Cherry-picked COVID-19 statistics

Businessman and former parliamentarian Clive Palmer has put his name to material discouraging people from getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

Palmer’s claims about death rates following the administration of vaccines have been extensively dismissed as medically inaccurate, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) released a statement addressing the assertions as misleading.

The difficulty with this kind of material is that the numbers aren’t wrong; they are just out of context. In this common disinformation tactic, numbers don’t lie, but they are very easily misunderstood.

“The misuse of data in this notice is pretty common in presenting either dis- or misinformation, with various cherry-picked statistics,” says Mathew Marques, a social psychologist La Trobe University who researches the formation of conspiracy theories.

Myself and others have used this style to expose participants to conspiracy narratives, and it can be effective as a narrative tool to increase belief in conspiracy theories. Importantly, our work shows that mere exposure can have negative effects on attitudes, and intentions.

“For example, Jolley and Douglas presented vaccine conspiracy theories to parents, and it reduced their intentions to vaccinate a hypothetical child. We know these common tropes and misinformation around vaccines well.”

What about the vaccine deaths Clive Palmer mentioned?

The pamphlet does not have a date, but says the TGA reported 210 deaths due to COVID-19 vaccinations, which appears to be from a report released on 27 May 2021.

The term “following vaccination” in these reports means up to 90 days after vaccination.

The report states: “To 23 May 2021, 3.6 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been given in Australia.

“In this period, the TGA has received 210 reports of deaths following immunisation – 109 have been reported for the Pfizer vaccine, 94 for the AstraZeneca vaccine and seven where the vaccine was not specified.

“Most of these reports (93%) were for people 65 years of age and over, and over three quarters were 75 years of age and over. Many of the deaths relate to elderly aged-care residents.”

Read more: AstraZeneca and blood clots: by the numbers

That means the death rate following vaccination was 58 people per million doses, which sounds pretty high. Except that it isn’t, considering the demographic.

In pre-pandemic 2019 there were 169,301 deaths reported in Australia, and 66% of them were among people aged 75 or over – the median age of all deaths was 78 years for males and 84 years for females. The TGA reports that 75% of deaths following vaccination were among people over 75, many of whom were in aged-care facilities.

This number of deaths following vaccination isn’t a whole lot higher than natural deaths in the same demographic.

Comparatively, 94% of COVID-19 related deaths at the time were in people over the age of 75, despite the majority of cases being in people aged 20 to 39.

That means the number of deaths following vaccination are not unusual or completely unexpected giving the fragility of the elderly, and that any immune response by somebody in a vulnerable group can have more severe effects than in the general population. Instead, the death rate among people in this demographic who contracted COVID-19 was very high.

A chart with agets and deaths. Most of them are above 65
Deaths by sex and age group, 2019. Credit: AIHW National Mortality Database (Table S2.1).

Of the 210 people who died within three months of vaccination, 157 of them were over the age of 75, which isn’t completely unexpected given their age, and therefore is not considered a safety concern for older people.

This also doesn’t consider that most of the sample sizes were over 50 during this time period, either, because they were the people getting vaccinated.

Bear in mind that all deaths within three months of vaccine administration were reported, so the TGA report states that “Apart from the single Australian case in which death was linked to [blood clots], COVID-19 vaccines have not been found to cause death.”

As a comparison, death following general anaesthesia occurs in roughly one in every 100,000 cases, and deaths in a population occur at about 676 per million people annually.

What do Clive’s vaccine side-effect numbers mean?

According to the flyer, and the TGA report, there were 22,031 reported incidences of adverse events following immunisation (AEFI).

Once again, this might sound scary but it doesn’t reflect much, because the number doesn’t say how many vaccines were administered, and what the side effects were.

There were 22,000 reported cases of a side effect after 3.6 million doses. That is a rate of about six per 1000 and includes all and any reports, regardless of whether they are confirmed to be direct side effects. That is because the general view is that it is better to collect all data and overestimate side effects than underestimate them.

The report states that the most common side-effect claims following the AstraZeneca vaccine were headache, muscle pain, fever, chills and fatigue, and the most common Pfizer side effects were headache, muscle pain, lethargy and irritation at the injection site.

These are all normal and common side effects for any vaccination, because vaccines trigger the immune response in order to build up natural immunity. Headache, muscle pain, fever and tiredness are all symptoms of an immune response, which is also why we see the same symptoms for a plethora of different illnesses, including cold, hay fever and poisoning.

Irritation at the injection site is also common because, well…you just got pricked by a big needle.

Side effects for general anaesthesia occur at a much higher rate. One study found that 67% of patients had side effects following general anaesthesia. That is more than 100 times higher than the rate of side effects from COVID-19 vaccines.

What about the other numbers about animal deaths?

The flyer states that “over 50% of animals in animal trials have died”.

Unfortunately, no references were included with that claim, so it’s difficult to know where the numbers come from to address them.

Presumably, if they are real, they come from preclinical studies when the vaccine was in development. If 50% of animals did die during the entire development, that isn’t surprising. When an animal dies during a drug trial that drug or vaccine is discarded. That does NOT mean the vaccine we receive is the same vaccine that caused major adverse reactions during preclinical testing.

Much vaccine research also requires an animal to be infected with the virus to see whether the vaccine works, and this is a major reason of why an animal in a trial might die.

What about the long-term safety data?

We have more than 200 years of modern vaccine research and over 1000 years of inoculation practices in Africa, Turkey and China throughout human history.

This means the long-term health consequences of vaccines are well understood, and we know that side effects are limited to only weeks following vaccination. That is why the data is collected for the subsequent three months – we know from other vaccines that nothing happens after three months.

As with all vaccines, the administration is also continually monitored, so our understanding is not limited to just clinical trials.

But Clive Palmer says there is no pandemic in Australia?

The same flyer also says that governments around Australia have handled the (apparently non-existent) pandemic really well. As there is no reference attached to this statement, the claim is very hard to assess.

The problem is that for many people, the data just doesn’t matter.

“For some people, [the fact] that the message comes from Clive Palmer may be more persuasive,” says Marques.

“He positions himself as a political outsider and appears to be using this as a means of presenting himself as anti-normative and therefore someone trustworthy to people who may feel disillusioned with politics, the government, or the public health response.

“So, to those who see him as an everyday hero, this message may be more appealing. We know from research that people who are less trusting of institutions such as the government, feel disillusioned, and believe that society is getting worse, are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories.”

Regardless, there may be other reasons people lean into this school of thought.

“For some, it is a belief that conspiracy theories may help regain control, or a sense of powerlessness, over their current situation,” explains Marques.

“However, we also know that while some people are attracted to conspiracy theories for these needs, there is little to no evidence that these needs are satisfied by believing in narratives that purport groups are acting in secret to enact evil plans on society.”

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