Joe Rogan podcast uses Covid-19 death data out of context

4 November 2021
What was claimed

Over 70% of Covid-19 deaths are now in vaccinated people in the UK.

Our verdict

This is correct for deaths in England, and comes from UKHSA data in its week 38 vaccine surveillance report. However, the UKHSA explains that this is expected because a larger proportion of the population are vaccinated than unvaccinated, particularly among vulnerable groups

A video clip from the Joe Rogan Experience podcast in which journalist Alex Berenson claims that over 70% of deaths from Covid-19 in the UK are now in fully vaccinated people has been widely shared on Facebook. 

This claim originates from UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data for England from August to September 2021. However, the shortened clip from the podcast being shared online does not include the important caveat and context that the number of people who are vaccinated (particularly those in older or more vulnerable groups) now far exceeds the number who are unvaccinated, and so it is to be expected that there will sadly be more deaths in that much larger group.

The Joe Rogan Experience is hosted by Mr Rogan, an American comedian and former television host. It has been reported that his podcast reaches an estimated 11 million people per episode, and was the most popular podcast in the US for much of 2020 and 2021. We have fact checked other claims made on the podcast previously

The segment of the show shared on social media includes Mr Rogan and Mr Berenson discussing figures from a table in a Public Health England (PHE) document. Mr Berenson describes this as the “variants of concern UK technical briefing”. However, the figures actually come from a slightly different PHE document called the Covid-19 vaccine surveillance report. This is a weekly report previously produced by PHE and now produced by the UKHSA (the body that took over the health protection functions of  PHE). 

Mr Berenson says that, in the UK, over 70% of people who die “now” from Covid are fully vaccinated. He breaks this down into age groups and says: “What I want everyone to see is that the vast majority of people in Britain who died in September were fully vaccinated—1,270 out of 1,500 [over 80s] were fully vaccinated, 607 of the 70-year-olds out of 800 were fully vaccinated, 258 out of the 411 60-year-olds. They were almost all fully vaccinated. Most people who die of this now are fully vaccinated in the UK. Those are the numbers.”

It is worth noting that later in the podcast, Mr Berenson does start to discuss some of the context around these numbers. However, this is not included in the clip being shared on social media. 

The figures included in the podcast are broadly correct figures taken from the week 38 report which included data from 23 August to 19 September, although this report just includes data from England rather than the whole of the UK. 

These figures do show that overall more vaccinated than unvaccinated people died of Covid-19 in this period. There were 3,158 deaths reported in this period overall (within 28 days of a positive test), and 2,284 of these deaths (72%) were in those who were fully vaccinated. 

This pattern of a greater number of deaths in vaccinated rather than unvaccinated people is seen in age groups 60 years and up, who made up the majority of deaths. However, it isn't true among younger age groups. Taking age groups 18 to 59 in isolation, only 35% of deaths were amongst double vaccinated people. 

The clip of the podcast being shared on social media misses an important caveat and piece of context that helps to explain these figures. 

Before the tables in the report, the document has a section entitled ”interpretation of the data” which states: “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”. 

It adds: “This is especially true because vaccination has been prioritised in individuals who are more susceptible or more at risk of severe disease”.

In other words, although the risk of death with Covid-19 is much reduced after vaccination, because so many people in the UK have been vaccinated, and uptake has been highest and provided first to the oldest and most vulnerable people, it is expected that many people who become unwell with Covid-19 will now be among those who are vaccinated. 

For example, by week 38 over 90% of over 80s had been double vaccinated. While the vaccines are highly effective, they are not 100% effective at preventing severe infection. Because so many people in this age group are vaccinated, many of the infections will occur in vaccinated people.

If you look at the number of deaths per 100,000 in the population, there are many more deaths in the unvaccinated than vaccinated. A recent report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that between 2 January and 24 September 2021 the age-adjusted risk of death involving Covid-19 was 32 times greater in unvaccinated people than in fully vaccinated people. The ONS and the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) caution that these figures are not a measure of vaccine effectiveness, and can change over time due to changes in infection rates, Covid-19 variants, changes to the types of people who are vaccinated or unvaccinated (for example which populations are included at times of different rollouts), immunity via infection and waning vaccine immunity.

We have previously written about some of the potential inaccuracies of using similar data to comment on vaccine efficacy. These include difficulty in accurately estimating the numbers of unvaccinated people, and changes in behaviour amongst vaccinated and unvaccinated people. 

The UKHSA has said: “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”.

In its most recent report, the UKHSA instead uses information from a number of sources to say that the vaccines are estimated to be 65 to 95% effective at preventing symptomatic disease with the Delta variant of Covid-19, with high levels of protection against severe disease and death.

It also says that: “There is some evidence of waning of protection against infection and symptomatic disease over time, though protection against severe disease remains high in most groups at least 5 months after the second dose.”

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has announced the roll out of a booster programme amongst vulnerable groups who were first vaccinated over six months ago.

We have written more about similar topics previously

Update 3 December 2021

This piece was updated to include more information around the figure that the age-adjusted risk of deaths involving Covid-19 was 32 times greater in unvaccinated people. It has also been updated to link to comments from the OSR on this figure.

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