Date October 30, 2023
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COVID-19 vaccination campaign saved 2.4 million lives, according to health economists

A working paper by researchers from the University of Southern California and Brown University analyzed the global impacts of COVID-19 vaccines.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — 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.

That’s according to a new working paper from researchers at the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics and the Brown University School of Public Health.

The National Bureau of Economic Research circulated the working paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, for discussion and comment this week.

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

"Our study shows the enormous health impacts of COVID-19 vaccines, which in turn have huge economic benefits,” Whaley said. "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 said.

“The global rollout of COVID vaccines was the largest public health campaign in human history,” said co-author Neeraj Sood, a senior fellow at USC’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 U.S. 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 noted, 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 said.

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

Virat Agrawal, a Ph.D. candidate at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, was the third co-author of the study: “Establishing a global vaccine distribution policy will be crucial in preparing for future pandemics,” he said.

The research was supported by the National Institute on Aging (R01AG073286) and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation Pandemic Response Policy Research Fund.