Covid-19 vaccines saved 1.4 million lives across Europe, study finds

Healthcare professional in protective gloves and workwear holding and organising a tray of Covid-19 vaccine vials
Researchers found that vaccination reduced deaths by 57 per cent between December 2020 and March 2023 - Digital Vision/Images By Tang Ming Tung

Covid-19 vaccinations saved more than 1.4 million lives across Europe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

A new study analysing the impact of Covid-19 vaccines in 34 countries across Europe, found that they reduced deaths by 57 per cent between December 2020, when the vaccine rollouts began, and March 2023.

The cumulative death toll, currently at 2.5 million, might be as high as 4 million without the vaccines, says the study, with the first vaccine booster saving 700,000 lives alone.

Most people saved were aged 60 and over, the group most vulnerable to risk of severe illness and death from the respiratory virus. The study also found that Covid-19 vaccinations saved most lives during the Omicron wave, from December 2021 to April 2023 when huge numbers became infected.

Previous WHO estimates had put lives saved by the vaccine at 470,000, but that only covered the first months of the vaccine rollout.

Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO’s Regional Director for Europe, welcomed the new data.

“​​[There are] 1.4 million people in our region, most of them elderly, who are around to enjoy life with their loved ones because they took the vital decision to be vaccinated against Covid-19,” he said.

“This study documents the result of countries implementing that advice. The evidence is irrefutable.”

‘Covid-19 hasn’t gone away’

Across the WHO’s Europe region, Israel saw the biggest benefits from the vaccine, with a 75 per cent reduction, followed by Malta and Iceland with a 72 and 71 per cent decrease, respectively.

Countries that executed early roll-out programmes - such as Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK - saw a greater number of lives saved overall by vaccination.

A landmark NHS study, published earlier this month, analysing the health data from every person in the UK, found that an additional 7,100 hospital admissions and deaths might have been saved in the summer of 2022 if everybody had received all their vaccinations and boosters.

“Countries that vaccinated early and vaccinated at high levels were likely to see much higher deaths averted than countries who were vaccinating a bit later,” said Dr Marc-Alain Widdowson, WHO Europe’s lead on infectious hazard management.

As cold weather intensifies across the Northern Hemisphere, Europe is facing a ‘tridemic’ of respiratory diseases – including flu, Covid-19 and RSV – that threatens to push health systems to the brink.

Spain and Italy are among the worst affected countries, with Spain reintroducing mandatory face masks in hospitals and health centres earlier this month – the decision was made just six months after the obligatory use of masks was stopped.

Dr Kluge said that society has now gained a base level of immunity, either through vaccination, infection, or both.

“Covid-19 hasn’t gone away. We have merely learned to live with it,” he said.

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