Hiltzik: The return of an anti-vax claim about the COVID vaccines

The newspaper published by the respected British Medical Journal earlier this month was an eye-opener, to say the least. It questioned why excessive deaths in Western countries remained unusually high during the COVID-19 pandemic, even after vaccines were introduced in 2021.

The implication seemed clear: Rather than reducing cases and deaths, the COVID vaccines had fueled the tragic tide.

That finding was picked up within 48 hours by the Telegraph, a conservative British daily newspaper. It jumped across the Atlantic Ocean to the New York Postpart of the Murdoch media empire, a day later.

Several news sources have claimed that this study implies a direct causal link between COVID-19 vaccination and mortality. This study does not establish such a connection.

– British medical journal

It has since spread widely on social media the anti-vaccination camp. The replays have become increasingly feverish, with some tweets blaming the vaccines for tens of millions of deaths.

Here's what you need to know: There is no truth in this finding, nor in the anti-vaccine camp's interpretation of the BMJ article.

The magazine, which posted the article on its Public Health web page on June 3, acknowledged that. In a public statement issued on June 6, after the erroneous interpretation began to spread worldwide, the magazine noted: “Several news outlets have claimed that this study implies a direct causal link between COVID-19 vaccination and mortality. This study does not establish such a connection.”

On the contrary, the magazine wrote, “Vaccines have in fact played an important role in reducing the severe illness and deaths associated with COVID-19 infection.”

Unfortunately, the magazine's warning came too late. As I write, the Telegraph's June 4 tweet pushing its misleading story has been viewed 1.5 million times on X (formerly Twitter), but the BMJ's warning has only 388,000 views.

These figures are proof positive of the old statement (attributed to Winston Churchill, among others) that “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can do its work.”

Some researchers claim that the original paper, written by a team of Dutch scientists, was so sloppy and unimportant that it should not have been published at all.

Among the critics is Ariel Karlinsky, an Israeli economist and statistician whose data formed the core of the Dutch article. Karlinski does written that the BMJ should withdraw the paper and “open an investigation into what happened there with editors and reviewers.” The magazine did not respond.

Anti-vaccine propagandists' use of the BMJ article underlines the dangers of misinformation in today's public health.

A recent study in science analyzed the impact of what the authors called “vaccine-skeptical” published content on vaccine refusal. The authors examined anti-vaccine posts on Facebook during the first three months of the COVID vaccine rollout in early 2021.

They found that posts flagged as false by third-party fact-checkers received a relatively minimum of 8.7 million views during that period. Posts that were not flagged by fact-checkers but “nevertheless implied that vaccines were harmful to health — many of which came from credible mainstream news outlets — were viewed hundreds of millions of times.”

The flagged posts were more likely to show vaccine resistance, the authors wrote. While unflagged posts individually had less impact on vaccine sentiment, the volume of those posts was so immense that together they did more damage to the vaccine numbers.

A single vaccine-skeptical article in the Chicago Tribune — headlined “A healthy doctor died two weeks after receiving COVID vaccine; CDC is investigating why” – was viewed by more than 50 million users on Facebook, more than 20% of the platform's U.S. user base. That was “more than six times the number of views than all flagged disinformation combined.”

It is also true that articles that may be innocuous or unclear at their core can be distorted and amplified into explicit anti-vaccination messages when passed through the anti-vax network.

Something similar happened with the BMJ paper. Wording that referred to “serious concerns” about the impact of vaccines and “containment measures” such as lockdowns on excess deaths was turned into a Telegram headline stating that “Covid vaccines may have contributed to the increase in excess deaths ” and similar language in the New York Times. YorkPost.

In repeating these claims, the anti-vaxx camp did so after removing or minimizing most of the qualifying language. The headline of a report published by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s anti-vaccine organization, Children's Health Defense, stated that the COVID vaccines 'Likely fueled the rise in deaths' attribute that conclusion to 'mainstream media'.

The CHD report quoted a blog post by anti-vaxx crusader Meryl Nass, republication of the Telegraaf article. The Nass post was headlined “The dam has broken,” indicating that major news sources were now accepting the dangers of the COVID vaccines.

Nass, by the way, is a physician from Maine whose license has been suspended and who has been fined $10,000 for prescribed ivermectin and hydroxychloroquinetwo drugs known to be useless in treating COVID-19, to patients.

