By Kent R. Kroeger (April 12, 2021)
As more and more people across the world are getting vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, daily headlines continue emphasize how this virus and its variants remain an imminent threat.
There are currently 23.9 million active COVID-19 cases in the world. That is the most at any given time during this pandemic.
Accordingly, the current number of COVID-19 related news articles are so numerous it is understandable if people are numb to them.
However, for me, one recent news story stood out from the clutter:
Four deaths after taking Russian Sputnik V vaccine (EUobserver.com, by Andrew Rettman, April 9, 2021)
“Four people recently died in Russia shortly after taking the Sputnik V anti-corona jab in previously unreported cases, which are being taken ‘seriously’ by the EU regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Amsterdam.
Six other Russians also had medical complications after taking the vaccine, according to internal case files from RosPotrebNadzor, a Russian body responsible for administering vaccinations, seen by EUobserver.
Three of the deceased were women aged 51, 69, and 74. The fourth one was not identified in the leaked files.”
In a world where many people already distrust their governments and medical experts, the possibility that any COVID-19 vaccine is potentially harmful or deadly only increases the likelihood that large numbers of people may never get vaccinated — for example, among U.S. Marines offered a vaccination shot, nearly 40 percent have declined to receive it.
That is why headlines like the one about the Russian vaccine (Sputnik V) demand scrutiny. Is it significant that four deaths have coincided with receiving the Sputnik V vaccine?
The short answer is probably not. As I will show below, random chance alone most likely accounts for a small number of deaths occurring soon after receiving the Sputnik V vaccine (or any safe vaccine). In particular with vaccines administered to a large percentage of a population, a certain number of negative events (e.g., death) should be expected with even the safest vaccines.
That said, this answer does not suggest any death temporally related to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine should be ignored. The fact that two of the four dead were relatively young is particularly troubling.
The purpose of the following analysis aims to show that when observing rare events in large populations, it is easy to make premature causal inferences, and the potential for this mistake is heightened when news organizations report ‘factual’ data without proper context. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, news organizations potentially do significant harm by sowing unsubstantiated levels of distrust in the vaccines currently available.
[I might even argue that the misapplication of objective ‘facts’ to support a false narrative is more dangerous than lies, as the latter can be often dismissed with a modicum of inquiry, while the former offers prima facie validity to a core narrative that becomes harder to disprove.]
Should those receiving the Sputnik V vaccine be worried? Here is a back-of-the-envelope look at this question…
The following analysis comes with this caveat: The Russian research organization which developed Sputnik V, Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, has not been as transparent as their U.S. and European counterparts in sharing case-specific data on potential adverse reactions to the vaccine. Still, the core research supporting the regulatory approval and mass distribution of Sputnik V has been peer-reviewed and published.
The first number to consider is that from mid-January to mid-March, 3.5 million Russians have received both doses of the Sputnik V vaccine (e.g., 7 million shots). That number translates to 116,600 shots per day over the approximately 60 days the vaccine has been available to the Russian public (mid-January to mid-March).
The next important number is Russia’s overall mortality rate, estimated to be about 13,000 deaths per 1 million people annually over the 10 years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. [For simplification reasons, I did not use age-adjusted mortality rates to account for the fact that older Russian citizens were more likely to receive the Sputnik V vaccine during the analysis period. Furthermore, given that life expectancy in Russia is around 72.7 years, it is notable that two of the women who died were significantly younger than that age. An unusually high number of deaths among people otherwise young and healthy should always raise red flags regarding the safety of a vaccine.]
This mortality rate translates to a probability of a Russian dying on any given day to be around 0.00003562 (the ratio 13,000/1,000,000 divided by 365) or a 1.3% chance over the entire year.
Applying Russia’s mortality rate to the 3.5 million Russians already vaccinated, we should expect 134 of them to die on any given day this year (or about 8,040 deaths every two months (60 days x 134 per day)).
If we multiply the 116,600 individual Sputnik V vaccinations between mid-January to mid-March by the daily probability of the vaccine recipient dying from a non-COVID-19 related cause, we get 4.2 deaths per day. In other words, on any given day between mid-January to mid-March for the 3.5 million Russians receiving the vaccine, we should have expected 4.2 Russians to die on the day they received a shot of causes unrelated to the vaccine.
Apart from one sentence buried deep in the article, the EUobserver news story offers no practical context with which to properly understand the story’s headline. If a reader were to give only a cursory amount of attention to this story, they can be forgiven if they become skeptical of Sputnik V’s safety after reading the EUobserver story.
The problem with that outcome is that it feeds an potentially irrational fear of the Sputnik V vaccine. Without systematic evidence on how Russians have reacted to the Sputnik V vaccine — not just the four leaked cases cited in the EUobserver story — it is impossible for any EUobserver reader to judge the safeness of the vaccine.
Complicating this story further is the ongoing willingness of U.S. and European news outlets to feed anti-Russian narratives at every opportunity. It is also difficult to rule out the possibility that U.S.-European pharmaceutical companies and governments, out of economic and geopolitical self-interest, are helping propagate negative and potentially false narratives about the Russian vaccine.
Which is only more reason to aggressively scrutinize news stories like the one from the EUobserver. It is unfortunate, however, that this burden rests so completely with the reader and not the news organization itself.
Should the EUobserver not have reported the Sputnik V story? Of course it should have. With the recent news of dangerous blood clots possibly associated with other COVID-19 vaccines, transparency into the numerous vaccines now on the market is critical. But when a headline reads — Four deaths after taking Russian Sputnik V vaccine — it implies a level of causation that is simply not supported by the story’s facts.
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