Fact Check: German Researcher Did NOT Document Claim That 80% Of German COVID-19 Deaths Are Actually From Other Causes

Fact Check

  • by: Dean Miller

STORY UPDATED: check for updates below.

Fact Check: German Researcher Did NOT Document Claim That 80% Of German COVID-19 Deaths Are Actually From Other Causes Misstates Data

Did a leading German medical doctor prove that 80% of those in the official tally of COVID-19 victims died of something else? No, that's not true: The claim relies on a newspaper interview in which Dr. Bertram Haussler was speculating about July and August of 2021 data collected for Germany's health officials. The newspaper has since revised its headline, but English-language sites continue to use the original version to support their claims denying the seriousness of the pandemic. A German fact-checking agency reports Dr. Haussler has said the headline that hyped the 80% number does not represent what he said. The translation of the full interview shows he was specifically talking about two months' data, but also shows he made the unsupported assertion that 80% of those who die with COVID do not die of COVID if more than five weeks pass from infection to death, a cutoff not supported in peer-reviewed studies of COVID fatalities.

The claim appeared in English in an August 30, 2021, tweet (archived here) where it was published on the Disclose.tv account under the title "JUST IN." It opened:

Corona not likely cause of death in 80 percent of official covid deaths reported in Germany ...

This is what the post looked like on Twitter at the time of writing:

Twitter screenshot

(Source: Twitter screenshot taken on Thu Sep 23 17:54:51 2021 UTC)

The original August 30, 2021, headline in German news outlet Die Welt was dramatic, roughly translated from German: "Distorted figures: 'Corona in 80 percent of the official Covid deaths probably not the cause of death.'" But on September 7, 2021, the headline was toned down to "Since July: 'Corona is probably not the cause of death in 80 percent of the official Covid deaths."'

The German fact check agency Volksperpetzer reported it asked Haussler what he meant and that he replied (roughly translated into English) that the headline is "... wrong in its generality and would never be represented by us."

Roughly translated, the part of the interview that generated the headline reads as follows, in English:

We have found that in a good 80 percent of the official Covid deaths that have been reported since the beginning of July, the underlying infection was more than five weeks ago and one must therefore assume that Corona was not the real cause of death.

While Haussler says Die Welt's headline overstated his point -- that he disagrees with how deaths of COVID patients are categorized -- he has not contradicted the contents of the Q&A produced by Die Welt in which he declared that assumption as fact.

Even if Haussler's five-week cutoff were correct, compared to December of 2020, when nearly 22,000 COVID deaths were recorded in Germany, according to Robert Koch Institute public health researchers' spreadsheets, by July 2021 there were only 223 deaths in the country. That would make any discrepancy smaller than if applied to all 93,000 COVID deaths recorded in Germany since the beginning of the pandemic.

Haussler's spokesperson wrote to Lead Stories to say his point was that death statistics in Germany during the summer of 2021 may be inflated by deaths not directly related to "Corona infection." In an October 5, 2021, email, press officer Sandra Jessel reiterated Haussler's assumption about the five-week cutoff, writing:

Our statements refer only to this point in time and not to the entire duration of the pandemic. This fact is important because we are currently in a different phase of the pandemic with different incidences than at the height of the pandemic last year ... The aim is to point out that death statistics in Germany are increased by deaths that might not be directly related to a Corona infection. However, as accurate a survey as possible is particularly important at this time of the pandemic in Germany to avoid overestimating the number of deaths.

Lead Stories searched the National Library of Medicine index to more than 1 million titles, using a number of phrases related to "five weeks after COVID infection" and "death of or with COVID" and found no peer-reviewed or professionally published studies that support Haussler's five-week rule of thumb.

nih.ofwith.png

(Source: NLM.nih.gov screenshot taken Fri Sept 24 00:02:20 2021 UTC)

Haussler did not cite any such research in asserting that deaths after five weeks of COVID infection are not COVID-caused. Instead, he said he has a special calculation method by which he can show any death of a COVID patient more than five weeks after infection isn't really a COVID death. But those data have not been published, peer-reviewed or shared.

Similar claims made in the U.S. have not been supported with scientific evaluation and the nation's mortality statistics expert says there is a clear distinction in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data between those killed by COVID and those who die of something else while they have COVID.

Updates:

  • 2021-10-05T16:43:05Z 2021-10-05T16:43:05Z
    Updated with October 5, 2021 statement from Dr. Haussler's spokesperson.

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.


  Dean Miller

Lead Stories staff writer Dean Miller has edited daily and weekly newspapers, worked as a reporter for more than a decade and is co-author of two non-fiction books. After a one-year Harvard Nieman Fellowship, he served as Director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy for six years. As Senior Vice President/Content at Connecticut Public Broadcasting, a dual licensee, he oversaw radio, TV and print journalists, and documentary producers. He moved west to teach journalism at Western Washington University, edit The Port Townsend Leader and write the twice-weekly Save The Free Press column for the Seattle Times. Miller won the 2007 national Mirror Award for news industry coverage and he led the team that won the 2005 Scripps Howard first amendment prize. 

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