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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher November 30, 2021

Alex Berenson misrepresents data on death rates by vaccination status in England

If Your Time is short

  • The government agency that produced the report cited in the claim says the report’s data do not back up the claim.

  • A footnote in the government data table cited in the post provides an explanation for the higher mortality rate among vaccinated people in the 10-to-59 age group.

Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter who has questioned the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and whose posts are sometimes cited for misinformation, made what appears to be an alarming claim about the vaccines in England.

"Vaccinated English adults under 60 are dying at twice the rate of unvaccinated people the same age" was the headline on his blog post, which cites a Nov. 1 data release from the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics.

"I don’t know how to explain this other than vaccine-caused mortality," Berenson wrote in the text of the blog post.

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The data Berenson cited are based on real numbers from the government agency. But the office that issued the data told PolitiFact that the numbers don’t support Berenson’s claim about vaccine-caused mortality.

What Berenson’s blog says

Berenson’s blog post includes a chart that he says indicates that among people in England ages 10 to 59, the death rate from all causes is higher for those who have received two COVID-19 vaccine doses than for people who are unvaccinated.

Berenson wrote that the chart he included with his post was based on the data from the Office for National Statistics, and cited a specific table in the government’s Nov. 1 release.

The headline on his blog gave the impression that he compared people of the same age; in fact, his comparison was between people in a 50-year age range. His conclusion did not take into account how vaccination patterns and other health issues vary across that broad age range.

What the government’s analysis said

The government issued a summary of its conclusions based on the mortality data set Berenson cited and other data sets. Its conclusions take into account the age distribution in the population that Berenson didn’t. 

Between Jan. 2 and Sept. 24, the report said, the age-adjusted risk of death involving COVID-19 was 32 times greater in unvaccinated people than in fully vaccinated individuals.

Age-standardized mortality rates allow comparisons between vaccination status groups, though they don’t account for certain other variables, such as health status, that may also influence the findings. These mortality rates "were consistently lower for people who had received two vaccinations compared with one or no vaccinations," the report said.

Berenson cited a specific table from the government data set for his conclusion that a higher mortality rate among vaccinated people in the 10-to-59 age group pointed to no explanation other than "vaccine-caused mortality."

But a footnote on that same table provides an explanation. It says: "For the 10-59 age group, the vaccinated population will on average be older than the unvaccinated population due to age-based prioritization in the vaccine roll-out. As mortality rates are higher for older people, this will increase the mortality rates for the vaccinated population compared to the unvaccinated population."

That is, the vaccinated population skews older. And older people naturally have higher mortality rates.

A spokesperson for the office elaborated, telling PolitiFact:

  • The weekly data provide mortality rates for the 10-to-59 age group, and for much smaller age ranges, 60 to 69, 70 to 79, and 80 and over. 

  • The lowest age group is broad, "so it needs to be considered that this group will contain older people with high vaccination rates and younger people with much lower levels of vaccination."

  • The 10 to 59 age group is "too wide to infer what is happening. Vaccinated people are more likely to be older and unvaccinated people more likely to be younger, therefore increasing the all-cause mortality rates for the vaccinated."

It’s also worth noting that England has a relatively high percentage of its population fully vaccinated — 68.6% compared with 57.9% in the United States, according to Our World in Data. 

"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, hospitalizations 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," the government health agency said in its weekly vaccine surveillance report covering the same 38-week period in 2021. "This is especially true because vaccination has been prioritized in individuals who are more susceptible or more at risk of severe disease."

Our World in Data reported Nov. 23 that, for all ages, the COVID-19 death rate for the unvaccinated in England is nearly five times higher than for the vaccinated.

When we asked Berenson for comment, he referred us to a much longer post he published about eight days after his original post, in which he said the chart he cited "was not perfect" but was meant to raise questions about vaccine effectiveness. He concluded the update by stating: 

"Something is wrong. The promises that the health authorities have made over the last 12 months about the vaccines are not coming true. Despite near-complete levels of adult vaccination in Europe, many countries are seeing skyrocketing Covid cases and deaths."

Our ruling

Berenson claimed in a Nov. 20 blog post that vaccinated people under 60 in England "are dying at twice the rate of unvaccinated people the same age. ... I don’t know how to explain this other than vaccine-caused mortality."

Berenson’s claim uses a chart based on real mortality statistics from the government. But it reaches a conclusion that is not supported by the data in that report. 

For a post that has an element of truth but leaves a misleading impression, our rating is Mostly False.

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Alex Berenson misrepresents data on death rates by vaccination status in England

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