ONS data doesn’t show four Covid vaccine doses raise risk of death

2 May 2024
What was claimed

Receiving four doses of a Covid-19 vaccine raises the risk of death among younger people, compared with those who haven’t had any doses.

Our verdict

This is a misinterpretation of the data. Younger people with health problems are more likely to receive four doses. This claim comes from official data that warns against drawing comparisons between these groups.

An article widely shared on Facebook suggests that multiple Covid-19 vaccine doses increased the risk of death among younger people in England. This is a misinterpretation of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS)—as the ONS itself has confirmed with us.

In fact, while the data does show higher death rates among 18-39-year-olds who had received a fourth dose or a booster dose compared with those who were not vaccinated, this is sadly not surprising, as young people are not routinely offered doses unless they have a weakened immune system—for instance those receiving an organ transplant or chemotherapy.

So comparing groups of younger people by vaccination status doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the effects of the vaccine, because the groups also differ in other important ways. The data itself carries a note explaining this.

We already have abundant evidence that the Covid-19 vaccines are safe.

We have fact checked misinformation about vaccines many times. Bad information like this can be harmful if people use it to make decisions about their health.   

Where did this come from?

The article appeared in the Defender, which is published by the US anti-vaccine campaigning charity Children’s Health Defense. 

Citing another article in the Exposé, a blog that we have fact checked many times before, it said that  young people who had had four doses were between 221% and 318% more likely to die than those who hadn’t had a single dose. This was based on ONS data published last year.

The Defender article quotes the Exposé, saying “These figures are extremely worrying and strongly suggest that COVID-19 vaccination increases a person’s mortality rate, which in turn suggests COVID-19 vaccination may actually be killing teens and young adults in the tens of thousands.”

Why it’s wrong

The Exposé analysis reported by the Defender does not mean that the vaccine doses caused the higher death rates in the four-dose group.

The Exposé arrived at these percentages by comparing the all-cause age-standardised mortality rate per 100,000 person-years (ASMR) for people who have had four doses with the ASMR for unvaccinated people.

But the dataset warns against drawing conclusions from this. It says: “Caution must be taken when comparing mortality rates and counts as the characteristics of people in the different vaccination status groups, such as health, may differ, particularly due to the prioritisation of the vaccine to more clinically vulnerable people. While differences in the ages of people in the vaccination status groups are accounted for, other differences, such as ethnicity or level of deprivation, may remain, which can affect the mortality rates and counts.”

The ONS health data team also confirmed to Full Fact  that it is “impossible” to use this data to make claims about vaccine effectiveness or safety.

The team explained: “This is because our estimated rates only take account of differences in age between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. We do not control for other potentially important factors that may be related to both vaccine uptake/timing and outcomes, most notably underlying health status.”

An FOI response published by the ONS in March 2024 states that in England between March 2020 and July 2023, there were 63 deaths involving and 55 deaths due to Covid-19 vaccines.

To put that figure into perspective, millions of Covid vaccinations were administered by the NHS in England during the autumn booster campaign, which ran from September 2023 to February 2024.

Image courtesy of Annie Spratt

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