COVID-19 vaccines offer important benefits; SSRN preprint did not find COVID-19 vaccines “98 times worse” than the virus

CLAIM

“Covid-19 vaccines 98 times worse than the virus”

DETAILS

Misrepresents the source: The preprint did not say that COVID-19 vaccines are 98 times worse than the virus. The claim ignores some important limitations of the preprint, such as the fact that the analysis only covered booster doses; that the analysis measure for damage from COVID-19 is only limited to hospitalization, but not to other serious outcomes such as long-term COVID-19; that the analysis is based on adverse event reports, which alone do not provide sufficient evidence for causality.

GET KEY

COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be highly effective in protecting people from serious illness and death, and they can also reduce a person’s chances of developing long-term COVID. While prior infection confers some degree of protective immunity, infection-induced immunity is unpredictable due to many variables beyond our control, such as disease severity. Vaccination remains the safer and more reliable way to protect against COVID-19.

FULL CLAIM: “Harvard & Johns Hopkins scientists found Covid-19 vaccines 98 times worse than the virus”; Vaccine story collapses as Harvard study shows jab is more dangerous than COVID

REVIEW

In September 2022, several articles went viral, claiming that COVID-19 vaccines are “98 times worse” than COVID-19 itself. Examples include: this one through the Gateway Pundit, another by The Epoch Times, and one by the Florida Standard. The claim is based on: a pre-print (a study not yet peer-reviewed) uploaded to Social Sciences Research Network, co-authored by scientists, including faculty members from Johns Hopkins and Harvard.

The preprint concluded that university booster mandates would be unethical, as they were estimated to do more harm than good in young adults, defined as individuals aged 18 to 29. The authors of this preprint came to this conclusion by calculating how many previously uninfected young adults would need to receive a booster vaccination to avoid one hospitalization, and how many serious side effects would occur with such a scale of booster vaccinations.

Using post-vaccination adverse events reports collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as vaccine manufacturers, the authors estimate that “per occurrence of COVID-19 hospitalization in previously uninfected young adults, we expect 18 to 98 serious adverse events.” including 1.7 to 3.0 cases of booster-associated myocarditis in males, and 1,373 to 3,234 cases of Grade ≥ 3 reactogenicity interfering with daily activities”.

But the preprint findings don’t mean the COVID-19 vaccines are worse than the disease itself, as the articles claimed. As we will explain below, the claim misrepresents the preprint findings.

Let’s look at the claim that the vaccines are “98 times worse” than COVID-19. This figure probably comes from the upper bound of the estimated number of serious adverse events per COVID-19 hospitalization.

But this doesn’t mean the vaccines are “98 times worse” than the disease. First, let’s keep in mind that the authors considered only hospitalizations with COVID-19 as the only bad outcome for the disease. This rules out other serious consequences, such as: long COVIDwhat can be potentially disabling for young people also.

Second, a single person can report multiple side effects after vaccination, while hospitalizations with COVID-19 are likely to be reported only once per person. This means that the number of hospitalizations with COVID-19 is likely to be dwarfed by the number of reported serious side effects. The same problem was discussed in a previous assessment of health feedback. And the preprint itself acknowledged this as a limitation:

“It is also possible that multiple serious adverse events have been reported by the same participant and that the number of people affected by such reactions is lower than our estimate.”

In an email to Health Feedback, Abram Wagnera research assistant professor at the University of Michigan, pointed out that the analysis “does not take into account the complexity of SARS-CoV-2 infection dynamics,” explaining that increasing vaccination coverage in all groups could reduce infection and in turn hospitalization risk for both the individual and the community.

Thus, the calculation does not fully take into account serious consequences of contracting COVID-19 or the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination, and the measures representing poor results from COVID-19 and vaccination are not counted in the same way, as the the former is counted per person, while the latter is counted per event.

Finally, the calculations were based on reports of adverse reactions after vaccination. Such reports on their own are not sufficient evidence that the vaccine was responsible for the side effect. But this caveat is lost in the articles.

In general, these limitations on the preprint calculation method mean that the representation of the preprint finding in the articles is inaccurate and misleading.

One of the co-authors of the preprint, Allison Krugoa medical writer with a master’s degree in epidemiology, said: Main stories that such representations of their preprint, such as Gateway Pundit’s article, were inaccurate:

“By omitting ‘boosters’ and ‘young adults’, the article implied that the Covid-19 vaccines were harmful in general, when in fact our study specifically targets 18-29 year olds. We don’t want any misrepresentation of our work to imply that those at risk from medical conditions or age should avoid vaccination.”

“Recommendations to vaccinate young adults in the US and other locations are based on the consideration that vaccinating these individuals (particularly with the new bivalent vaccine) could boost the immune system and protect against newer variants,” said Wagner, adding that staying vigilant about side effects reports remains important.

While it is essential to continuously assess the benefits and risks of COVID-19 booster doses as the pandemic develops, it is also critical to keep in mind that to date, COVID-19 has already killed more than six million people worldwide and over a million in the US alone.

And while most people who get COVID-19 survive, they can still face serious long-term consequences. Data from the US Census Bureau between June and July 2022 indicated that: nearly one in five Americans still experience symptoms of long-term COVID. An analysis by the Brookings Institute, using the same data, estimated that: two to four million Americans out of work due to prolonged COVIDan outcome that can entail significant social and economic costs.

COVID-19 vaccines have proven that highly effective in protecting people from serious illness and deathand they can too reduce the chance of developing long-term COVID. While prior infection confers some degree of protective immunity, infection-induced immunity is unpredictableas there are several factors beyond our control that influence this form of immunity, such as the severity of the disease and which virus variant a person is infected with. Vaccination remains the safer and more reliable way to protect against COVID-19.

SCIENTIST FEEDBACK

Abram L. Wagner, Research Assistant (Epidemiology), School of Public Health, University of Michigan:
The authors of the paper are trying to estimate the number of adults who would need to be vaccinated to avoid one hospitalization. This analysis does not take into account the complexity of SARS-CoV-2 infection dynamics, as increasing vaccination coverage in all groups could reduce infection (and thus hospitalization risk) for the individual and for the group. In addition, almost everyone currently has some basic immunity to SARS-CoV-2, either through a vaccination, a natural infection, or both. So their analysis (based on assumptions of previously uninfected individuals) may be of limited use to an actual, real world population.

Different countries in the world implement different types of recommendations for COVID-19 vaccines throughout the lifespan. Recommendations are based on local disease epidemiology, hospital resources, levels of comorbidity in the local population and cost-effectiveness analyses.

Continued monitoring for side effects after immunization will be important. Recommendations for vaccinating young adults in the US and other locations are based on the consideration that vaccinating these individuals (particularly with the new bivalent vaccine) could boost the immune system and protect against newer variants. Having a high level of immunity in different age groups of the population is an important part of fighting COVID-19.

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