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Why Covid vaccines aren’t for everyone

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A global drive for mass Covid vaccinations is in full swing, and health agencies are even trying to get six-year-olds vaccinated. But is this race for safety justified, necessary or ethical?

The World Health Organization’s rallying call to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic—“Nobody is safe until everyone is safe”—essentially involves vaccinating every person on the planet. Around 2 billion doses of one of the Covid vaccines have so far been administered, and this number is expected to continue rising as younger people are offered it. By this autumn, children as young as six years of age will be in line for a shot.

Israeli children between the ages of 12 and 16 became the youngest to have a Covid vaccine last March when around 600 were given the Pfizer jab. By May, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had authorized use of the Pfizer vaccine in 12- to 15-year-olds, and the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) followed suit in June.

But with Covid deaths among children running at 0.00017 percent—that’s just over one in a million—vaccinating the young is questionable. But it’s all to do with a theory called ‘immunobridging.’ In other words, children are being asked, once again, to take a bullet for the elderly.  

Beate Kampmann at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Vaccine Centre explains: “To include children in the vaccination programme is essentially a question of their role in transmission of the virus … to achieve as much suppression of viral circulation and to get to community immunity, which can then suppress transmission and evolution of new variants, it could be justified.” 1

The drug companies are trying to catch up. Pfizer is testing its Covid vaccine on more than 2,000 children between the ages of 12 and 15 and wants to include five-year-olds in a second phase of the trial. Moderna is testing its vaccine on 3,000 children between 12 and 17 years old, while AstraZeneca is testing its vaccine on children as young as six.  

Most of these trials on children are at Phase II—the first time a pharmaceutical is tested on a relatively large group of people—which means most health agencies will be giving children shots without any reliable safety data.

But it’s not just kids: giving the vaccine to anyone under the age of 70 is a debatable policy. Public Health England, for instance, estimates that its widespread and successful vaccine program has saved the lives of just 300 people between the ages of 60 and 69, according to figures to the beginning of May, while the benefits are more apparent in the most vulnerable group—those over 80—with 11,200 lives being saved.

A universal vaccine rollout program is based on several premises: that Covid-19 is a deadly disease, and that the vaccines are effective and safe. It’s worth investigating each of these in turn:

Covid-19 is a deadly disease 

Upsetting images from India—and from Italy and China before that—suggest that Covid-19 is extremely deadly, and it can be, for some. Statistics add shading to a very black-and-white picture. John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Stanford University, estimates Covid kills between 0.15 to 0.20 percent of people who get infected, which is around one in 600, overall, but take out the elderly and sick, and the death rate among people under 70 drops to just 0.03 to 0.04 percent, or one in 3,000 to 4,000  infections.2

The true deadliness of Covid is hard to ascertain because it’s almost impossible to gauge how many people have had it. According to health agencies, up to 30 percent of infected people could be asymptomatic, and as the death rate can be extrapolated only from known cases, the official figures present the worst-case scenario.

A better measure is excess deaths—the number of actual deaths, from any cause, compared to the anticipated number based on the five previous years, 2015 to 2019. The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford analyzed the excess death rate from 37 countries and came up with some surprising results. 

The expected surge in deaths in each of the countries reviewed wasn’t always there. In fact, five of the countries—Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, Norway and South Korea—saw their death rate drop in 2020. Nine countries saw only a marginal rise of 5 percent or lower, and just eight reported an excess rate of above 10 percent, including Belgium (12.2 percent), England and Wales (10.5 percent), and the US (12.9 percent). Sweden, which attracted worldwide opprobrium for not locking down, had an excess death rate of just 1.5 percent.3

Countries with higher rates of obesity, chronic disease and aging are also more likely to see an excess death rate when there is a viral epidemic—and it’s worth noting that the five years prior to 2020 had lower than normal death rates with more benign viruses circulating, and so any sudden spike has to be set against that background.

The vaccines are effective

On the face of it, they are. Since vaccines started to be given in January, Covid deaths have fallen dramatically. The data bears this out, with the Pfizer-BioNTech jab achieving a very impressive 95 percent reduction in infection risk, and AstraZeneca’s vaccine providing a 67 percent rate of protection.

But there’s another way to look at the figures—and it involves a statistical sleight of hand that drug companies always employ to demonstrate the effectiveness of their medications. When we are told the AstraZeneca jab will reduce the risk of infection by 67 percent, we assume that applies to us. It doesn’t. 

