The Joe Rogan podcast misused English Covid-19 data
18 October 2021
What was claimed
Older people are more likely to become ill with Covid-19 if they are vaccinated than if they are not.
This is not true. It is based on a misreading of PHE data, which cannot be used to measure the effects of Covid-19 vaccines.
On 12 October 2021, Alex Berenson, an American journalist appearing as a podcast guest on the Joe Rogan Experience, used data from the now replaced Public Health England (PHE) to claim that people over 40 are more likely to catch Covid-19 if they are vaccinated.
The Joe Rogan Experience is a podcast hosted by Mr Rogan, an American comedian and former television host. It has been reported that his podcasts reach an estimated 11 million people per episode, and was the most popular podcast in the US for much of 2020 and 2021.
Mr Berenson drew particular attention to the last two columns, showing the case rates among vaccinated and unvaccinated people of different ages. Among the over-40s, the case rates listed in the document are higher in vaccinated people.
Mr Berenson said [starting at 57mins]: “What that’s telling you is that people who are vaccinated with two doses are more likely to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 than people who are not vaccinated.”
He added: “This is UK government data, and what it says is the idea that this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated is a total lie. You are more likely to become sick if you are vaccinated than if you are not, in these older categories.”
Mr Berenson claimed that the numbers are the result of older people having weaker immune systems. However, he did not mention the footnote at the bottom of the same page, which says: “Interpretation of the case rates in vaccinated and unvaccinated population is particularly susceptible to changes in denominators and should be interpreted with extra caution.”
The previous page of the report also carries this warning: “The vaccination status of cases, inpatients and deaths is not the most appropriate method to assess vaccine effectiveness and there is a high risk of misinterpretation.”
Why Mr Berenson was wrong
It is possible that the vaccine protection against symptomatic illness may wane first among older people, who were also the first to be vaccinated.
However, as we explained in detail in our previous article, there are essentially two reasons why this data cannot be used to compare outcomes between vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
The first is that we don’t know how many unvaccinated people there are. For this, we would need to know the actual populations of each age group in England, and then subtract the vaccinated people from them.
The second problem is that vaccinated and unvaccinated people might also differ in other ways which could affect their chance of catching Covid. For instance, vaccinated people might feel they are less likely to catch Covid, and therefore take more risks of being exposed to it.
If so, this could make vaccinated people more “likely” to catch Covid, even though the vaccine itself is substantially protecting them.
This data needs clearer warnings
While Mr Berenson’s analysis of this data is wrong, some of the tables and charts in the PHE and UKHSA reports are easy to misinterpret, and the warnings against doing so are not easy to understand.
It said: “For the Delta variant, protection is assessed to be ~45% after one dose of AstraZeneca and ~55% for Pfizer. After a second dose, this increases to ~70% for AstraZeneca and ~85% for Pfizer...
“The estimate for effectiveness after a second dose of AstraZeneca has been updated to high confidence, as more robust data has become available. Effectiveness for one dose of the Moderna vaccine is assessed as ~75% with low confidence.”