by Tom Chivers
Friday, 12
February 2021
Explainer
11:00

Are we seeing a vaccine effect already?

We can look to Israel for clues
by Tom Chivers
It’s not a race, but it’s still better to be going quickly than slowly. Credit: Getty

Astonishingly, about 25% of the UK adult population has now been vaccinated. That is enormous. Israel and the United Arab Emirates have done much more, but the UK is in third, well ahead of the US in fourth and miles ahead of everyone after that. (I know it’s not a race, but it’s still better to be going quickly than slowly.)

The question, of course, is: can we see the effects yet? Are lives getting saved, in numbers large enough to detect?

In Israel, the effects are dramatic. Cases, hospitalisations and deaths are all dropping; hospitalisations among the over-60s (who were vaccinated first) are now, for the first time, below those among the under-60s.

But Israel is over a month ahead of us; we’ve vaccinated about the same percentage of our population as they had on 7 January. Hospitalisations in the over-60s didn’t start to drop until 15 January.

There are other ways you can look at it. Andrew Lilico wrote an interesting blog post looking at the infection fatality rate; others have pointed out that deaths are falling faster among the elderly than among younger people, as you’d expect given that they were vaccinated first.

I spoke briefly to Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, the Cambridge statistician, and he said you really wouldn’t expect to see any effect on someone’s risk of death for at least a month after vaccination. A month ago, we’d vaccinated less than 5% of the population. They were disproportionately among at-risk groups, but it would only be now that we’d be seeing the start of an effect. The drop in the proportion of deaths which is among the elderly is real, but it could be due to other mechanisms.

Also, it’s really hard to tease out the effects of vaccination from the effects of everything else. The rate of deaths in all age groups has been falling by about 33% a week anyway, because of lockdown. It’s much harder, says Spiegelhalter, to tell which of two things is dropping faster than it is to tell whether one is dropping at all.

(He also pointed out, interestingly, that the sort of person who’s likely to be vaccinated early in their age group is probably also the sort of person who would be careful anyway. So the effect of vaccinations might seem smaller at first than it will be on the whole.)

Deaths in the elderly might be falling faster than deaths in the younger groups because of vaccinations, although there is not, says Spiegelhalter, a corresponding fall in hospitalisations, which is odd. But at the moment, it’s a very faint signal we’re trying to detect in a very noisy environment. The good news, though, is that the signal is going to get much clearer, quickly. Fingers crossed, but I expect that in a week or so, we won’t have to do this reading-of-the-tea-leaves stuff: it’ll be very obvious, just as it was with Israel.

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John Chestwig
John Chestwig
1 year ago

David Spiegelhalter might be great at statistics, but he’s displayed a lack of thoroughness in his analysis of the overall situation previously. If he actually stated, as is attributed to him above, that, “The rate of deaths in all age groups has been falling by about 33% a week anyway, because of lockdown.”, then I’m afraid I have to take all his other announcements with a rather large pinch of salt. I’m not say lockdowns have no effect, but we simply don’t have any credible data to inform us what the effect actually was.

I’d also be fascinated to see the numbers of people who die within 28 days of taking the vaccine, reported on a daily basis in the MSM. Not because I think it is killing anyone, but because it will yet again help illustrate to those who are numerate, that regardless of what you test for, if you measure mortality rates within 28 days of anything, amongst populations with higher than average mortality rates (eg care home residents, hospital inpatients), you’ll get significant numbers.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
1 year ago
Reply to  John Chestwig

Also see governments own site that shows infections peaking ~ 1 week or more before lockdown, I’d be suprised if the lockdown had no effect, but the idea it had a pre-emptive effect is a stretch. I expect again that people’s fear (or call it personal responsibility) had a large part to play, and a build up in immunity.

“you really wouldn’t expect to see any effect on someone’s risk of death for at least a month after vaccination”
Fairly well know AZ trial results:
“Vaccine efficacy after a single standard dose of vaccine from day 22 to day 90 post vaccination was 76% at stopping symptomatic infection”. I’ve read previously that after 2 weeks the infection rates between vaccinated and unvaccinated start to diverge. So yes I would expect vaccination to have an affect this early.

Compare again on the UKs governments own site the difference in the fall in death rates in November, Vs Jan. In November 2020 cases fell by upto 40%, deaths sadly by a lot less (including lag) ~10%. In 2021 so far the death rate looks to be dropping faster even than cases.

It demostrates the excellence of vaccines and the idiocy of not protecting the vulnerable properly with focused protection.

