Anti-vaxxers say three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine results in higher infection rates. Here’s why that’s incorrect

CoronaCheck is a weekly newsletter from RMIT FactLab which recaps the latest in the world of fact checking and misinformation, drawing on the work of FactLab and its sister organisation, RMIT ABC Fact Check.

You can read the latest edition below, and subscribe to have the next newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

CoronaCheck #105

This week, we explain how official UK data is being used to incorrectly suggest that being vaccinated against COVID-19 leads to a greater risk of catching the disease.

We also debunk a claim from a fringe Senate candidate who suggested that public health decisions in Australia were not being made locally, and detail how the Doherty Institute got dragged into a global biolab conspiracy theory.

No, the official UK data does not mean jabs put you at greater risk of COVID-19

A nurse wearing a face mask and latex gloves prepares to tap a syringe of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine
COVID-19 vaccines available in Australia have been demonstrated to reduce hospitalisation, severe illness and death.(AP: Jeff J Mitchell)

Popular social media posts are pushing the argument that COVID-19 jabs have “negative efficacy”, suggesting they increase — rather than decrease — the risks associated with the disease.

In one such video shared via Telegram, high-profile anti-vax campaigner Dr Ryan Cole tells the health committee of the general assembly of US state Tennessee:

“We’ve seen the data out of Denmark, out of Israel, out of the UK, where the shots actually turn into what we call negative efficacy, where your chances are higher from the shots of getting disease instead of being protective.”

On March 13, a British journalist tweeted that the official data showed UK infection rates were “now higher in the triple vaccinated than the unvaccinated across all age groups … corresponding to negative vaccine effectiveness across the board”.

But such claims are bogus, as fact checkers with FullFact and The Ferret have shown time and again.

The UK data comes from weekly surveillance reports published by England’s UK Health and Security Agency (Table 13), which, on the face of it, appear to show that infection rates per 100,000 people really are higher among the vaccinated than the unvaccinated.

There are, however, well-documented problems with how infection rates are calculated for the unvaccinated group.

Put simply: no-one knows how many unvaccinated people there are.

To get around this, the health agency has relied on estimates drawn from a database called NIMS. And these estimates are very likely wrong.

Professor David Speigelhalter, a leading expert in risk communication with the University of Cambridge, told RMIT FactLab that the agency had used “inappropriate population estimates based on registrations with family doctors which are known to be overestimates due to multiple registrations and people leaving the country.

“This can make the unvaccinated group [the denominator] look too large, and hence the case rates misleadingly low.”

FullFact has also explained in detail the problems with using this denominator, and the UK national statistics regulator has illustrated how using alternative population estimates would drastically affect the results.

A graph showing a lower rate of infection among the unvaccinated using one source and a higher rate using another
Different population estimates can create different results.(UK OSR, via ONS, NIMS and UKHSA)

Those alternative estimates, produced by the Office for National Statistics, are much smaller so result in higher infection rates among the unvaccinated group.

Denominators aside, the health agency report makes clear that infection rates should not be used to estimate vaccine effectiveness (which is calculated separately).

It explains in a blog post: “This is because there are key differences in the characteristics and behaviour of individuals who are vaccinated compared to those who are unvaccinated”, including their chances of taking a COVID-19 test.

“The rates therefore reflect this population’s behaviour and exposure to COVID-19, not how well the vaccines work.”

Notably, Public Health Scotland stopped publishing infection rates by vaccination status after they were repeatedly misused, while the UK agency’s reporting of them has been publicly criticised by the national statistics regulator which, in November 2021, warned that the data potentially “misleads people into thinking it says something about vaccine effectiveness”.

More recently, fact checkers with Reuters and Science Feedback have debunked claims that a Danish study found COVID-19 jabs to be negatively effective, explaining that comparisons were again likely biased due to different behaviours and exposure patterns in each group.

“Such biases are quite common in [vaccine effectiveness] estimation from observational studies based on population data (unlike a phase 3 randomised trial which is the gold standard),” one of the study’s authors told Reuters.

In an email to FactLab, the Doherty Institute’s Professor Terry Nolan said that, to his knowledge, there was “no evidence of negative efficacy for any COVID vaccine in either clinical trials or from post-marketing RWE [real world evidence]”.

Public health decision making remains in Australian hands, despite claims

A political advertisement with a large red debunked overlay
No, Australia’s health decisions are not being handed to international experts.(Supplied)

A candidate running for a Queensland Senate seat in the upcoming federal election has suggested that an international agreement signed by Australia in 2005 had resulted in “196 nations essentially [agreeing] to hand over all decision making regarding the response to future global emergencies”.

According to The Great Australian Party’s Jason Miles, the International Health Regulations (IHR) Agreement would see such decision making “handled by a group of global experts, rather than our elected representatives”.

