivered and when exactly new variants of the virus arrive in each country. They also thought that the link between age and the proportion of COVID-19 deaths among infected people was the same for each country. More specifically, the results of the study should be considered in the context of uncertainty in calculating the actual number of pandemic deaths due to differences in country-level reporting of COVID-19 deaths.

Professor Alison Galvani, who was not involved in the study, wrote in a related comment.[{” attribute=””>Yale University School of Public Health, USA, said: “The saving of more than 19 million lives by the unprecedented rapidity of development and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines is an extraordinary global health feat. Nonetheless, millions of additional lives could be saved by more equitable distribution of vaccines.”

She added: “High coverage in an individual country not only benefits that country but contributes to worldwide reduction in transmission and emergence of novel variants. An enduring collective response is both pragmatic and ethically imperative.”

Reference: “Global impact of the first year of COVID-19 vaccination: a mathematical modelling study” by Oliver J Watson, PhD; Gregory Barnsley, MSc; Jaspreet Toor, PhD; Alexandra B Hogan, PhD; Peter Winskill, PhD and Prof Azra C Ghani, PhD, 23 June 2022, The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
DOI: 10.1016/S1473-3099(22)00320-6

The study was carried out by researchers at the Medical Research Council Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, UK. It was funded by a Schmidt Science Fellowship in partnership with the Rhodes Trust, World Health Organisation, UK Medical Research Council, Gavi, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, National Institute for Health Research and Community Jameel.

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