Simon Jenkins
Simon Jenkins
1 year ago
Reply to  John Chestwig

Actually the vaccines are clearly killing people. The data already extracted out of VAERS proves this. Along with a high number of severe adverse reactions, spontaneous abortions, etc. There are also already many reports from care homes all over the world showing significant effects right after vaccinations.
But yes, the “28 day” system would be a fair comparison. The data is there. It just needs (I guess) authorisation to be able to relate the two (vaccination dates with mortality dates).

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  John Chestwig

Two comments have been removed here: what’s going on?

Adam C
Adam C
1 year ago

Even more astonishingly, Swedish covid cases and deaths have fallen by about 60% since the most recent UK lockdown + vaccination programme began.

This is an astonishing correlation, on a par with Tom’s quoted 33% figure.

Also Tom covid deaths are down 33% since most of the adult population began “dry January”. Maybe you could write an article on how reducing alcohol consumption reduces covid deaths by 33%?

John Chestwig
John Chestwig
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam C

It’s amazing isn’t it. Various strands of evidence showing that cases were starting to fall prior to lockdown. No apparent link between lockdown severity and cases across the different US states. Yet we have people clearly taking as fact that lockdowns definitively reduce transmission.

I’m sure the people making such statements are aware that correlation is not the same as causation, but it is utterly ridiculous to sweep over such a key point, when lockdowns are shown to be ‘causing’ business failures and mental health issues.

jonarnoldimages
jonarnoldimages
1 year ago

“Also, it’s really hard to tease out the effects of vaccination from the effects of everything else. The rate of deaths in all age groups has been falling by about 33% a week anyway, because of lockdown.” Because of lockdown? Really?We don’t know that at all, it is purely an assumption. The curve is very similar to Sweden’s where their restrictions are entirely different. Spiegelhalter is not an immunologist or epidemiologist so that might explain his mistake.

Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell
1 year ago

It’s neither vaccination nor “the measures”. Cases have dropped across most northern hemisphere countries starting in the second week of January. The variable is global. It ignores borders as well as the wide range of responses. I assume it is the season, though I am open to suggestions.
In any case, it is Mother Nature who is in charge.

Todd Kreider
Todd Kreider
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Campbell

Yeah, Chivers wrote: “The rate of deaths in all age groups has been falling by about 33% a week anyway, because of lockdown” but there is no basis for this. Testing in the U.S. started to decline three weeks ago but the rate of case increase was already in decline since early January. The opposite happened in the U.K. where testing significantly increased in January. Of course, as others point out, states in the U.S. may have started to test at magnification of 25 to 32 and not above 37 as the U.S. labs were doing all last year.

Mora Fields
Mora Fields
1 year ago
Reply to  Todd Kreider

Oregon and many (if not most) other states were testing at 45.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Campbell

Cases have dropped across most northern hemisphere countries starting in the second week of January.

Well, let’s look at the figures from OurWorldInData (7-day rolling average)

Some northern hemisphere countries where cases peaked between 07-14 January:
Ireland; Czech Republic; Slovenia; UK; US; Sweden; Slovakia; Switzerland; Georgia; Italy; Poland; Germany; Canada; Austria; Romania; Hungary; Japan;

Some countries where cases peaked after 14 January:
Portugal; Israel; Spain; Lebanon; UAE; France; Tunisia; Belarus; Belgium; Ukraine; Armenia; Kazakhstan; Pakistan

Some countries where cases are still rising:
Kuwait; Jordan; Bulgaria; Greece; Iraq; Saudi Arablia

Some countries where cases peaked before 07 January:
Lithuania; Netherlands; Serbia; Denmark; Croatia; Azerbaijan; Morocco; Nepal; Egypt; Bangladesh

So there’s some support for the second week of January, but it’s clearly not a universal. For example, Belgium and the Netherlands, neighbouring countries with similar population had very difference experiences.

Mora Fields
Mora Fields
1 year ago

How do we know it’s the vaccine and not the new testing recommendations? Has everyone forgotten that the WHO revised it’s pcr testing guidelines on Dec. 14? It had “received user feedback on an elevated risk for false SARS-CoV-2 results when testing specimens using RT-PCR reagents” (which it had actually known about from the get-go) and consequently revised its testing guidelines to use lower CTs. This in itself would be all that is needed to lower positive test results, covid hospitalizations and covid deaths. How convenient that it coincided with the introduction of the vaccine.

Voodoo Politics
Voodoo Politics
1 year ago
Reply to  Mora Fields

NO ONE talks about this at all. There is no evidence in his writing that Chivers understand was a PCR test measures or what a cycle threshold is. I am a big fan of unHerd, but I don’t understand why this guy is their main covid writer. He’s a good writer. His writing is clear. But he is NOT a science or medical writer and it shows.