All things considered, and the evolution of the BMJ article into a short statement claiming that the COVID vaccines are harmful to health plays into some of the most extreme anti-vaccine misinformation in circulation – such as the incredibly ignorant and dangerous recommendation from Joseph Ladapo, the anti-vaccine organization. vaccine quack appointed surgeon general in Florida by Governor Ron DeSantis, that no one under 65 is taking a COVID vaccine.

The medical and immunology communities have overwhelmingly concluded that the COVID-19 vaccines have dramatically reduced hospitalizations and deaths from the disease. A December 2022 Commonwealth Fund report card concluded that after two years of administration, the vaccines had prevented more than 18 million additional hospital admissions and more than 3 million additional deaths.

This is the progress being jeopardized by the deluge of anti-vaccine propaganda from RFK Jr.'s organization. and other opponents of vaccination.

Which brings us back to the BMJ article and its obvious shortcomings.

'Excess deaths', the measure reportedly examined by the Dutch authors, is simply the number of deaths in a country over a given period above the number that would have been expected 'under normal circumstances', based on historical patterns.

In more than 40 Western countries during the three peak years of the pandemic, the authors reported, there were 1.033 million excess deaths in 2020, about 1.26 million in 2021 and 808,000 in 2022.

The authors were baffled as to why the number of deaths actually increased in 2021, despite the arrival of the vaccines and the implementation of social anti-pandemic measures, and remained high the following year. “Government leaders and policymakers,” the authors wrote, “must thoroughly investigate the underlying causes of persistent excess mortality.”

The authors further noted that “there is also a lack of consensus in the medical community on concerns that mRNA vaccines could cause more harm than initially predicted.” That is a gross misrepresentation.

The consensus within the medical community is unquestionable that the vaccines are safe and effective. While they cause occasional side effects (as do all vaccines), the health threats posed by COVID-19 itself are immeasurably more dangerous.

The truth is that the factors causing increased excess mortality during the pandemic are not mysterious, but they are well understood. Statistical data scientist Jeffrey S. Morris of the University of Pennsylvania put his finger on some of the most important ones.

One is that many more people were exposed to COVID-19 in 2021 than in 2020. According to the World Health Organization, there were about 10,000 cases and about 238 deaths per million inhabitants at the end of 2020; a year later there were 35,186 cases and 683 deaths per million. Furthermore, the COVID variants that emerged in 2021 – the Delta and Omicron waves – were far more transmissible and virulent (resulting in more hospitalizations and deaths) than the original variants.

Also in 2021, many of the strictest anti-pandemic measures implemented in 2020 – school closures, lockdowns, business closures, face mask mandates – were lifted by local authorities. This increased the level of exposure to the virus among the general public.

As for the vaccines, the Dutch authors seemed to suspect that vaccination took place as if a switch was flipped in January 2021. That is of course not true.

Figures from the independent statistical clearinghouse Our World in Data – which were used by the Dutch researchers – show that the vaccines were only gradually rolled out until 2021. By mid-year, only about 20% of the population of the countries that submitted figures had even received a single dose; at the end of 2021, almost 50% were still not vaccinated.

“Even with a 100% effective vaccine, we would have seen high morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 in 2021, which would have led to a large number of additional deaths,” Morris noted.

Statisticians have shown that the peaks and troughs of excess mortality during the pandemic have coincided almost exactly with the rise and peaks of Delta, Omicron and other variants of concern, indicating that excess deaths are almost certainly the result of COVID, and not the COVID vaccines.

Yet another data point: if the British actuary Stuart McDonald points outOf the 47 countries examined by the Dutch researchers, the 10 with the lowest percentage of excess deaths are those with the highest vaccination coverage, such as Canada (83% vaccination coverage in 2022 and only 5% additional deaths in 2020-22) and Germany (76% vaccinated and 6% excess deaths). In contrast, those with the lowest vaccination rates tended to have the most excess deaths, including North Macedonia (40% vaccinated against 28% excess deaths) and Albania (45% vaccinated, 24% excess deaths).

Is there a cure for claptrap like the BMJ article? Unfortunately very little. Qualified scientists and epidemiologists have risen almost as one to expose the flaws of the BMJ article. But the first line of defense against disinformation must be the scientific journals themselves. In this case, albeit not for the first time, the BMJ has failed in its responsibility as the gatekeeper of sound science.

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