They say 13 is unlucky for some – well, it looks like that’s true for anyone wanting to investigate the impact of the Covid vaccines on infections, hospitalisations and deaths as, true to its word, this week, week 13, sees the last Vaccine Surveillance Report issued by the UKHSA to include these data.
From April 1st 2022, the U.K. Government will no longer provide free universal COVID-19 testing for the general public in England, as set out in the plan for living with COVID-19. Such changes in testing policies affect the ability to robustly monitor COVID-19 cases by vaccination status, therefore, from the week 14 report onwards this section of the report will no longer be published. Updates to vaccine effectiveness data will continue to be published elsewhere in this report.
The point about testing is somewhat valid, of course – the problem is that this change won’t affect hospitalisations and deaths data, and they could replace at least some of the infections data with the results that come from the (continued) testing of healthcare workers. This comes at a time with record-breaking infection levels in the U.K., as identified by sources including the ONS and the Zoe Symptom Tracker. These record case levels have been reported in the media, such as in the Guardian and the BBC; I find it odd that these reports blame the virus and our relaxation of restrictions for the record case levels – they don’t even mention the possibility that it is the vaccines that are causing this problem. Twelve months ago there were plenty of experts suggesting that mass vaccination could result in what had been seen in prior candidate vaccines for coronaviruses – an initial few months of protection followed by an increase in susceptibility to disease – but the existence of these warnings continues to be ignored. On the other hand, the promises that these vaccines were ‘safe and effective’ continue to be believed, despite vast amounts of evidence suggesting the opposite (they’ve certainly not worked to get us to ‘Zero Covid’).
To be fair to the UKHSA, there is likely to be a huge impact from the removal of free testing (which has cost the U.K. extraordinary sums of money for little apparent benefit) on infection statistics, and Covid appears to have mutated into a much more benign virus. As things stand, there is hardly more benefit to the population in informing them of Covid case numbers as there would be in informing them of the number of colds going around at the moment. Nevertheless, the data had been useful in terms of identifying the actual value of vaccination (also costing extraordinary sums of money for what now appears to be little apparent benefit). I can only imagine that the decision to stop publishing infections, hospitalisations and deaths by vaccination status has been made, as in Scotland, to reduce the risk of inconvenient facts being released (note that UKHSA promises that it’ll continue to release convenient facts).
Enough moaning about what was inevitable – on with the analysis of this week’s data.
While the UKHSA data haven’t quite matched the data from the ONS and Zoe Symptom Tracker since the start of the year, they are currently making up for lost time in showing a substantial increase in cases compared with last week’s report. Once again, the report shows most new cases to be in the triple vaccinated, with the unvaccinated showing the lowest numbers of new infections.
The progression of the current Covid wave by vaccination status is fascinating – the new infections appear to be occurring disproportionately in the triple vaccinated with only relatively small increases in those that have received fewer doses and the unvaccinated.
This said, the huge discrepancies in rate of increase seen in earlier weeks are no longer seen, with this week’s data showing an increase in case rates in those aged 18 to 80 of around 22% for the unvaccinated, the single dosed and the double dosed, and a 28% increase in the triple vaccinated – though the large discrepancies in overall case rates remain, of course.
These new data are naturally reflected in our estimates of the vaccines’ effectiveness at preventing infection, with data for one and two doses of vaccine remaining broadly static (albeit negative) and new lows in our estimates of VE for the triple jabbed, with those in their 60s hitting almost minus-400%, meaning the triple jabbed are around five times as likely to test positive as the unvaccinated. Note also that our estimate of VE for the triple jabbed aged under 18 has now firmly cemented its position below zero.
The UKHSA data on hospitalisations show a similar trend to last week’s data – three doses of vaccine show some protective effect, whereas the protective effect for those having been given only one or two doses remains close to zero. Again, the data show a slight uptrend in the estimated VE for younger individuals. As mentioned in last week’s post, this is somewhat expected based on trends seen in previous waves; it is unfortunate that we’ll have no further data to explore this effect.
Of specific note this week is the move towards zero of the estimated VE for protection against hospitalisation in those aged over 80 – this is the very age group for which the vaccines supposedly offer real benefit (as they’re at most risk from Covid); the data suggest that the vaccines have failed in this role.
The estimates of vaccine effectiveness at protecting against death continue to show the same trend – an apparent protective effect of the third dose, but that one or two doses end up increasing risk.
Caution is required for these data as there is evidence that the apparent protection against death for Omicron variant is much more complicated than it appears – I have hypothesised previously that this has occurred because those closest to death have not been offered the latest vaccine dose. This effect is apparent when the mortality data is analysed by the unvaccinated versus those that have been vaccinated with any dose as one group.
This week shows a reversion to the trend in the 40-50 age group, and a similar result in seen for all those aged under 50 – the vaccines appear to offer no protection against death for the individuals that have lower vulnerabilty to Covid anyway.
And so the days of the UKHSA Vaccine Surveillance Report’s section on infections, hospitalisations and deaths by vaccine status draw to a close. As I mentioned earlier, the ending of the publication of these data was inevitable – indeed, I’m only surprised that it lasted this long. Perhaps we need to thank those people in the UKHSA that continued to publish these data even when they started to diverge from the official narrative. As to the future? I suppose we’ll have to content ourselves with the data crumbs that do get published.
I’ll close with some thoughts on where things might go from here and what signs to look out for.
Infections: It is highly likely that we’re currently reaching the peak of the current Covid wave in the U.K. The big question is where it goes from here – what is most likely is that it will drop to a new intermediate level and remain elevated for some four to six weeks and perhaps longer. The higher this intermediate level is, the worse the long term outlook because of what it tells us about the role of the vaccines in suppressing immunity and driving infections; I’d imagine that a levelling off at over 50,000 cases per day would be a negative sign. Once we get to the end of spring it is most likely that we’ll see a substantial drop in cases due to seasonality – but if cases don’t drop to near zero by June then it doesn’t bode well for the future.
Hospitalisations: With the Omicron variant we have probably got close to the point where there is no meaningful protection against hospitalisation offered by the vaccines (both because the virus has evolved to become less pathogenic, and because vaccine effectiveness is very much reduced). What happens next is unclear. The infections data suggest that the Omicron variant has evolved to meet the immune characteristics of the majority of the world’s population (i.e., vaccinated people that have antibodies against one very specific spike protein) and the immune characteristics of the unvaccinated are no longer relevant to its existence, whether they’ve had a prior infection or not. At the same time, our immune systems are complex and we don’t fully understand the impact of different subtypes of antibodies declining (waning) at different speeds. With this in mind, I’d suggest that we look out for people falling ill very rapidly without the classical period of symptomatic Covid, and possibly with some time (weeks) between infection and the onset of Covid disease complications, as this may reflect the vaccines inducing tolerance towards the virus.
Deaths: Omicron appears to be much less lethal than prior Covid variants, although note that it appears to have brought with it a longer period between initial infection and death (in both vaccinated and unvaccinated). I expect to see official figures continue to show low death rates from (or with) Covid over the coming weeks and months, but with the complication that the real death rate will likely be somewhere between two and three times greater than official figures show (deaths within 28 days of infection). Now that we’re entering spring the death rate will almost certainly plunge and the real test will probably come next winter – but that’s a long time off and we’re probably best advised to enjoy our summer instead of worrying about it.
Amanuensis is an ex-academic and senior Government scientist. He blogs at Bartram’s Folly.