What was claimed
In Australia, COVID-19 vaccines have caused a surge in deaths, according to social media posts.
Missing Context. Although Australia has seen higher-than-average deaths in 2022, the evidence does not suggest vaccines are to blame. Roughly half of these deaths were due to COVID itself. For much of the remainder, infectious diseases or after-effects of COVID infection, were more likely reasons.
By David Campbell
Social media users have seized on Australian mortality data to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines are behind a jump in deaths.
According to one widely shared blog post, it “paints a horrific picture of the effects of public health policy with around 15,000 excess deaths since October 2021”.
The number of deaths has continued to be 10 per cent higher than average, the author wrote, while equating vaccine mandates with “manslaughter”.
The blog cited provisional data published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) covering the nine months to May 2022. The ABS data has since been updated to include figures for the year to June.
Pointing to the latest numbers, Queensland politician Matt Canavan tweeted that the data showed deaths were"17 per cent higher than normal in Australia" in the first six months of 2022.
He also shared another user’s tweet that said: "The mRNA Covid vaccines are killing people, plain and simple."
The provisional data includes death counts which the ABS has compared to four-year historical averages (2017-19 and 2021) to provide an "initial indication" of whether deaths are tracking higher than expected.
The June results show that there were roughly 17 per cent (13,526) more deaths than the baseline average in the first six months of 2022.
But on the question of whether that says anything about vaccine safety, the Australian Actuaries Institute's Karen Cutter told RMIT FactLab: "The simple answer is no."
She explained that the provisional data only provides counts for a handful of major causes of death, and "does not show anything at all that attributes death to vaccines or not".
Tim Adair, a principal research fellow with Melbourne University's School of Population and Global Health, similarly said the numbers "don't shed any light" on vaccine-related deaths.
And in a statement to FactLab, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which regulates vaccines in Australia, warned that despite a rise in deaths this year, it was "false and unscientific to automatically conclude that vaccines caused these deaths".
"There is no credible evidence to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines have contributed to excess deaths in Australia or overseas."
According to its October 6 weekly vaccine safety report, the TGA has investigated 939 reports of death following vaccination.
Only 14 of those deaths have been directly linked to COVID-19 vaccines, of which 13 occurred after one dose of Vaxzevria (AstraZeneca).
As for the increase, the ABS makes clear that its provisional data "does not provide official estimates of excess mortality".
Partly that's because it "does not take into account changes in population size and age-structures of that population, as well as expected improvements in mortality rates over time".
Adjusting for this, the Actuaries Institute estimates that excess mortality in the first half of 2022 was closer to 13 per cent (11,200).
Roughly half (5,620) of those deaths were "from" COVID-19, it found, meaning non-COVID excess deaths stood at roughly 6.5 per cent.
Major contributors to the rise were dementia, cancer, ischaemic heart disease and cerebrovascular diseases.
(There were also more deaths from other "unspecified diseases", though the institute notes that "this is a large 'catch-all' category" from which it is difficult to draw conclusions.)
But the data does not point to vaccines as a culprit.
As Ms Cutter noted, "the vast majority of the excess deaths were in people aged over 75, but we have a huge population over the age of 16 that has been vaccinated".
"So, the age statistics would indicate that it's not vaccine-related, otherwise we'd be seeing a lot more excess deaths in younger people."
More likely, she said, was that people were suffering strokes, heart attacks or other fatal conditions several months after recovering from COVID-19 — which was consistent with "multiple studies showing that COVID increases" such risks (for example, here and here).
In Singapore, where COVID-19 deaths have tracked similarly to Australia's, the government recently released a report that stated: "The gap between [the] official death toll and estimated excess deaths can be explained by deaths in patients recently infected with COVID-19 in the past 90 days."
Dr Adair said another plausible reason for the rise in Australia's non-COVID-19 mortality was that deaths from other infectious diseases, which fell significantly during lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, were on the rise again.
Pointing to the fact that the largest increases were among the oldest age groups and deaths with an underlying cause of dementia, he added: "It is likely many of these deaths would have had an infectious disease as the more immediate cause."
Dr Adair also said that some deaths classified by the ABS as non-COVID-19 would still have had the disease recorded as a contributing factor on the death certificate, and that these deaths "would likely have an underlying cause such as heart disease or diabetes where COVID may have increased their risk of dying from that cause".
The Actuaries Institute analysis detailed seven potential factors that could be pushing up Australian deaths, but concluded that the impact of vaccine related deaths was likely “negligible”.
Missing Context. Provisional mortality data shows that deaths in the first half of 2022 have been higher than average. But experts say it is not possible to conclude from these population-level estimates that vaccines were to blame. Moreover, the ABS numbers do not account for demographic changes, so do not reflect official excess mortality estimates. The Australian Actuaries Institute, which has factored in these changes, estimates that Australia’s excess mortality over the six month period was roughly 13 per cent (11,200 deaths). Half of that (5,620) was directly attributable to COVID-19. Much of the remainder was likely due to infectious diseases or other conditions that were exacerbated by COVID-19, according to experts.
Acknowledgement of Country
RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.