Data and analysis from the U.K. Office of National Statistics show that double-vaccinated people die at a lower rate than unvaccinated people.
While the Instagram post does not detail the data released by the ONS, an article published by the medical misinformation site The Expose does, and this seems to be the origin of the claim. The Expose article misrepresents the data and draws a conclusion that the data cannot support.
Dr. Charlotte Bermingham, a data scientist at the ONS, looked over The Expose's article and told Logically, "The analysis in the article is flawed and highly misleading."
The Expose calculates the crude mortality rates per 100,000 for double vaccinated and unvaccinated people from the counts of deaths and the populations for each vaccination status. The Expose uses "the raw data published above and calculate the death rates per 100k by dividing the death numbers by the population and multiplying by 100,000. " However, The Expose does not consider age bands, as the ONS does not "supply the raw data by age band for the age bands they use in their formula."
By not considering age bands, The Expose grossly misconstrues the data. The Expose does not account for the fact that vaccinated people, particularly those who have had both jabs, are on average much older than unvaccinated people. Older people were prioritized in the vaccination campaign as they were judged to be more at risk. Older people have higher mortality rates for total and COVID-19 deaths. Therefore the crude mortality rates for vaccinated people will be increased relative to unvaccinated because the vaccinated group includes more older people. The two rates cannot be compared to assess the impact of vaccines, as the impact of age is very large.
"The mortality rates they calculate for vaccinated people are increased compared to unvaccinated because vaccinated people are on average much older," Dr. Bermingham told Logically. "Age must be taken into account when comparing mortality rates by vaccination statuses, and other factors that can influence the rates should be considered. When age is taken into account, the mortality rates are consistently lower for people who have had two vaccinations compared to unvaccinated, as shown by our published data."
The article then uses these crude rates to calculate “Vaccine Efficiency," by which they mean effectiveness. According to the ONS, "Vaccine effectiveness is the percentage by which mortality (or another outcome such as infection) is reduced in vaccinated people compared to unvaccinated." To calculate vaccine effectiveness, factors that differ between the people with each vaccination status — such as age, but also health status, deprivation, and other factors which can affect mortality rates and differences between the two groups — must be taken into account, as well as factors that change over time, such as the underlying COVID-19 mortality rate. Only then can the causal impact of vaccines on mortality can be determined.
Dr. Bermingham told Logically, "The calculations in The Expose article do not give vaccine effectiveness, nor can vaccine effectiveness be calculated using ONS's data, as these factors, apart from age, are not taken into account in our publication."
"Calculating vaccine effectiveness is complex, particularly due to the selective rollout of the vaccination campaign and changing underlying COVID-19 infection rates," Dr. Bermingham continued. "Therefore we publish age-standardized mortality rates in our publication ‘Deaths by Vaccination Status’ to provide up-to-date information comparing mortality rates of people in different vaccination groups while accounting for the effect of age. However, it should be noted that other factors can affect the mortality rates, such as health status, particularly when the number of people in a vaccination status group becomes small and unrepresentative of the general population.
"The age-standardized mortality rates for COVID-19 are consistently lower for people who are double vaccinated compared to those who are unvaccinated, as are those for all deaths," she said.
With the evidence stated above, it is clear that The Expose has misrepresented data from the ONS, and drawn several conclusions which the ONS explicitly says on its report cannot be drawn.
The Instagram post additionally claims that two studies published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are manipulated, casting doubt on the studies about the vaccine's effectiveness. However, this claim is also baseless and comes from a blog post written by Joseph Mercola, one of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate's "Disinformation Dozen," or health misinformation superspreaders.
The first CDC study shows that COVID-19 vaccines reduce all-cause mortality, which is true. Even the data presented by the ONS proves that. Mercola calculates the all-cause mortality data using data from U.S.’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) website to claim that all-cause mortality rate is 18 percent higher in 2021 than the average death rate between 2015 and 2019. He uses this to claim that vaccines are ineffective. However, data published by the VAERS website is raw and unverified and cannot be taken as is to run analysis. Apart from using the raw data, a comparison is futile since we are still living in a pandemic and the beginning of 2021 saw the advent of the Delta variant which is highly infectious and lethal. Mercola's analysis misses these key points.
The second CDC study shows that immunity from vaccines is more effective than natural immunity. The CDC study showed that "Among the 6,328 people who were fully vaccinated, 324 (or 5.1%) had a positive COVID-19 PCR test. Among the 1,020 who were unvaccinated and who had previously had the infection, 89 (or 8.7%) had a positive COVID-19 PCR test," according to Medical News Today. While the authors of the study did list certain limitations in the study, that does not mean that the results of this study are invalid. It primarily means that further research is needed on a large dataset to further provide evidence of the claim.
While more research is needed, comparing "natural immunity" to "vaccine immunity" is misleading. To acquire natural immunity, one has to contract COVID-19. Contracting COVID-19 means incurring the risk of severe illness, or acquiring long-term disabilities due to Long Covid, or death. You cannot have natural immunity without also getting infected. Acquiring vaccine-induced immunity does not involve being infected.
When an Israeli study was released in late August 2021, suggesting that vaccine-induced immunity wasn't as effective as natural immunity in preventing infection, Full Fact asked Professor Charles Bangham, Chair in Immunology at Imperial College London, whether that meant it was better to get infected than get the vaccine. “The risks of infection are much greater than the risks of the vaccine," he said. "So it’s much safer, in almost all circumstances, to have the vaccine. There’s no question about that. ”
COVID-19 vaccines have been proven to be effective, and drastically reduce rates of infection, death, hospitalizations and severe illness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a lot of potentially dangerous misinformation. For reliable advice on COVID-19, including symptoms, prevention, and available treatment, please refer to the World Health Organization or your national healthcare authority.