Study Doesn't Connect Excess Deaths to Vaccines During COVID-19 Pandemic

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On June 3, 2024, the medical journal BMJ Public Health published a paper from four researchers in the Netherlands called "Excess mortality across countries in the Western World since the COVID-19 pandemic."

The study was picked up by politically conservative media outlets, such as One America News, the New York Post and The Telegraph. From there, the story spread to social media sites like X, where it was shared by the anti-vaccine crowd.

The coverage tried to paint a vague demographic analysis of mortality rates during the COVID-19 pandemic as linking excess deaths to COVID-19 vaccines. Both OAN and The Telegraph used the word "may" in their headlines — e.g., "Covid vaccines may have helped fuel rise in excess deaths" in the Telegraph — as a rhetorical device to draw this connection in a way that different audiences could interpret differently. While the word "may" only weakly suggests the connection and might not raise eyebrows from those outside the anti-vaccination movement, someone who already believes COVID-19 vaccinations are dangerous might take the suggestion as a fact because it confirms their previously held beliefs.

However, the issues went beyond just the coverage of the study. Many scientists took to social media to chasten the BMJ for publishing the study in the first place. The journal itself posted a statement to X explaining that the study did not connect excess deaths and vaccinations in any way.

The Princess Maxima Center, the Dutch hospital affiliated with three of the four researchers, also publicly posted a statement distancing itself from the paper.

One of the outlets that tried to paint the study as linking excess deaths to the COVID-19 vaccines had to admit that the study never actually linked the two things. The New York Post added a correction to its story, writing that "the study did not analyze the impact of vaccination nor establish a link between mortality and vaccination status."

When Snopes independently examined the study, we noticed a few red flags, too.

First and foremost, the study only examined excess deaths when compared with a number of "expected deaths" calculated using data from Ariel Karlinsky and Dmitry Kobak's World Mortality Dataset. According to the BMJ study, there were more than 3 million excess deaths between 2020 and 2022. In order to actually suggest anything about the COVID-19 vaccinations, the natural thing to do at this point would be to exclude any deaths directly attributed to the disease itself, which was obviously going to be a large factor. However, the researchers did not do this. This is interesting, considering that other studies that actually did that found almost all of those "excess deaths" were deaths from COVID-19, and even deaths that were never attributed to COVID-19 peaked at the same time that the number of COVID-19 cases peaked.

A counterargument for this could be that the researchers found fairly consistent excess deaths across the time period they studied: just over 1 million deaths in 2020, 1.2 million in 2021 and 800,000 in 2022. However, critically thinking about the precautions taken during those years reveals the truth of the matter: In 2020, vaccines were still being developed and there were many isolation measures implemented across the world. In 2021, vaccines were being rolled out, meaning that there was a lower number of vaccinated people even as many safety precautions (mask-wearing, for instance) were lifted. Common sense suggests that the number of excess deaths would therefore increase.

Most importantly, in 2022, there were 400,000 fewer deaths than in 2021, despite 2022 also being the year with the highest number of COVID-19 cases reported. Many people were vaccinated at this point, and as the Omicron variant spread throughout the world, the vaccine was saving their lives, not causing more deaths. And yes, professors took to X, using the exact same dataset to prove that, too:

In fact, Karlinsky, who created the World Mortality Dataset used in the BMJ paper, called the study a "really bad paper with a misleading title" on X. He also accused the researchers of copying-and-pasting some of his work while drawing a different conclusion.

Snopes reached out to the authors on the BMJ paper and several unaffiliated researchers in the course of reporting this story. We did not hear back from any of them.

Sources:

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Knapton, Sarah. "Covid Vaccines May Have Helped Fuel Rise in Excess Deaths." The Telegraph, 4 June 2024. www.telegraph.co.uk, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2024/06/04/covid-vaccines-may-have-helped-fuel-rise-in-excess-deaths/.

Mostert, Saskia, et al. "Excess Mortality across Countries in the Western World since the COVID-19 Pandemic: 'Our World in Data' Estimates of January 2020 to December 2022." BMJ Public Health, vol. 2, no. 1, June 2024. bmjpublichealth.bmj.com, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjph-2023-000282.

Paglino, Eugenio, et al. "Excess Natural-Cause Mortality in US Counties and Its Association with Reported COVID-19 Deaths." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 121, no. 6, Feb. 2024, p. e2313661121. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2313661121.

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