Senator Gerard Rennick
Senator Gerard Rennick. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP IMAGES

Experts rubbish senator’s deadly vaccine claim

William Summers May 9, 2022
WHAT WAS CLAIMED

Australia's 2021 official death statistics provide evidence COVID-19 vaccines have caused thousands of excess deaths.

OUR VERDICT

False. Experts say the excess deaths are around a one per cent increase and can be explained by various factors including delayed health treatments during the pandemic, an ageing population and low death rates in 2020.

Queensland senator and prominent vaccine sceptic Gerard Rennick has used Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures that showed an increase in deaths in 2021 as supposed evidence that vaccines killed “thousands”.  

The claim is false. Experts told AAP FactCheck that deaths decreased in 2020 before rising again in 2021. The 2021 figure represents an increase in the expected death rate of around 2000 deaths or around one per cent when compared to pre-pandemic years and taking into account population changes. 

Around 1200 of the additional deaths in 2021 can be directly attributed to COVID-19 while others may be attributed to people delaying health treatment during the pandemic. 

The Liberal National Party (LNP) senator made the claim in a May 2 Facebook post that referenced ABS provisional mortality statistics for January 2022. “Deaths including coroner deaths have been provisionally released for the year 2021. They provide very strong evidence that the vaccines have caused thousands of excess deaths,” the post says.

Senator Rennick went on to explain the number of deaths in 2021 was higher for most months when compared to 2020. He claimed that even accounting for the additional deaths caused by COVID, there were “more than 8000 deaths in 2021 that can’t be attributed to COVID or population growth”. 

When contacted by AAP FactCheck about the basis of his claim, Senator Rennick said: “If not vaccines what else was it?”

“The only other plausible explanation would be increased deaths due to lockdowns as a result of neglected healthcare or suicides,” he said in an email.

Three experts told AAP FactCheck Senator Rennick is misguided in his claim.

Associate Professor Katy Bell, an epidemiologist at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, said he “is confusing correlation with causation”. 

“His claim rests on his observation that increasing vaccination was correlated with increasing deaths but there are other factors that are associated with and explain both. There is no evidence that vaccines have caused thousands of excess deaths,” Dr Bell said in an email.

A March 2022 research paper co-authored by Dr Bell found that increases in non-COVID deaths globally from early in the pandemic “may relate to health system overload and changes in health-seeking behaviour, as well as under-ascertainment (underreporting) of COVID-19 deaths”. 

Dr Bell said some of Australia’s additional deaths in 2021 were likely due to people who delayed necessary healthcare because they feared they could contract the virus or because medical clinics were shut.

Karen Cutter, a member of the Actuaries Institute‘s COVID-19 Mortality Working Group, said the 8000 additional deaths figure did not account for the fact deaths decreased the previous year, nor for Australia’s growing and ageing population.

The group found Australia experienced “negative excess mortality” of around 5000 deaths in 2020, compared to what would have been expected without the pandemic. By comparison, it found there were around 2,000 excess deaths in 2021 when compared to pre-pandemic figures, an increased death rate of around one per cent. 

Around 1200 of those 2000 were doctor-certified COVID deaths, the group found. 

While the ABS data showed there were nominally more cancer and heart disease deaths in 2021 compared to 2020, Ms Cutter said ABS mortality statistics do not account for population growth or ageing demographics.

“The population in 2021 was nine per cent bigger than in 2015 but the population of those aged over 65 (where most deaths come from) was 20 per cent bigger,” she told AAP FactCheck in an email.

“We have had mortality improvement over this period, but this has not been enough to counter the growing and ageing population. Cancer deaths are a clear example of this. The rate of cancer deaths is largely unchanged over the period but absolute numbers of cancer deaths are much higher now compared with 2015.”

The ABS also uses an age-standardised death rate (SDR) measurement, which means mortality figures are adjusted for population changes across age groups to provide a better comparison over time. By that measure, deaths due to influenza and pneumonia, cancer, ischaemic heart diseases, cerebrovascular diseases and diabetes were all lower in 2021 when compared to either the 2020 SDR or the average SDR across 2015-19, according to the ABS.

Deaths due to dementia and respiratory disease were higher in 2021 than in 2020 when using the same calculation method, the ABS reported. 

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has said while there has been an increase in psychological distress and the use of mental health services during the pandemic, there has been no increase in deaths by suicide.

Associate Professor James Trauer, the head of the Epidemiological Modelling Unit at Monash University, also said the senator's interpretation of the data was flawed.

"There are a few considerations, but the main one is that the total number of deaths observed in 2021 is very close to what would be expected from population growth if you compare 2021 to any previous year other than 2020," Dr Trauer told AAP FactCheck in an email. 

"There is another way that we know that these deaths are not caused by vaccination, which is that Australia has a robust system for reporting adverse events following immunisation (AEFIs), which would clearly have picked up any signal of even a relatively rare vaccine-related side effect."

A similar claim from the US has also been found to be a misinterpretation of the data.

The Verdict

Experts told AAP FactCheck there is no evidence vaccines are behind an increase of around 2000 deaths in the expected death rate.

They said the increase in 2021 can partly be explained by people who died after delaying healthcare as well as people who died directly from COVID. The senator's claim also fails to take into account the large decrease in deaths in 2020 as well as the country's growth and ageing population.

False ÔÇô The claim is inaccurate.

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