Taking Professor Ioannidis’ risk profile, if you are under the age of 70 with no chronic health problems, and you’re not obese, your risk of dying from Covid is just 0.04 percent—and taking the vaccine reduces that risk further to around 0.013 percent.

It’s the difference between relative risk—which drug companies always use—and absolute risk, which is what everyone really wants to know. 

If, for example, your risk of a heart attack is around 0.2 percent and a new drug halves your risk, your new absolute risk profile is 0.1 percent, which isn’t the stuff of headlines. But use the relative risk measure and suddenly we have a breakthrough drug: it reduces the chances of a heart attack by 50 percent.

Applying the absolute risk measure to the Covid vaccines, researchers from Oxford University estimate that the AstraZeneca jab reduces your risk of Covid infection by 1.3 percent, Moderna’s by 1.2 percent, and the Pfizer-BioNTech by just 0.84 percent.4

The vaccines are safe 

No vaccine or drug is entirely safe. There’s always the risk of an adverse reaction, including death, and so that always has to be weighed against the benefit the medication may provide. 

We know that people who are obese, over the age of 80, or who also have heart disease, cancer or kidney problems are in the high-risk category, and for them, a vaccine is worth taking. Of these, obesity is the single biggest risk factor, at any age.5

For the rest of us, the decision to vaccinate isn’t such an easy one to make. The vaccines are certainly far from safe; adverse reactions and deaths recorded by the European Medicines Agency—which collates data from the EU’s 27 member states—show the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had been linked to 5,961 deaths and 452,779 serious adverse reactions as of May 22, and AstraZeneca’s had been implicated in 2,489 deaths and 655,534 adverse reactions—even though it was being used in only 12 of the European countries, with the other 15 suspending its rollout until new data has established its safety. 

In the US, the VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) system had received reports of around 7,500 deaths or serious adverse reactions up to April.6

There have also been anomalies. Death is 14.6 times more likely within the first 14 days of a Covid vaccination in people over the age of 60, one report found,7 and it can paradoxically increase the number of Covid cases and deaths. 

For example, Cambodia recorded zero deaths from Covid until it began its vaccine rollout, since when there have been 197 deaths, a phenomenon that has been documented in the FDA briefing paper for the Pfizer vaccine, which notes that 409 vaccinated people had a Covid infection within seven days after vaccination compared to 287 infections in the placebo group.8

Risks and benefits 

During the first six months of the pandemic in Germany, 52 people who didn’t have any pre-existing chronic health problem died as a direct result of Covid-19 infection. 

But vaccinating 60 million Germans under the age of 60—a low-risk group—would result in the deaths of 54 people from two rare blood disorders alone, DIC and cerebral venous thrombosis, or blood clots in the brain. 

“So, how in God’s name can the benefits outweigh the risks?” asks Dr Sucharit Bhakdi, a retired professor who specialized in infectious diseases and immunology and is the head of the pressure group, Doctors for Covid Ethics.

Within a month of the Covid vaccine rollout, his group was warning the European Medicines Agency about the potential risks of the vaccines causing blood clots, one of the most dangerous adverse reactions being recorded.

All the Covid vaccines were granted emergency “conditional approval” even though none had gone through the full safety and efficacy tests, and most had got as far as Phase III trials of the four stages normally required.

And yet the safety bar for vaccines should be higher than for drugs. “Rare side-effects don’t matter so much for normal drugs that are used to relieve symptoms of existing diseases. But they do matter with vaccines because you’re essentially giving a healthy person something that they don’t need in order to slightly lessen their risk of catching a disease,” said Swedish doctor Sebastian Rushworth.9

Ultimately, a decision to have a Covid vaccination shouldn’t be influenced by propaganda or social pressure—but only an individual’s own risk profile.  



BMJ, 2021; 372: n723


Eur J Clin Inv, 2020; 50: e13423


Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, March 3, 2021.


Lancet Microbe, 2021; doi: 10.1016/S2666-5247(21)00069-0


JAMA Netw Open, 2021; 4: e213594


Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2021


America’s Frontline Doctors, May 9, 2021


Inform Scotland, April 6, 2021


Rushworth, S, Covid: Why Most of What You Know Is Wrong (Karneval Publishing, Stockholm, 2021)

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