A pedestrian walks past a Covid-19 vaccination centre set up at the Masjid e Saliheen mosque in Blackburn, north west England on June 16, 2021. ( AFP / Oli SCARFF)

Anti-vaxxers misrepresent article on Covid deaths in jabbed patients

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As a wave of anti-vaccine messages swept across social media, Facebook posts shared a report that most Covid-19 patients who die in England have been vaccinated. They used the report to suggest the Covid-19 shots were unsafe. The posts are misleading: the article actually explained that the trend was "expected", as high numbers of older people -- who have a greater chance of dying from the disease -- have been vaccinated in the UK.

"Now to all those getting it, please for the love of God use your brain," reads a Facebook post from July 19.

It shares a screenshot of an article with the headline, "Most COVID deaths in England now are in the vaccinated -- here's why that shouldn't alarm you".

A screenshot of the misleading post as of July 23, 2021.

The screenshot was shared widely in Facebook posts warning people against getting vaccinated. AFP has archived some examples here, here, and here.

The posts emerged after the publication of a report by Public Health England (PHE), which detailed the number of deaths from the Delta variant of Covid-19 in England between February 1 and June 21, 2021.

However, posts are misleading.

The screenshot shared on Facebook omits context in the article, published in The Conversation and penned by Christian Yates, a senior lecturer in Mathematical Biology at Britain's University of Bath.

Yates writes there is a significantly higher risk of death from Covid-19 among older people -- who were prioritised in Britain's vaccine rollout -- compared to younger people.

"An unvaccinated 70-year-old might be 32 times more likely to die of COVID than an unvaccinated 35-year-old. This dramatic variation of the risk profile with age means that even excellent vaccines don’t reduce the risk of death for older people to below the risk for some younger demographics," he wrote.

'Taken out of context'

Britain's age-based priority list for Covid-19 vaccines offered the jabs to the most elderly when the rollout kicked off in December 2020, before gradually expanding to younger age groups.

More than 96 percent of eligible people living in older adult care homes had received one dose of the jab on June 18, and more than 93 percent had received both jabs, according to figures from Britain's National Health Service (NHS).

"Given the UK’s vaccination strategy (vaccinate older, more vulnerable people first), you would expect high proportions of the people who die from COVID to have been vaccinated. And that is exactly what we see in the data," Yates added.

Yates said he was "dismayed to see people taking screen grabs of my article out of context and using them for anti-vax purposes".

"If 100% of the population were vaccinated then all Covid-related deaths would occur in the vaccinated," he told AFP.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at Britain's Norwich Medical School also said the trend was "expected".

"We know that the vaccines are not 100% effective, so in any situation where you have very high vaccine coverage, you get more deaths in the vaccine group than in the unvaccinated group, mainly because there are so few people who have not been vaccinated. This was expected [by] epidemiologists and modellers," he told AFP.

He pointed to figures from Britain's Office for National Statistics (ONS) from July 7.

"Pre-vaccination, virtually all deaths were in the over 50 age group. Now over 95% (and probably closer to 97-98% of the over 50s have (even higher in the more vulnerable older groups) been fully vaccinated in England".

UPDATE: This article was updated on August 3, 2021 to add comment from Christian Yates