COVID Vaccines in European Region Reduced Mortality by 57%; WHO Warns of Waning Vigilance Regarding Virus Threats
COVID-related travel restrictions and vaccine certificates were among the tools wielded by European countries to promote vaccination – which saved 1.4 million lives.

COVID-19 vaccines reduced deaths due to the pandemic by at least 57%, saving more than 1.4 million lives in the WHO European Region between December 2020 and March 2023, according to a report published in medRxiv, a pre-print platform for health sciences, on Tuesday. 

Most of the lives saved were those of people aged 60 or older, who were at the highest risk of severe illness and death from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, said Hans Kluge, Director of WHO’s European Regional Office in a press briefing, aired simultaneously.  

Kluge, however, also warned of a “ticking time bomb” post-pandemic, due to health budget cutbacks, a depleted health workforce and reduced pathogen surveillance at a time when COVID is resurging.  His remarks coincided with a warning by WHO’s Pan American Health Organization that COVID-19 case in the Americas have doubled in just the past week. 

Kluge called for the rapid approval of a WHO pandemic accord, due to come before the World Health Organization this year – in order to address barriers to medicines and vaccines access seen in parts of central Europe and central Asia as well as more widely. 

Pushing back on “fake news” claims that such an accord could somehow undermine countries’ sovereignty, he said. 

“A big misunderstanding is that the pandemic accord will shift away the sovereignty from countries to WHO and this is absolutely not the case,” he said. “What a pandemic accord aims to do is to tackle issues like much quicker exchange of information, of data on clinical trials, and also medical countermeasures.  A big lesson that we learned is the concept of regional resilience.  Regions have to become self-sustainable, in terms, for example of manufacturing of vaccines.” 

Vials of Pfizer´s COVID-19 vaccine. COVID vaccines mostly reached in or around the regions in which they were produced, one WHO report found, making the case for sustainable regional production, a previously neglected issue.

First COVID vaccine booster alone saved 700,000 lives  

WHO European Regional Director Hans Kluge warns of waning vigilance vis a vis COVID and pandemic threats

Without vaccines, the 2.5 million COVID-19 death toll in the European Region might have been as high as 4 million over the 2.5 years reviewed, found the study, co-authored by more than  60 WHO scientists.

The first vaccine booster alone saved 700,000 lives,

“We have constantly stressed the importance of the COVID-19 vaccines, particularly for older people and the most vulnerable. This study documents the result of countries implementing that advice. The evidence is irrefutable”, said Kluge.  

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the WHO European Region – covering 53 Member States across Europe and Central Asia – has seen more than 277 million confirmed COVID cases and over 2.5 million recorded deaths, WHO said. 

However, it also was one of the regions with the greatest access to vaccines, early on, as well as the largest uptake over time. 

In the European Economic Area, which includes 30 countries in eastern and western Europe, only two countries, Bulgaria and Romania, had less than 60% vaccination rates – and seven countries, including Ireland, Portugal, France and Denmark, achieved 90% or higher vaccine rates. In Central Asia, however, uptake varied much widely in relation to countries’ income level as well as levels of vaccine hesitancy. 

Mortality in some countries reduced by up to 75% 

Two post-high school students doing volunteer service get their COVID-19 vaccines in Tel Aviv, Israel in February 2021 – one of the first countries to open COVID vaccination to all age groups.

Countries that implemented early vaccination programmes covering large parts of the population – such as Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Malta, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom – saw the greatest benefit in lives saved overall through vaccination.  

Among those, Israel saw the biggest mortality reductions averaging 75% amongst all age groups,  followed by Malta and Iceland with a 72% and 71% reduction respectively. 

COVID-19 vaccination saved the most lives during the Omicron period, December 2021 – April 2023, the study also found – even though Omicron was considered a milder form of the SARS-CoV2 virus than the original strains first identified in late 2019 and early 2020 in China.  

“Today, there are more than 1.4 million people in our Region – most of them elderly – enjoying life with their loved ones because they took the vital decision to be vaccinated against COVID-19,” said Kluge. “That’s nearly one and a half million people who can play with their grandchildren, walk the dog, attend dance classes, volunteer, and be active members of their communities. This is the power of vaccines.”

The report reveals a 57% reduction in mortality among 70–79-year-olds and a 54% decrease in deaths among those aged 60-69. Mortality was 52% lower in the 50 to 59 age group. The age group which benefited the most from vaccination was the over 80s, reducing mortality overall by 62%. 

In those aged 25 to 49, receiving a second vaccine dose resulted in a 48% reduction in mortality, though the uptake of vaccines for the second and third boosters was just 5% in this group. In other words: even in this group, without vaccination the number of deaths would have been almost double.   

COVID cases rising sharply again  

COVID cases rose sharply in WHO’s European region in late 2024, and are now rising in the Americas.

As winter intensifies in the Northern Hemisphere, COVID-19 cases are once again on a sharp  rise.  This, alongside a recent spate in other respiratory viruses including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza, makes reporting and tracking all the more important – but many countries are now letting critical surveillance slide, Kluge warned.  

“We may be unprepared for anything out of the ordinary, such as the emergence of a new, more severe COVID-19 variant or a yet unknown pathogen,” warned Kluge. 

“We have seen this before in pandemics. We see a cycle of panic, followed by neglect,” he  added. 

“And of course, policymakers have a lot of pressing issues. Usually there’s one big issue which dominates the political agenda, which for the last three years has been health. 

“But now countries face a cost of living crisis, energy crisis, and unfortunately in our region, also, war and defense issues. So it’s so important that we really keep health at the top of the political agenda and the key word here is security. 

“Without health there is nothing,” he underlined, “and that’s why the current negotiations by the member states on the pandemic accord is so important, because the key issue still to be solved is the whole issue of equity in access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics not only in the pan-European region, but also globally.”

Image Credits: Photo by Mat Napo on Unsplash, Wikimedia Commons: Nemo, Health Policy Watch , WHO European Region.

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