Hundreds of thousands of deaths averted because of COVID vaccines
Recall the desperate early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in early Spring 2020. Researchers worried that the Spanish flu of 1918 that cost millions of American lives could be a possible model. The Imperial College of London released a projection of over 2 million deaths in the U.S. alone if government failed to take action. The government’s top advisor, Anthony Fauci, recommended a strategy of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI) to “bend the curve.” However, the highly infectious nature of the disease meant that they could offer only a temporary respite.
Adding to the gloom was the scientific community’s pessimism concerning the prospects for an early vaccine. Past history suggested that vaccines required years to get through regulatory approval — and then an additional year or more to scale-up for the millions of doses needed. Four months into the pandemic in the Spring of 2020, the most optimistic observers projected that we were well more than a year away from a viable vaccination program.
Contrary to earlier expectations, two vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) were approved in December 2020, and the first doses were administered less than a week later. These advances occurred under the auspices of Operation Warp Speed, a joint government, business, and military venture. Its unique feature was to guarantee purchases of experimental vaccines as they proceeded through regulatory approval in order to scale-up quickly the successful ones.
To date, more than 89 million Americans have received at least one vaccination dose — 27 percent of the population. For the high-risk 65 and over age group, more than 38 million (71 percent) have received at least one dose. Although some small risk of COVID infection remains, the vaccines appear to have rendered symptoms milder, and deaths exceedingly rare. The CDC and FDA conclude that a review of available clinical information — including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records — revealed no evidence that vaccination contributed to patient deaths.
The primary reason to fear COVID-19 has been its lethality. It has killed over a half million — largely the elderly — in the United States. With the vaccines being widely administered, we can now introduce a more benign statistic; namely, “deaths averted” by vaccination. Here is a possible approach:
In my back-of-the-envelope calculation, I consider only the 65 and over. The lethality rates for those under 65 are low and would not add much to the outcome. Of those over 65, 38 million have received at least one dose. My data are primarily from CDC sources: here, here, here, and here.
In the absence of Warp Speed there would be, as of today’s date, no vaccinations. We therefore proceed to follow these vaccinated elders in their hypothetical world of no vaccine. As time passes, some will contract COVID-19, and some of them will die. How many? Erring on the very conservative side, we assume that they would be subject to the current mortality risk (COVID deaths divided by population) of the 65 and older group, which stands at approximately 8 tenths of 1 percent (.008 percent). Applying this rate to the 38 million who would not have been vaccinated in the absence of Warp Speed, we get 295,000 deaths averted as a result of vaccination.
That figure is likely an underestimate because we use the latest mortality rate (which has dropped considerably). On the other hand, one third currently lack the second dose, but we have few if any cases of deaths attributable to COVID-19 after the first dose.
As time passes, scientists can produce complex models of “averted deaths” due to vaccination, but for now this simple back-of-the-envelope calculation provides a rough order of magnitude.
Operation Warp Speed is a rare example of a successful government-business-military endeavor. It is reminiscent, in my view, of the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb. Both worked because of the extreme importance of the undertaking, as all participants realized we could solve this problem only one shot at a time.
Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.