Fact Check: In UK, Fully Vaccinated ARE 4 In Every 5 COVID-19 Deaths -- But Simple Ratio Can Mislead If Other Variables Ignored

Fact Check

  • by: Ed Payne
Fact Check: In UK, Fully Vaccinated ARE 4 In Every 5 COVID-19 Deaths -- But Simple Ratio Can Mislead If Other Variables Ignored Misleading #s

Do fully vaccinated people account for four in every five recent COVID-19 deaths in the UK? Yes, that's true: But simple ratio analysis based on that statistic doesn't tell the story fully. The figures are found in the COVID-19 vaccine surveillance report - Week 47 by the UK Health Security Agency published on November 25, 2021. That report warns users that "raw data should not be used to estimate vaccine effectiveness as the data does not take into account inherent biases present such as differences in risk, behaviour and testing in the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations." Biostatistics experts have explained in related Lead Stories fact checks that those most likely to be vaccinated in the U.K. are the elderly, who are also most at risk of serious illness if they suffer a breakthrough infection. Looking at all COVID deaths - instead of comparing like-age patients - muddles the evidence of vaccine effectiveness.

The claim appeared in an article (archived here), published by The Exposé on November 27, 2021, under the title "Only the Fully Vaccinated should fear the New 'Worst Ever' Covid-19 Variant; data shows they already account for 4 in every 5 Covid Deaths." It opens:

With the emergence of an alleged new variant that the UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said "may evade the current vaccines", despite also saying "that is why you should get your boosters" in the same sentence, we felt it was best to take you on a journey through three months worth of UKHSA Covid-19 data to show you why, if the rumours are true, the unvaccinated population have absolutely nothing to worry about, but the vaccinated population have everything to fear.

You've most likely been seeing headlines like 'Worst Ever Covid Variant' in the mainstream media, such as this one from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded newspaper 'The Guardian'.

This is what the post looked like on The Exposé website on November 29, 2021:

The Expose.png

(Source: The Exposé screenshot taken on Mon Nov 29 16:10:41 UTC 2021)

While the figures in the article are largely accurate, they aren't presented in context and ignore an important footnote from the UK government report. The footnote says:

In the context of very high vaccine coverage in the population, even with a highly effective vaccine, it is expected that a large proportion of cases, hospitalisations and deaths would occur in vaccinated individuals, simply because a larger proportion of the population are vaccinated than unvaccinated and no vaccine is 100% effective. This is especially true because vaccination has been prioritised in individuals who are more susceptible or more at risk of severe disease. Individuals in risk groups may also be more at risk of hospitalisation or death due to non-COVID-19 causes, and thus may be hospitalised or die with COVID-19 rather than because of COVID-19.

The UK population was 68.9% fully vaccinated as of November 29, 2021, with more than 115 million doses given, according to the UK's coronavirus website. That compares to nearly 59% for the United States through November 17, 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As of November 1, 2021, everyone 16 years of age and older was eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccination in the UK:

Based on antibody testing of blood donors, 98.1% of the adult population now have antibodies to COVID-19 from either infection or vaccination compared to 20.2% that have antibodies from infection alone.

The Executive Summary of the weekly surveillance report says the safety of COVID-19 vaccines is continuously being monitored by the UK's Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency:

They conclude that overall, the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines outweigh any potential risks.

The claim about risks to vaccinated Britons refers to fears of the newly reported COVID-19 omicron variant. It was designated a "variant of concern (VOC)" by the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 26, 2021, after it met one or more of the following WHO criteria:

  • Increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology; OR
  • Increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation; OR
  • Decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics.

The Exposé headline and article refer to the variant as the "worst ever." It's an unproven claim given the newness of the designation and the small number of reported cases. The first known confirmed infection was from a specimen collected on November 9, 2021, according to the WHO. The variant has been found in a growing list of countries since initially being detected in South Africa.

The article cites an online report in The Guardian with the headline "What do we know about the new 'worst ever' Covid variant?" This is what it says about omicron (B.1.1.529):

How does B.1.1.529 compare with other variants?

Senior scientists on Thursday evening described B.1.1.529 as the worst variant they had seen since the start of the pandemic. It has 32 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that most vaccines use to prime the immune system against Covid. That is about double the number associated with the Delta variant. Mutations in the spike protein can affect the virus's ability to infect cells and spread, but also make it harder for immune cells to attack the pathogen.

The Guardian does not name the "senior scientists" cited in its report. The "worst variant" designation appears to refer to the number of mutations in omicron, not its reported symptoms. Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a South African physician who was one of the first to report the strain, told the BBC and Reuters that her patients have had "extremely mild symptoms."

Lead Stories has debunked past articles on the Expose site that claimed "Public Health England data showed COVID-19 vaccines cause AIDS" and "Official figures show the fully vaccinated accounted for 82% of COVID-19 Deaths & 66% of hospitalizations in England," among other claims.

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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.

  Ed Payne

Ed Payne is a staff writer at Lead Stories. He is an Emmy Award-winning journalist as part of CNN’s coverage of 9/11. Ed worked at CNN for nearly 24 years with the CNN Radio Network and CNN Digital. Most recently, he was a Digital Senior Producer for Gray Television’s Digital Content Center, the company’s digital news hub for 100+ TV stations. Ed also worked as a writer and editor for WebMD. In addition to his journalistic endeavors, Ed is the author of two children’s book series: “The Daily Rounds of a Hound” and “Vail’s Tales.” 

Read more about or contact Ed Payne

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