A million lives might have been saved if the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines would have been more equitable in 2021, says a research paper published recently in Nature Medicine. The research incorporated data from about 152 countries and used mathematical modelling.
The study suggests that the distribution of more vaccines to the poorer countries – as it had been for the wealthier countries – along with other mitigation measures like masking and less gathering could have saved as many as 3.8 million lives. Now, this is a stunning revelation. It had been widely assumed that the disparity in vaccine distribution led to a loss of lives during the pandemic. But the new research has come out with an estimate of the global loss, which could be helpful in planning for future pandemics.
Oliver Watson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College, London, commenting on the research, said in a statement: “This is another piece of evidence to show how big of an impact pushing for vaccine coverage may have had. That’s really important for engaging political will and framing big political decisions.”
With the development of vaccines in record time and large-scale roll out, the world saw a considerable percentage of the population getting vaccinated. Almost half of the world’s population had received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of last year. However, the vaccination rate was as high as 75% in high-income countries and on the other hand, the share was less than 2% in some low-income countries. The wealthy countries were producing surplus vaccines and were planning to vaccinate their younger residents – even though they were at low risk of severe disease – while some low-income countries did not have enough vaccines for their vulnerable population.
In their study, Sam Moore, a mathematical epidemiologist at the University of Warwick, along with his colleagues used data of excess mortality and vaccine availability in modelling, juxtaposing it with a scenario in which vaccines had been distributed based upon need and not upon wealth. They also considered the impact of vaccination on the spread of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the severity of the disease as well. The team found that in the absence of any policy to reduce physical contact, more equitable distribution of vaccines would have saved 1.3 million lives across the globe. Moreover, more than twice this number of deaths could have been avoided if the rich countries had stuck to other measures of curbing the transmission.
In this context, a previous study conducted by Watson et al and published in Lancet in June 2022 can be taken into consideration. Watson and the team’s study was also based on mathematical modelling but with a different dataset. This study showed that 45% of the deaths in low-income countries could have been avoided had they achieved 20% vaccination by the end of 2021.
This disparity is also important in another aspect and that is the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus. Equitable vaccination and a curb over the spread of the virus could have slowed down the emergence of new viral variants, according to Moore. Commenting further on a possible global policy, he said: “First-world countries might vaccinate everyone over the age of 60 to protect the most vulnerable population, before helping other nations to catch up. Even if not equitable, maybe there would be some sort of room for helping other countries once you’ve managed to get your own vaccine in place to some degree.”