by Neville Hodgkinson
Gibraltar’s 34,000 residents are unwitting participants in the battle against COVID-19 that may hold lessons for the rest of the world – on the one hand, as a success story, and on the other, as a tragic mystery.
Since the start of a vaccination programme on January 9th, about two thirds of the tiny British enclave’s population has received the Pfizer/BioNTech jab. Only 3.5% declined it, and with a new delivery being rolled out, Dr Krish Rawal, acting Medical Director of the Gibraltar Health Authority, said this week that community protection could be close and “a normal summer” expected.
The mystery, however, is that with 83 deaths related to the disease so far, Gibraltar currently has the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world.
The first was only registered in mid-November last year. By January 6th the toll rose to 10, and by January 18th it had more than quadrupled to 45, prompting Chief Minister Fabian Picardo to tell a news conference:
This is now the worst loss of life of Gibraltarians in over 100 years. Even in war, we have never lost so many in such a short time.
The fact that some of these deaths occurred at the same time as the vaccine rollout led to claims on social media that the jab could be responsible, a claim denied by the Gibraltar Health Authority. In a statement issued on January 27th it said only six of those who had died at that point had received the vaccine. All but one were care home residents, and all had died for unrelated reasons.
Nevertheless, the loss of so many lives over such a short period in such a small community seems to demand explanation.
With the Rock having avoided the spike in deaths that occurred in the UK last April, perhaps a more virulent form of the disease arrived there late and its elderly were simply more vulnerable than elsewhere.
Another, potentially more significant, possibility is that their vulnerability to COVID-19 was increased by an intensive flu vaccination campaign this winter. It was the largest in Gibraltar’s history, being aimed at avoiding the double disaster of a flu epidemic on top of COVID-19.
A major, peer-reviewed study published last October, based on data sets from 39 countries, found “a significant increase in COVID-19 deaths from eastern to western regions of the world” associated with flu vaccination rates among those aged over 65.
The finding was all the more surprising since the review followed previous studies, from Italy and Brazil, suggesting the flu vaccine might offer protection against COVID-19, and the research was aimed at confirming those findings.
The tragedy in Gibraltar chimes with growing concerns about the impact of vaccination on the very elderly and those in care homes, in particular from the Covid jab.
In an open letter to the UK Vaccine Minister and Health Secretary this week, the UK Medical Freedom Alliance cited Office for National Statistics data showing that weekly care home deaths tripled in the two weeks 8th – 22nd January, when there was a massive increase in the rate of vaccination of care home residents.
A possible explanation, the letter said, could be transient reduction in lymphocytes, one of the body’s main immune defenders, originally noted in Pfizer’s vaccine trial: “This could result in a heightened susceptibility to infections in the week post-vaccination, which could be catastrophic for some frail and elderly people.”
The letter also cites epidemiological data, media reports, and warnings from doctors and regulators internationally of the need for special care with frail elderly people. It demands a full investigation of all deaths before a rollout of second vaccine doses to those who have received the first dose.
The Conservative MP David Davis is also raising questions about the vulnerability of the elderly, tweeting:
Neville Hodgkinson is a former medical and science correspondent of the Daily Mail and Sunday Times, and the author of AIDS: The Failure of Contemporary Science (Fourth Estate, 1996).