Mark Baggins
Mark Baggins
1 year ago

Which countries have the slowest/fewest done so far vaccination programmes? Should we be looking at those and seeing if it is seasonality rather than the vax?

Charles Levett-Scrivener
Charles Levett-Scrivener
1 year ago

I wonder if the difference in the fall in number of deaths compared to hospitalizations is due to improved (drug) treatments

Peter Whitehead
Peter Whitehead
1 year ago

….and the more susceptible are already immune or dead.

KM
KM
1 year ago

Could it be a mix of great news with bad news? I mean, can it be that the vaccines actually do reduce deaths (or even make them a negligible percentage of where they are now) but they do not prevent the spread of the virus, meaning that vulnerable people or people with symptoms will still require hospitalizations if nothing more than for precautionary reasons? Which would, of course, mean that vaccines are positive definitely but do not reduce the pressure on health systems bottlenecks.

And that can be a very negative outcome still considering that lockdowns and restrictions are for this purpose, to maintain the – various – NHS globally. But, just hypothesizing for now, we will know more in the next few weeks.

John Chestwig
John Chestwig
1 year ago
Reply to  KM

One would hope that, even if not fully effective, if it reduces symptoms to a level whereby they are not serious, there would be no need to go into hospital at all. Effectively that would transform covid-19 into a common cold – we might all still get it from time, but not a big deal.

I think you are right to ask whether it could be a mix of good and bad news – I sense most things during this episode have definitely been in the grey area, between the extremes of people’s views.

Peter Whitehead
Peter Whitehead
1 year ago
Reply to  John Chestwig

To most of the fit 60 year old and younger Sars-Cov-2 is already a common cold! Don’t dismiss the common cold though as it kills 6% of those needing hospital treatment for it – “not many people know that”!
My partner and I are 64 and fairly certain we had a small bout last March and it was less severe than a cold. However other younger members of our household had the classic symptoms and son-in-law lost his taste for 4 months.
Yes, I know it kills some but we’re in line to pointlessly kill more through knock on effects of our unintelligent obsession.

Joerg Beringer
Joerg Beringer
1 year ago

https://www.unz.com/mwhitne
Meanwhile in the real world in Israel, people are refusing to get vaccinated, positive test results, the positivity rate and R are rising and mutations are spreading.
The correlation with vaccination is striking, similar to the UK.

Michael Dawson
Michael Dawson
1 year ago
Reply to  Joerg Beringer

The article you mention raises some interesting issues and sounds pretty worrying. I hope the author is wrong. It’s worth noting that he was clearly wrong in July about Sweden: “And while Sweden could still experience sporadic outbreaks that might kill another 2 to 300 people, any recurrence of the infection in the Fall or Winter will not be a dreaded “Second Wave”, but a much weaker flu-like event that will not overwhelm the public health system or kill thousands of people.”

Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
1 year ago

There is some interesting new data from Israel about how the viral load and thus transmissibility of covid is significantly reduced in those vaccinated even after the first vaccine dose..

Peter Whitehead
Peter Whitehead
1 year ago

Surely to be expected. Any “fit” immune system should almost immediately (within 2 days) start producing the t, b and antibody cells and begin killing any Sars-Cov-2 RNA. A “dead” (RNA is not really “alive”) virus does not infect though it will show up on a PCR test for months.

Malcolm Ripley
Malcolm Ripley
1 year ago

How come nobody has said “Oh look infections are falling JUST LIKE THEY DO EVERY WINTER from whatever the latest respiratory illness is. If they didn’t fall then we would all be dead a year ago or two years ago or three years ago or a million years ago. There are countries without vaccinations and the infections are plummeting. Hasn’t anyone noticed that they are tanking round the world? What does the chart of infections show for the under 60’s ? Surely that should show no change since they have not been vaccinated. Accordning to ONS hospitalizations are falling IN ALL AGE GROUPS. Amazing vaccine it works on the unvaccinated. Or maybe, just maybe (whisper mode) we have reached herd immunity BEFORE everyone has been vaccinated and not only the UK but worldwide just like we have done every virus since the dawn of man!

Brian Newman
Brian Newman
1 year ago

The elephant in the room is the pfizer vaccine is being given in 2 doses!
Israel is getting maximum immunity.
Uk has delayed the second dose of pfizer,and the effect of this is not known!
AZ delay is giving apparently 70 % immunity
We can’t compare our programme with Israel

Alex Camm
Alex Camm
1 year ago
Reply to  Brian Newman

You quote AZ = 70% effective as though it is somehow inferior to Pfizer et al . My understanding is they used different methods of testing so direct comparison cannot be made. It is likely Az vac is as effective as the others