Social media users have taken mortality data for England out of context to falsely claim it shows COVID-19 vaccines are causing deaths.
A misleading analysis of the data was published on Nov. 20 on the blog of American writer Alex Berenson, who had looked at a Nov. 1 report from Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) (see Berenson’s blog here).
The report includes a dataset of the weekly number of deaths from all causes. It also includes the COVID-19 vaccination status of each person who died (see Table 4, here).
Looking specifically at the 10-59 age bracket, Berenson concluded: “Vaccinated people under 60 are twice as likely to die as unvaccinated people … I don’t know how to explain this other than vaccine-caused mortality.”
The claims have also been widely shared on social media without context (here, here, here, here).
While the ONS data shows deaths from all causes are around twice as high in fully vaccinated 10-59-year-olds compared with unvaccinated people in the same bracket, it is misleading to suggest COVID-19 vaccines are the cause.
This is because the analysis fails to account for the wide age bracket in the 10-59 grouping, and the timings of vaccine rollouts.
“For the 10-59 age group, the vaccinated population will on average be older than the unvaccinated population due to age-based prioritisation in the vaccine roll-out,” the ONS explains in a disclaimer in the report.
Older age groups and vulnerable individuals were eligible for COVID-19 vaccination in England as early as December 2020 (here), while younger age groups were vaccinated later.
Those aged 12-15 were offered the shots from September 2021 (here) – and, at the time of writing on Dec. 1, there was no widespread rollout for children under 12.
Younger populations in England therefore have lower vaccination numbers than older age groups (here).
The ONS disclaimer added: “As mortality rates are higher for older people, this will increase the mortality rates for the vaccinated population compared to the unvaccinated population.”
Jeffrey Morris, Professor and Director of Biostatistics at Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, told Reuters: “There is NO evidence of vaccine-caused mortality from the full (2 dose) vaccination data posted by the ONS” when accounting for age distribution.
“This entire effect can be more than explained by the wildly disparate age distributions in the vaccinated and unvaccinated, with vaccinated much older than the unvaccinated within the cohort.”
Given both risk of death and vaccination rates vary greatly across age groups, the lumping together of the “dramatically disparate age distribution” is an example of a distortion known as “Simpson’s paradox,” Morris explained.
The professor calculated annual mortality rates in narrower age ranges within the 10-59 age group by using data on UK population, vaccination, and background mortality, which are detailed in a blog post here.
These figures estimate expected mortality rates regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination rollout.
He estimated that the annual mortality rate at the older end of the 10-59 age spectrum would be more than 50 times higher than the mortality rate at the younger end of the spectrum, with 478.2 per 100,000 deaths among 55-59 year olds and 8.8 per 100,000 among 10-14 year olds.
Morris also estimates the mortality rate has reduced overall since the vaccination rollout.
His calculations show a background mortality rate higher than the real-world mortality rate for the 10-59 age group between Jan. 2 and Sept. 24, 2021.
Morris estimated that the expected all-cause death rate in the vaccinated cohort, based on their ages, would be 2.4 times higher than the unvaccinated cohort – more than the rate shown by the recorded statistics from this year.
“This suggests that if we had mortality data split out by finer age groups within 10-59yr and did age-adjusted mortality, the vaccinated would in fact have lower age-adjusted all-cause mortality than the unvaccinated,” he told Reuters.
Misleading. It is true that the 10-59 age group has a higher rate of mortality for vaccinated individuals. However, this is not due to vaccines causing deaths but a result of higher vaccination rates among older age groups in the range, who also have higher mortality rates.
This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.