Lance Reddick, best known for his roles in The Wire and the John Wick franchise, sadly passed away on Friday, March 17th.
Conspiracy theorists have once again hopped aboard the anti-vaccine train, claiming that Lance Reddick’s death was caused by the Covid-19 vaccine.
These days, it seems that any time a person dies suddenly without an immediate explanation, conspiracy theorists blame the Covid-19 vaccine and #diedsuddenly or the misspelled hashtag #diedsuddendly trend on Twitter.
To say it’s problematic to jump to conclusions is an understatement. First, it’s “unknown” what caused Reddick’s death. Authorities have stated it is “unclear” what caused his death.
The anti-vax crowd has latched on to the statement provided by law enforcement that Reddick’s death “appeared to have been from natural causes.” Certainly it would be unusual for someone 60 years of age and seemingly in good health to die suddenly of natural causes. Nevertheless, the statement by police on natural causes says nothing about what may have happened and still needs to be determined.
Put simply, a “natural” death is one that occurred due to an internal factor that caused the body to shut down. At this point in time, with respect to Reddick we don’t know what that is. Any assertion to the contrary is speculation. All we can conclude from the police’s statement is that was no external reason for the death, such as a traumatic injury or violence.
Second, and more importantly, attributing the cause of death to the Covid-19 vaccine in cases like Reddick belies the factual, aggregated evidence that has accumulated over time since the vaccine’s rollout in December 2020.
Since December 2020, billions of shots have been administered worldwide. If vaccination caused mortality to increase, we would have expected to observe that regions with higher vaccination coverage would have higher excess mortality over the period December 2020 to the present. This has not been the case. Here, excess mortality compares the number of deaths that have occurred during the pandemic to the number of deaths that would have been expected based on pre-pandemic trends. It captures deaths that arose from Covid-19 directly, through indirect pathways such as patients avoiding hospitals during Covid-19 surges, and by way of other causes. While determining a cause of death can be a complex process, recording deaths is more straightforward. For this reason, calculations of excess deaths are viewed as the least biased estimate of the pandemic’s death toll.
The U.S. had significantly higher rates of Covid-19 and excess all-cause mortality compared with peer countries – other wealthy, industrialized nations – during 2021 and early 2022, a difference accounting for between 150 000 and 470 000 deaths. Yet the U.S. had a substantially lower vaccination rate than its peers. Indeed, the gaps between the U.S. and its peers can be explained by greater vaccination uptake outside the U.S., especially among vulnerable populations such as the elderly, in addition to differences in health and social infrastructure. Notably, the difference in fatality rate between the U.S. as a whole and its peers was muted in the 10 U.S. states with the highest vaccination coverage.
In the U.S., the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is a national early warning system to detect possible safety problems in vaccines. A study in Lancet showed that during the period December 2020 to June 2021, while there had been several thousand deaths reported after being vaccinated, no unusual patterns in the data were detected that suggested a link to the vaccine itself.
As of December 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in the two year period since the vaccine rollout it had received 18,007 preliminary reports through VAERS of people who died after getting a Covid-19 vaccine. This in and of itself does not prove that vaccines caused the adverse events reported. In fact, other than the very rare side effects of myocarditis and anaphylaxis, no unusual patterns in the data gathered by CDC were detected that might indicate a connection to the vaccine itself.
Like other vaccines and therapeutics for that matter, Covid-19 vaccines aren’t completely risk-free. Certain Covid-19 vaccines, specifically the viral vector vaccines made by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson (J&J), have been linked to an increased risk of a blood clotting disorder called vaccine-induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia, which can be fatal. In a study published last year, the clotting disorder was found in 60 individuals, out of 18 million who had received the J&J vaccine. Nine of these people died. The risk appears to be greatest – one in 100,000 – in women ages 30 to 49.
But there isn’t evidence indicating that mRNA Covid-19 vaccines, such as those manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, have the same thrombotic thrombocytopenia risk. In fact, while researchers observed an association between these vaccines and certain blood clotting disorders when comparing vaccinated people with historical pre-Covid data, this association disappeared after the researchers controlled for potential confounding factors like healthcare-seeking behavior and the disease Covid-19 itself. It’s important to keep in mind that getting Covid-19 itself increases a person’s risk of developing blood clotting problems to a greater extent than the viral vector or mRNA Covid-19 vaccines.
Persistent excess mortality in 2022
There has been persistent unexplained excess mortality in 2022. For example, in the autumn, every nation in Europe for which data is available experienced excess mortality. And most of these nations are highly vaccinated and boosted.
Philipp Schellekens, who works at the World Bank, analyzed a large dataset, encompassing many countries, to look for a correlation between the vaccination coverage and excess mortality of world countries with their excess mortality. There was no correlation between vaccination coverage and excess mortality during the period from August through October 2022.
While in late 2022 the European Union’s excess mortality continued to be elevated in most of the region, the peaks in excess mortality that coincide with Covid-19 waves are considerably lower than in 2020 and 2021.
However, the 19% rise in December 2022 is alarming and raises questions to which experts don’t have definitive answers. Multiple causes have been cited, including Covid-19 itself. Indeed, many scientists suggest that Covid-19 death tallies represent underestimates because they fail to capture Covid-19 deaths that are misclassified to other causes of death. There have also been persistent staff shortages at hospitals throughout Europe, long wait times for emergency services, and an earlier-than-usual onset of influenza. Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted healthcare systems to such a degree that it made it harder for people to access medical care for other conditions. This may have resulted in more deaths from non-Covid-related causes, such as heart disease or cancer. Health systems are still trying to play catch up with respect to delayed diagnoses and treatments caused by the pandemic.
We observe similar data in the U.S. During the second half of 2022, the weekly number of deaths in the U.S. represented an excess of 5% to 12% above the expected mortality. That said, this excess mortality is clearly lower than the excess mortality registered between April 2020 and February 2021.
Going forward, it is vital that experts continue to monitor excess mortality and investigate possible causes. What’s encouraging news is that life expectancy returned to pre-pandemic levels in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Sweden.
Covid-19 vaccines have saved millions of lives
What we do know is that Covid-19 vaccines have saved millions of lives globally. Based on officially reported Covid-19 deaths, it’s been estimated that vaccinations prevented 14·4 million deaths from Covid-19 in 185 countries and territories between December 2020 and December 2021. This estimate rose to 19·8 million deaths from Covid-19 averted when excess deaths are used as an estimate of the true extent of the pandemic.
And, data for the U.S. during the first two years of their use suggest the cumulative effect of vaccination has been to avert 18 million hospitalizations and more than three million deaths.
There’s a daily deluge of online conspiracy theory claims without evidence that Covid-19 vaccines are killing hundreds of thousands of people (some even assert millions). This misinformation is undermining public health and causing unnecessary death.
Covid-19 vaccines aren’t perfect. For example, while they cut the chance of infection somewhat, they’re not especially good at curbing transmission. And, in very rare instances, they can cause serious adverse events. But, their record of saving lives is stellar. Without vaccines, millions more people would have died.