COVID-19 vaccines saved over 1.4 million lives across Europe, WHO study reveals

In a recent study published in the medRxiv preprint* server, in response to the COVID-19-associated total death toll reports from 54 European nations, areas, and territories (“CAT”), researchers at The WHO European Respiratory Surveillance Network estimated the number of lives saved by vaccination efforts in Europe between December 2020 and March 2023.  Their analyses of weekly data on COVID-19-related mortality, in tandem with vaccination dissemination and effectiveness reports, allowed them to compute the approximate number of lives directly saved by vaccination programs within the continent.

Study: Estimated number of lives directly saved by COVID-19 vaccination programs in the WHO European Region, December 2020 to March 2023. Image Credit: angellodeco / ShutterstockStudy: Estimated number of lives directly saved by COVID-19 vaccination programs in the WHO European Region, December 2020 to March 2023. Image Credit: angellodeco / Shutterstock

*Important notice: medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Their findings reveal that vaccination efforts reduced the European death toll by 57%, accounting for ~1.4 million lives under the age of 25, 96% of lives under 60, and 52% of lives under the age of 80.  Older individuals were found to be the most at-risk cohort, with the effects of vaccination programs most pronounced in persons of this age group.  Most lives were saved during the Omicron variant, the most devasting of the COVID-19-associated lockdown periods.  These findings highlight the importance of up-to-date vaccines against locally prevalent strains for the most at-risk individuals.

COVID-19 – one of the worst pandemics in human history

The coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has hitherto infected almost 700 million individuals and claimed the lives of 7 million globally since its discovery in late 2019.  Of these, between December 2019 and March 2023, 2.2 million deaths were reported from 54 countries, areas, and territories (CAT) in the European region of the World Health Organization (WHO).

An overwhelming number of these deaths, both from the European Region and the world at large, comprised elderly people above the age of 60 years (80% of all COVID-19-associated deaths).  Since their introduction in late 2020, anti-COVID-19 vaccines have proven safe and efficient in protecting against severe infections.  Given the vulnerability of the aged, the WHO has recommended that all individuals above 60 receive at least three dosages of vaccination (in the form of boosters).

This recommendation and the people’s adherence to it are assumed to have saved countless lives, though accurate estimates of the number of lives remain lacking.  Estimating the numerical quotient of saved human lives may lend merit to ongoing global vaccination efforts and policies.

About the study

In the present study, researchers used CAT-level COVID-19 surveillance data from early in the pandemic (December 2020) to March 2023 with vaccination coverage data to investigate the number of age-group-specific lives saved across: 1.  The whole study period, or 2.  The pre-Omicron period.

Raw surveillance data was collected from a collaboration between the European WHO regional office and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).  CAT-specific inclusion criteria comprised the submission of interpretable data on both mortality and vaccination progress.  Analyses requiring estimations of periods of variants of concern (VOCs)-dominated circulation utilized the ECDC European Surveillance System (TESSy) database, which provides virological data.

Population data for the corresponding years were downloaded from the United Nations (UN) and Eurostat databases for European Union (EU) and non-EU regions, respectively.  Vaccine Effectiveness (VE) was computed using the ‘COVID-19 Study Explorer’ from the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) study conducted by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Data analyses were based on methodologies previously developed by Machado et al. (2019), with sensitivity analyses performed to confirm the validity and accuracy of the results.

Study findings

During the nearly 2.5 years of the pandemic under study, 34 of the 54 WHO European CATs provided over 90% of weekly data on mortality and vaccination progress, including their respective CATs in downstream analyses.  Results highlight that vaccination efforts directly resulted in ~57% of lives saved across the WHO European region.  On a per-CAT basis, vaccination efforts contributed to between 15% and 75% of lives saved (450 and 396,532 lives, respectively) during the study period.

This study further reports that on a per-age basis, vaccination efforts saved an astounding 96% of all lives under the age of 60 years.  Analyses reveal that most (67%) of these lives were saved during the Omicron period, arguably the most aggressive VOC period and undoubtedly the longest.

The number and early reception of COVID-19 vaccine booster doses were found to improve COVID-19 mortality outcomes significantly, especially in older Europeans.  The best outcomes were reported from individuals aged 80 and above who had received at least three booster doses (only 6% infection rate and 52% survival).

Conclusions

The present study investigates the rate of European mortality prevention as a direct consequence of vaccination programs in the region.  Their evaluations of 34 of the available 54 European CATs revealed that vaccination efforts saved 52% of all COVID-19 lives between December 2020 and March 2023.  Vaccination efficiency was highest in individuals 60 years and older and increased as a function of the number of booster vaccination doses received.

57% of lives saved were during the Omicron period.  These findings highlight the importance of vaccine development and vaccination efforts in curbing one of the worst pandemics in human history.  It further underscores the importance of VOC surveillance systems and the updating of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines to account for locally prevalent VOCs.

*Important notice: medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Journal reference:
  • Preliminary scientific report.

    Estimated number of lives directly saved by COVID-19 vaccination programs in the WHO European Region, December 2020 to March 2023, The WHO European Respiratory Surveillance Network, medRxiv 2024.01.12.24301206; DOI – 10.1101/2024.01.12.24301206,  https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2024.01.12.24301206v1

Article Revisions

  • Jan 18 2024 - Minor correction to citation link.
Hugo Francisco de Souza

Written by

Hugo Francisco de Souza

Hugo Francisco de Souza is a scientific writer based in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. His academic passions lie in biogeography, evolutionary biology, and herpetology. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, where he studies the origins, dispersal, and speciation of wetland-associated snakes. Hugo has received, amongst others, the DST-INSPIRE fellowship for his doctoral research and the Gold Medal from Pondicherry University for academic excellence during his Masters. His research has been published in high-impact peer-reviewed journals, including PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases and Systematic Biology. When not working or writing, Hugo can be found consuming copious amounts of anime and manga, composing and making music with his bass guitar, shredding trails on his MTB, playing video games (he prefers the term ‘gaming’), or tinkering with all things tech.

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