January 25, 2022

Like a number of the weird little pressure groups that sprung up over the pandemic, the modus operandi of the Health Advisory & Recovery Team, or HART, is relatively straightforward: cobble together a bunch of people with vaguely academic credentials, put out scientific-sounding press releases that pander to one side or another’s prejudices, and get media attention.

Its latest such gambit is a claim that the Office for National Statistics’ data shows “a significant rise in the death rate for adolescent males over the last eight months”. HART have put together an “open letter to Sajid Javid, Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and the relevant public health bodies”, saying that “the concern is that this time period coincides with the rollout of vaccinations to this age group”.

There’s a saying in journalism that you should play the ball, not the man. And I will play the ball, but I want to play the man a bit first. HART has form for suggesting that vaccines kill people: on p35 of its ‘Covid-19 Response’, still prominently linked on their website, they suggest that the second peak in deaths “coincided with the mass roll-out of novel mRNA/DNA vaccines” and that “whilst we cannot infer causation from correlation, the mRNA/DNA vaccines had not been tested on this cohort” and it would be “negligent” not to ask whether “the rise in deaths during this period is linked in some way to the vaccine roll-out”. (The second peak in deaths was, in fact, caused by the second peak in Covid cases which preceded it by a fortnight or so.)

HART is populated by odd people who believe strange things: one of its publicly listed members worried, in a since-leaked private chat, that the vaccines were literally making people magnetic. Other leaked messages show a member suggesting that the group “seed the thought that vaccines cause Covid”, and that the vaccine rollout is “a crime against humanity” and part of a plan for “massive scale depopulation”. It’s worth noting that while these people may seem to be cranks, they also seem to have some influence with senior Tory backbenchers.

But let’s look at the ideas, as well as the people. After all, stopped clocks are right twice a day, and there have been plenty of stopped clocks in the pandemic. So: what’s the evidence that vaccines have been killing young people?

Here’s HART’s case. They say that according to ONS data, there were 402 deaths among 15 to 19-year-old boys between May and December last year, and that that’s about 65 more than the average for that period over the years 2015 to 2019. I’ve looked into it, and these numbers are about right. In fact, they are a slight understatement of reality: you can see the figures for 2021 here, and the five-year average here. This is, the ONS acknowledges, a “statistically significant” increase.

HART thinks, or at least heavily hints, that the extra deaths are caused by myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle which has been seen in rare cases following vaccination with the Pfizer jab: “​​a connection cannot be excluded,” they say, and it would be “a grave dereliction of duty” not to investigate. They took the ONS to the High Court to get them to release more data, including the age, gender, and vaccination information of everyone who died between the age of 12 and 19 since 1 May last year1.

HART are not the only people to worry about this. In the US, there are regular outbreaks of concern around the mRNA vaccines and myocarditis. But is there anything in it?

For the record, HART is right that the number of recorded deaths in that age category is unusually high. I spoke to the ONS, and they agree — a spokesperson told me that there has been an increase of recorded deaths, compared to the five-year average.

That said, it’s not clear that the rise is real. The ONS only becomes aware of deaths when they are officially registered, which — if the death is referred to a coroner — could be weeks or months after the death itself. Young people’s deaths are much more likely to be referred to the coroner, and in 2020, coroners’ offices were under enormous strain from the pandemic. The spokesman also speculated that there might be a simple backlog from the previous year. There may be all sorts of other reasons, and until the coroners’ reports are in we won’t know.

Another problem for the myocarditis hypothesis is that, although HART says that the “time period coincides with the rollout of vaccinations to this age group”, it doesn’t really. The first mass vaccinations for under-18s didn’t start until August, and even then only began relatively slowly: only about 40,000 people a day were being given first doses in that period, down from a high of 600,000 in March. HART also says that the real risk is second doses, and under-18s wouldn’t have received those until September. Admittedly, 18 and 19-year-olds would have had their jabs somewhat earlier, but not that much earlier: even 30-year-olds were unable to have theirs until the end of May.

And looking at the data that HART themselves cite, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious spike after younger people get the vaccine: while the number of deaths does seem to go up after about May, there’s no spike in August when large numbers of young people started getting vaccinated.

The ONS spokesperson said that there have been adverse vaccine reactions mentioned on death certificates — but only 13 of them, and the ages ranged from 35 to 94. Perhaps there’s been a rash of unreported myocarditis cases, or other vaccine reactions, among young men, but it would be a bit surprising given the attention on the issue.

But let’s grant HART’s premise. Let’s imagine that some percentage of these excess deaths are not statistical artefacts, and are caused by myocarditis. What would that mean?

The main conclusion wouldn’t change: vaccines save lives. Look at this Our World in Data page on the risk of death for vaccinated vs unvaccinated people, in various countries. An unvaccinated American is around 100 times as likely to die as a triple-vaccinated one; an unvaccinated Swiss is about 165 times as likely to die. Similar if less extreme numbers can be seen in Chile and England, although OWID doesn’t yet have data on the effects of boosters in England.

Of course, that’s across all ages. But when you look at 12 to 17-year-olds in the US (the only country where there’s a reasonable amount of data), about one in every 100,000 unvaccinated died each week. That would be about 250 a week, if everyone were unvaccinated. It’s well over ten times the risk to vaccinated children of that age.

The US CDC assesses the risk like this: if 100,000 children are vaccinated, they’d expect around five to seven cases of myocarditis, likely mild. But if they weren’t vaccinated, they’d expect about 5,500 of them to be infected with Covid in the following three months, and about 50 of them to be hospitalised. Out of the 25 million or so 12 to 17-year-olds in the US, that would be around 12,000 hospitalisations in three months. Perhaps ironically, a fair number of them would develop myocarditis: the UK government says about 18% of hospitalised Covid patients suffer myocardial injury.

The point is: even if some non-trivial number of young people have died of myocarditis because of the vaccine, the odds are that more would have died without it — and likely very many more would have suffered a really nasty illness and ended up with some quite long-term effects from it. And, of course, they’d have been more likely to pass it on to other, more vulnerable, people, including their own families.

It is easy to say “even one death is too many”. Of course, each death is a tragedy; but two deaths is twice as big a tragedy, all else being equal. I hope that the ONS is able to find some hint of what caused the apparent increase in deaths among adolescent males; I sincerely doubt that it’s the Pfizer vaccine. But even if it is, the likelihood is that it saved many more lives than it cost. 

Luckily, I think the battle over vaccines has largely been won — more than 90% of UK adults are now vaccinated. But groups like HART have influence over serious people on the fringes of real power, despite being deeply strange people who think those who advocate vaccines for children “need shooting”.

The trouble is, HART’s data is superficially convincing, and takes work to rebut. There are still many thousands of children, and others, who have yet to have their vaccine: if some of them die unnecessarily because of this nonsense, that really would be a tragedy.

FOOTNOTES
  1. The ONS is looking into it, but they can’t release the data easily: so few people die at that age that if they gave much more information about them then individuals would be identifiable. The High Court agreed that they shouldn’t release it.