Vaccines against COVID-19 prevented over 42 lakh deaths in India in 2021, said a study published in Lancet Infectious Diseases, which based its findings on estimates of “excess” mortalities in the country during the pandemic.
India began its COVID-19 vaccination drive in January 2021 and as per records released by the Health Ministry, till date, the cumulative vaccination coverage exceeds 196.62 crore, making the programme one of the world’s fastest vaccination drives.
Globally, the mathematical modelling study found, COVID-19 vaccines reduced the potential death toll during the pandemic by nearly 20 million or more than half in the year following the implementation of vaccine drives.
The researchers used a model based on country-level data for officially recorded COVID-19 deaths occurring between December 8, 2020 and December 8, 2021.
“For India, we estimate that 42,10,000 deaths were prevented by vaccination in this period,” lead author of the study, Oliver Watson from the Imperial College London, U.K., said in his statement.
The study is based on data from 185 countries and it found high and upper-middle income countries accounted for the greatest number of prevented deaths (1.22 crore/1.98 crore), highlighting inequalities around the world.
Excess mortality estimates
“These figures are based on the estimates of excess mortality in India during the COVID-19 pandemic, which we have sourced from The Economist and are similar to the estimates that the World Health Organization (WHO) reported. Independently, our group has also investigated the COVID-19 death toll based on reports of excess mortality and seroprevalence surveys and arrived at similar estimates of almost 10 times the official count,” the lead author said.
According to the estimates by The Economist, 2.3 million people died in India from COVID-19 by the start of May 2021, as against official figures of around 2,00,000.The WHO had last month estimated that there were 4.7 million COVID-linked deaths in India, a figure that was refuted by the government.
The research added that what this modelling study shows is that the vaccination campaign in India has likely saved millions of lives.
Meanwhile to account for under-reporting of deaths in countries with weaker surveillance systems, researchers 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. China was not included in the study.
Also, 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), the researchers said.
COVAX was set up because it was clear early on that global vaccine equity would be the only way out of the pandemic, they said.
The study said that an estimated further 5,99,300 lives could have been saved if the WHO target of vaccinating 40% of the population in each country with two or more doses by the end of 2021 had been met.
The authors note several limitations to their findings. Notably, their model is based on a number of necessary assumptions, including the precise proportions of which vaccine types have been delivered, how they were delivered and the precise timing of when new virus variants arrived in each country.
They also assumed that the relationship between age and the proportion of COVID-19 deaths occurring among infected individuals is the same for each country.
On Friday, the WHO said there were 3.3 million new COVID-19 infections last week, marking a 4% decrease, with more than 7,500 deaths. But cases jumped by about 45% in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and by about 6% in Europe. Southeast Asia was the only region to report a slight 4% increase in deaths, while figures fell elsewhere. Globally, the number of new COVID-19 cases has been falling after peaking in January.