Fact Check

Does a New Study Show the Higher a Country's Vaccination Rate, the Higher Its Excess Death Rate?

"It's not a study. It's a cherry-picked deceptive graph by a random anti-vax twitter account," one X user objected.

Published Oct. 3, 2023

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Claim:
In early October 2023, a new study was released proving that the higher a country’s vaccination rate is, the higher the excess death rate in that country will be.

In early October 2023, a post went viral on X (formerly Twitter) that read "BREAKING: New study shows that the higher a country's vaccination rate, the higher the excess deaths." It contained a graph allegedly confirming the above information and as of this writing, had garnered over a million views on X alone. The rumor was later spread on other platforms such as Telegram and various websites, citing the above-mentioned post.

(X account @LeadingReport)

Some comments questioned the authenticity of the data presented by the @LeadingReport account, asking for the source of that information:

Where's the study @leadingreport? I looked throughout pages on our world in data and couldn't find it. That said, it's possible in 2023 excess deaths are lower in low vaxx countries since so many in places like Bulgaria died in 2021-2022 and they now have immunity from infection.

Another X account responded, "It's not a study. It's a cherry-picked deceptive graph by a random anti-vax twitter account."

The graph in the viral post with the title "Excess Deaths in 2023 plotted against COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake" cited ourworldindata.org website as a source, so we started our research by checking out the data available there. However, it's worth mentioning that despite the caption of the post mentioning a "new study," the only source cited was the Our World in Data (OWID) website.

Excess mortality, as the website stated, is a term used to compare how many people were expected to die to how many people actually died during a particular period of time (emphasis ours):

Excess mortality is a term used in epidemiology and public health that refers to the number of deaths from all causes during a crisis above and beyond what we would have expected to see under 'normal' conditions.

In this case, we're interested in how the number of deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic compares to the deaths we would have expected had the pandemic not occurred — a crucial quantity that cannot be known but can be estimated in several ways.

Excess mortality is a more comprehensive measure of the total impact of the pandemic on deaths than the confirmed COVID-19 death count alone. It captures not only the confirmed deaths, but also COVID-19 deaths that were not correctly diagnosed and reported as well as deaths from other causes that are attributable to the overall crisis conditions.

Therefore, we checked on OWID what the excess mortality rate in the selected countries was (the viral graph mentioned only eight countries: Bulgaria, Poland, Sweden, Germany, UK, New Zealand, Australia, and U.S.A.). When we compared the 2023 data from the website's chart titled "Excess mortality: Cumulative deaths from all causes compared to projection based on previous years," it turned out that it did not match the percentages shown in the viral post. For instance, the order of countries sorted by the excess mortality rate was different. 

The second aspect of the viral "Excess Deaths in 2023 plotted against COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake" graph was the percentage of the population that was vaccinated. OWID website data showed similar numbers when we compared it with the in-question graph, as, for instance, Bulgaria and Poland had the lowest percentage of their populations vaccinated, and both graphs showed that 81% of the U.S. population received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Importantly, however, it did not confirm that the higher a country's vaccination rate was, the higher the excess deaths rate was in that country.

Taking the example of Bulgaria, with an excess mortality rate of 21.25% in January 2023, and 16.24% as of August 2023 (the highest excess mortality rate among the selected countries), Bulgaria was also the country with the lowest percentage of its population having received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine (31.09% as of June 2023). In simple words, out of the eight countries mentioned in the viral posts, Bulgaria was the "least vaccinated" country, and had the highest excess mortality rate. However, such a simple comparison of the two numbers is not how scientists would investigate a correlation. Most importantly, we have not found any study that proved a country's high vaccination rate correlated with a higher number of excess deaths. 

Moreover, a study published in 2022 with the title "Higher COVID-19 Vaccination Rates Are Associated with Lower COVID-19 Mortality: A Global Analysis," as the title indicated, concluded the exact opposite. The research found that countries with higher vaccination rates experienced lower COVID-19 mortality rates. Specifically, a 10-percentage-point increase in vaccination was linked to an 18.1% decrease in mortality after 6 months and a 16.8% decrease after 12 months. Additionally, a 10-percentage-point rise in booster vaccination rates correlated with a 33.1% reduction in COVID-19 mortality.

Given that no scientific study was released that proved "that the higher a country's vaccination rate, the higher the excess deaths," we have rated this claim as False.

Reuters fact-checked a similar claim in October 2022, underscoring that no study has concluded that European national vaccination rates correlated with excess mortality. Moreover, Health Check, a nonprofit organization dedicated to science education, published a fact check in January 2023, debunking the claim that COVID-19 vaccination is associated with all-cause excess mortality. Its author emphasized that many factors could contribute to excess mortality in 2022, such as the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the strain on healthcare systems.

Sources

"Data Doesn't Show That Vaccines Are Responsible for 2022 Excess Mortality, Contrary to Alex Berenson's Claim." Health Feedback, 3 Feb. 2023, https://healthfeedback.org/claimreview/data-doesnt-show-that-vaccines-are-responsible-for-2022-excess-mortality-contrary-to-alex-berensons-claim/.

"Fact Check-European Mortality Data Do Not Support Link between Higher COVID-19 Vaccination Rates and Excess Deaths." Reuters, 7 Oct. 2022. www.reuters.com, https://www.reuters.com/article/factcheck-gbnews-excessdeaths-idUSL1N3180Q7.

Hoxha, Ilir, et al. "Higher COVID-19 Vaccination Rates Are Associated with Lower COVID-19 Mortality: A Global Analysis." Vaccines, vol. 11, no. 1, Dec. 2022, p. 74. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.3390/vaccines11010074.

Mathieu, Edouard, et al. "Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19)." Our World in Data, Mar. 2020. ourworldindata.org, https://ourworldindata.org/excess-mortality-covid.

Aleksandra Wrona is a reporting fellow for Snopes, based in the Warsaw area.