“As a result of this agreement, Australia’s National Action Plan for Health Security was signed off in 2018 and is set for completion in 2022,” Mr Miles claimed in a graphic shared to Facebook and Telegram.

But that’s not correct.

The 2005 World Health Organisation agreement referred to by Mr Miles does not stipulate that local public health decisions would be made by a team of global experts.

Rather, nations signed on to the IHR agree to “develop, strengthen and maintain” the “capacity to respond promptly and effectively to public health risks and public health emergencies of international concern”.

According to the IHR, state parties to the agreement are expected to “establish, operate and maintain a national public health emergency response plan, including the creation of … teams to respond to events that may constitute a public health emergency of international concern”.

The specifics of such a plan, however, are not stipulated by the agreement.

And while signatories are expected to provide support, logistical assistance and direct lines of communication to the WHO, there is no suggestion that the organisation makes or enforces decisions about a nation’s local public health response.

Meanwhile, although Australia’s National Action Plan for Health Security (NAPHS) notes that a WHO-led team of international experts had supplied “suitable recommendations” for furthering public health emergency response capabilities, the plan does not suggest such experts made local decisions during such an emergency.

Notably, the first listed guiding principle of the plan states: “The Australian Government leads and coordinates the NAPHS, its progress and implementation, to ensure that all activities align with national plans, strategies and guidelines.”

From Ukraine: Doherty Institute dragged into Russian biolab propaganda

Peter Doherty stands outside of The Doherty Institute in Melbourne.
Russian propaganda has falsely suggested the Doherty Institute has received samples from a Ukrainian bioweapons lab.(Supplied: The Doherty Institute)

An Australian infectious diseases laboratory named after a Nobel laureate has been dragged into a conspiracy theory which alleges that the threat of US-owned labs in Ukraine producing biological weapons formed part of Russia’s rationale for invading its neighbour.

According to a number of posts and videos shared online, a document released by the Russian military shows that a laboratory at Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity had received human blood samples from a US-backed Ukrainian lab.

“What they’ve done is, from Ukraine, from this biological weapons research laboratory, they actually exported some very suspicious materials,” a popular Australian conspiracy theorist and supporter of Russia said in a video shared on Facebook.

“Why would they be accepting samples, human blood samples, from a biological weapons research facility in Ukraine?”

The answer is, they are not.

As other fact checkers have said repeatedly, there is no evidence of US biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine, with PolitiFact noting that while the US has partnered with Ukraine to run a Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, this partnership is aimed at preventing, not creating, biological threats.

Additionally, as RMIT FactLab has previously reported, Russia did not start propagating narratives around US bio-labs as justification for the war until after it invaded Ukraine.

As for the paperwork showing the Doherty Institute’s supposed involvement, FactLab has traced its origin to the Russian Ministry of Defence, which on March 10 uploaded a cache of documents about the biolab conspiracy to the Russian search engine Yandex.

According to the Ministry’s Telegram channel, the documents were “provided by employees of Ukrainian biological laboratories”, though this is unverified.

An apparently unsigned and unstamped Ukrainian customs document, which FactLab has been unable to verify as legitimate, appears to show that 350 human blood serum samples were shipped on December 11, 2018 from the Ukrainian Ministry for Health’s Centre for Public Health to the Doherty Institute’s Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory.

Seeking to bolster this supposedly troubling link, social media accounts have also circulated images purporting to show the blood serum samples being “recorded” upon arrival at the Victorian laboratory.

Two people in hazmat suits carrying a trunk with a biohazard symbol
This image has been used to falsely claim that Russia is confiscating the contents of US biolabs in Ukraine, and that the Doherty Institute in Australia is receiving samples from a Ukraine bioweapons lab.(Supplied)

But those images, of nondescript men in HAZMAT suits carrying boxes marked with biohazard warnings, have previously surfaced in Russian-language social media without any such captions. Other Twitter users have separately claimed that the images show the Russian military “confiscat[ing] contents of US biological laboratories in Ukraine”.

In an email, a spokeswoman for the Doherty Institute confirmed that it had received “approximately 300 serum samples from Ukraine in 2019 to assist with global preparedness for measles testing and quality assurance”.

“Receiving serum samples from laboratories globally is routine practice for the success of this public health initiative,” the spokeswoman said.

The statement from the spokeswoman also puts the kibosh on claims that the samples received by the Doherty Institute — three years ago — contained the Japanese encephalitis virus, of which there is currently an outbreak in Australia.

In other news

Election scare alert: Does the Coalition have plans to expand the cashless debit card to age pensioners?

With the federal election fast approaching, RMIT ABC Fact Check is launching a new series of articles on scare campaigns: their origins, how they are being spread, and how the claims stack up against the stated commitments of the parties.

The first of the series, published this week, details the lack of evidence for Labor’s claims that the Coalition plans to extend its cashless debit card to people receiving the age pension.

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