The rollout of the Covid vaccine was hailed as a significant turning point in the pandemic – and rightly so, new research has revealed.
A study published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases estimates that close to a whopping 20 million lives were saved in just one year due to the vaccine.
The first jab was administered to Maggie Keenan, 91, on December 8 2020, in the UK, followed by 81-year-old Bill Shakespeare.
The UK was just about to go into another wave of infections, but the vaccination program seemed to be the light at the end of the tunnel.
A breakdown of the numbers
Academics at Imperial College London looked at data from across 185 countries, and found 19.8 million deaths were prevented just in the first year of the vaccine rollout, between December 2020 to December 2021.
John Hopkins University in the US believes around 6.3 million people have died from Covid around the world since the start of the pandemic, while there have been more than 540 million cases of the virus globally.
Around 11.6 billion vaccines have been delivered.
The authors explained: “Covid-19 vaccination has substantially altered the course of the pandemic, saving tens of millions of lives globally.”
Dr Oliver Watson, lead author of the study, said that this is proof of the “remarkable global impact” the vaccination program had.
He added: “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 program promoted vaccine equity around the world, regardless of the wealth of either individuals or their home countries.
It’s thought at least two-thirds of the world’s population have now received at least one jab.
‘More could have been done’
The researchers concluded that most of the prevented deaths occurred in wealthy countries, estimating 12.2 million of the lives saved were in high and upper-middle income countries.
The paper also suggested that an additional 600,000 deaths could have been avoided if World Health Organization (WHO) vaccination targets – jabbing 40% of every country’s population by the end of 2021 – were met.
Many countries already missed the target to vaccinate 10% of their populations last September.
The WHO has claimed: “The virus is moving faster than the global distribution of vaccines.”
It adds that if the doses had been distributed equitably, there would have been enough for all health workers and older people globally.
Dr Watson explained: “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 to Covid-19 in low-income countries could have been prevented.”
The authors of the paper also wrote: “Inadequate access to vaccines in low-income countries has limited the impact in these settings, reinforcing the need for global vaccine equity and coverage.”
This still doesn’t mean the pandemic is over
Far from it. A recent surge in cases of the Omicron sub-variants, BA.4 and BA.5, have prompted new concerns that vaccine efficacy is waning.
It is now around six months since the booster rollout program was promoted by the government to curb an Omicron wave in the UK, and Covid cases are rising for the first time since March.
The new strains have also sparked a new debate about whether they can target lung cells, like previous dominant variants Alpha and Delta, which could trigger another resurgence in infections.
This is particularly concerning because, although the initial Omicron strain was significantly more transmissible, it triggered less severe symptoms and was less likely to trigger long Covid.
However, scientists are working on specialist Covid vaccines. Moderna is now testing a two-in-one jab which should produce “very high antibody levels”.
The company’s chief medical officer Dr Paul Burton said he was confident this “will translate into clinical protection against infection from any of the Omicron family”.