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ANALYSIS: Snappy anti-lockdown poster misrepresents Covid-19 and vaccination death rates

“If one death out of 10k Covid cases shut down the country shouldn’t one death out of 10k vaccines shut down the program?” This slogan from a recent protest in South Africa’s largest city may grab attention, but what little data there is so far firmly contradicts it.

In May 2021 a protest was held beside a major road in the South African city of Johannesburg. Protesters gathered with homemade signs, white T-shirts and a megaphone.

They were opposing vaccines, lockdowns, face masks and other measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The protest was part of a larger event that saw protests in cities around the world, organised by an anonymous German “action group”.

The protestors made a number of widely debunked claims, including that “there is no virus” and that vaccines against Covid-19 may alter human DNA.

One sign read: “If one death out of 10k Covid cases shut down the country shouldn’t one death out of 10k vaccines shut down the program?”

The slogan from the poster was shared on a public Telegram group used to plan the protest. Telegram is a messaging app that allows huge group chats. It has become a popular platform for conspiracy theory groups, in part because messages can be encrypted and the company refuses to remove false content unless it incites harm against others.

“Here are a few ideas for you guys for posters if you want them to print,” the Telegram user who shared the slogan said. “Can’t wait to meet you all xx.”

It’s a snappy slogan but what does the data reveal about Covid-19 cases and deaths related to vaccination? We investigated. 

Data doesn’t support Covid-19 death rate claims

The Meedan Health Desk is a group of public health experts who explain health and medical science. They say it’s difficult to calculate an accurate case fatality rate for Covid-19. This rate is the proportion of people diagnosed with a disease who later die from it.

“Case fatality rate is an important metric. However, in the case of Covid-19, it may not give an accurate measure of the risk of death,” the group explains.

“That is because it accounts only for confirmed cases and deaths. There may be many undiagnosed people with Covid-19 who never make it into official data.”

Tom Moultrie, professor of demography at the University of Cape Town, told Africa Check the real case fatality rate was currently unknown. “We do not know the true number of cases, nor the true number of deaths.”

By 6 June 2021, South Africa had officially recorded 1,696,564 cases of Covid-19, and 56,974 deaths. Based on this data, the case fatality rate is 3.36% – or around 336 deaths per every 10,000 cases of Covid-19.

This is likely not the true case fatality rate but it does not imply a rate as low as one death per 10,000 Covid-19 cases.

Excess deaths

The Health Desk’s experts also say any calculation of this kind will be skewed by Covid-19 deaths that go unrecorded and cases of Covid-19 that aren’t confirmed with testing.

The South African Medical Research Council records weekly natural deaths in South Africa. It has released reports showing that deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic have significantly exceeded expected levels based on historical data. These are referred to as “excess deaths”.

But the council has also said that all excess deaths cannot be attributed to Covid-19.

Prof Debbie Bradshaw, the council’s chief specialist scientist and co-author of the report on excess deaths, has said that “we cannot distinguish between deaths directly associated with Covid-19 and those that may have resulted due to the health system being overburdened”.

Vaccine death rates also uncertain

Moultrie told Africa Check there wasn’t enough data on the number of people who have died after being vaccinated against Covid-19. And there is even less data on deaths directly related to vaccination.

By 3 June 2021, 1,266,893 South Africans had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. And Shabir Madhi, a professor of vaccinology at Wits University in Johannesburg, told Africa Check there was no indication “at all” that one in 10,000 South Africans had died after being vaccinated.

South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) has encouraged people to report serious or unusual side effects of vaccination either via a form on its website, or on the Med Safety app.

Africa Check contacted the NICD and South Africa’s Department of Health to request these numbers, but has not received a response. We will update this report if we do.

The total lack of data to support this claim only makes it more effective. Moultrie told Africa Check: “The comparison is not valid. But it makes for a great poster because there is no obvious way to refute it with data.”

Data indicates death rate after vaccination much lower than one in 10,000

In the United States, almost 171 million people had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by 4 June 2021. Its data shows how low the true death rate from vaccination is likely to be. 

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) maintains a database of “adverse events” recorded after vaccination, called the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System or Vaers. Healthcare providers and individuals use the system to report any side effects or unusual events that occur after a vaccine jab. This allows health authorities to be alerted to potential issues with a vaccine.

By 4 June, the Vaers database had recorded that 4,436 people given a vaccine against Covid-19 had the adverse event of “death”. This represents about 0.0026% of the people who had received at least one dose of a vaccine – roughly 0.26 people per 10,000.

But Madhi told Africa Check that this number should not be considered an accurate count of deaths after vaccination. The groups prioritised in vaccine rollouts included the elderly and those with underlying illnesses. 

“Deaths even in this group were more likely to have occurred due to non-Covid related illness than due to the vaccine or Covid,” he said.

And the CDC says Vaers reports have not been verified and “may include incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental and unverified information”. Some of the deaths recorded on Vaers are clearly unrelated to the Covid-19 vaccine. These include several deaths by suicide and drug overdose.

The poster’s claims may be catchy, but the data on Covid-19 and vaccination death rates doesn’t support them.

Further Reading

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