Health economists: COVID vax campaign saved 2.4 million lives

Empty vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech Comirnaty vaccine against COVID-19 at a vaccination center at the Messe trade fair grounds during the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic on April 8, 2021 in Erfurt, Germany. (Credit: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)

The global COVID-19 vaccination campaign saved 2.4 million lives in 141 countries and could have saved about 670,000 more had the vaccines been distributed equitably, say researchers.

The findings come from a working paper circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research prior to peer review.

The benefits of the COVID-19 vaccines are far-reaching by multiple measures, says coauthor Christopher M. Whaley, an associate professor of health services, policy and practice at Brown University.

“Our study shows the enormous health impacts of COVID-19 vaccines, which in turn have huge economic benefits,” Whaley says. “In terms of lives saved and economic value, the COVID-19 vaccination campaign is likely the most impactful public health response in recent memory.”

The findings suggest that vaccination and therapeutics are much better at preventing death than other policies aimed at slowing the spread of the virus, the authors say.

“The global rollout of COVID vaccines was the largest public health campaign in human history,” says coauthor Neeraj Sood, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center and director of its COVID-19 Initiative. “By saving 2.46 million lives, the vaccines were much more effective than non-pharmaceutical interventions such as lockdowns and mask mandates.”

The researchers examined the real-world effectiveness of the global COVID-19 vaccination campaign on all-cause mortality, which accounts for both direct and indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 vaccination efforts fully vaccinated more than 2 billion people within the first eight months after launching, and the team’s working paper is the first to estimate the effect the vaccines on excess deaths globally using observational data.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines “excess deaths” as the difference between observed and expected numbers of deaths over a specific time period. Excess deaths are a better measure than COVID-19 death data, the researchers note, which can be incorrectly reported.

While approximately 2.4 million deaths were averted from January to August 2021, researchers concluded that roughly 670,000 more lives could have been saved if vaccines were distributed in proportion to the populations of the 141 nations.

Because of the current market-based approach, high-income countries had more immediate access to vaccines than low and middle-income countries, the authors say.

The working paper also provides an economic analysis of the global vaccination campaign, with country-specific information, as well as comparisons with alternative distribution scenarios.

“Establishing a global vaccine distribution policy will be crucial in preparing for future pandemics,” says coauthor Virat Agrawal, a PhD candidate at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.

The National Institute on Aging and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation Pandemic Response Policy Research Fund supported the work.

Source: Brown University