Articles misinterpret UK Covid-19 vaccine data
Articles claim public health data indicate fully vaccinated people in England were far more likely to die from Covid-19 in 2022 than those who had not received the shots. But experts told AFP it is misleading to compare the groups due to their different sizes, and the agency that compiled the statistics says they cannot be used to determine vaccine efficacy.
"Official figures quietly published by the UK Government reveal that the fully/triple/quadruple vaccinated population has accounted for 9 in every 10 Covid-19 deaths in England over the past two years and 92% of Covid-19 deaths throughout the entirety of 2022," says a February 22, 2023 article.
The story comes from The Expose, a website that AFP has previously fact-checked for publishing inaccurate health information.
The same claim appeared in other articles online, as well as on social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter.
The posts reference a recent dataset from the United Kingdom's Office for National Statistics (ONS) on deaths by vaccination status in England. But a spokesman for the government agency told AFP they are "highly misleading interpretations of that data."
"When most of the population is vaccinated, most deaths are in vaccinated people," he said in a March 3 email.
More than nine in 10 people in the UK aged 12 or older had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine as of February 26, according to the ONS. While public health authorities worldwide say the shots help prevent severe illness and death, no vaccine is 100 percent effective.
"We would expect the percent of deaths that are unvaccinated to shrink as the population of unvaccinated people decreases," said Devon Greyson, an assistant professor in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, on March 6.
The ONS says on its website that the data do not measure how effective the Covid-19 vaccines are at preventing death.
The numbers "account for differences in age structure and population size, but there may be other differences between the groups (particularly underlying health) that affect mortality rates," the agency says.
The ONS spokesman told AFP unvaccinated people "are likely to be younger," which will "reduce deaths in unvaccinated compared to vaccinated."
Jeffrey Morris, director of the Division of Biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, offered a similar analysis.
"Of course, when the vast majority of the older population is vaccinated, most deaths will be in vaccinated," he said. "But this does not mean that the vaccinated have a higher death rate or certainly that vaccines cause deaths."
He said the raw numbers also do not account for underlying health conditions that may affect each group's mortality risk. Greyson of the University of British Columbia agreed.
"Without appropriate methods to adjust for underlying risks or population size, statistics such as total deaths can be misleading," Greyson said.
In December 2022, American adults vaccinated with an "updated (bivalent) booster" were nearly 10 times less likely to die from Covid-19 than their unvaccinated peers, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
All of AFP's reporting on vaccine misinformation can be found here.