People are going to die after getting a coronavirus vaccine, even if it is 100% safe. This is not conjecture. It is, unfortunately, a statistical inevitability. Let me explain.
In the United States, before the pandemic, an average of about two million people over the age of sixty-five died annually. These deaths were, of course, from an assortment of causes, including heart disease, cancer, and old age. Given that the U.S. has a population of about fifty-one million over sixty-five, this means roughly 4% of such individuals die each year, irrespective of the coronavirus.
So, what will happen once everyone starts getting a coronavirus vaccine? Will these deaths suddenly stop? Of course not. In fact, assuming that everyone over the age of sixty-five gets vaccinated over the course of a year, we can do simple statistics to make some important predictions.
First, we can predict that one out of every 365 of those two million deaths will happen within twenty-four hours after receiving a coronavirus vaccine. We can also predict that one out of every fifty-two will occur within a week. By the numbers, this is a lot of deaths: about 5,500 and 38,500, respectively. Remember, these are deaths that will happen irrespective of whether the vaccine contributes to mortality. These are deaths that are predicted to be paired, by random chance, with the event of vaccination. I feel horrible reducing human life to such a set of statistics but, unfortunately, the numbers don’t lie.
Now, what do you think will happen when Americans, especially those unversed in science or medicine, start reporting that their parent or grandparent perished a day or a few days after receiving a coronavirus vaccine? That’s right, people will naturally assume the vaccine caused death. Given the maelstrom of misinformation and confusion we have already seen in this pandemic, mass vaccination will only become that much more difficult.
To be clear, it’s not just the coronavirus vaccines that will exhibit apparent associations with death. Flu vaccines already do. In 2013, a U.S. study found that 0.011% and 0.023% of all flu vaccine recipients aged sixty-five to seventy-four and over seventy-four, respectively, died within a week of receiving their vaccination. The authors of this study concluded (correctly) that the deaths were well within statistically predictable outcomes for each age group, ruling out vaccination as a meaningful contributor to mortality.
A recent episode in South Korea illustrates well how easy it is for propinquity to give people the wrong idea about vaccines, even in a country with one of the highest rates of scientific literacy in the world. Beginning in early September, the Korean government began an aggressive flu drive, with the goal of vaccinating as much of its population as possible in preparation for winter. A special fund was enacted to provide free inoculations for the most vulnerable segments of the population: children, pregnant women, and seniors. By October, a little over ten million of Korea’s fifty-one million population were inoculated.
That same month, a series of deaths were reported in possible connection with vaccination. A total of seventy-two were reported, many occurring within forty-eight hours or a week after inoculation. These reports struck fear into the Korean public, bringing flu drive participation to a grinding halt. This is despite the fact that 89% of the deaths had occurred in those over the age of sixty with media and government experts unanimously declaring the deaths to be explainable by normal patterns of predictable decease. The many attempts at reestablishing public confidence failed, with flu drive participation never fully recovering.
Thousands of people, especially seniors, will die within a week after receiving a coronavirus vaccine. This is not an educated guess but an inevitability. Medical professionals will be advised, as they usually are for flu and other vaccines, to refrain from inoculating people who are already in poor health. This will help reduce vaccine-linked mortality but not extinguish it. Since the American public is not being warned about this pending reality, the deaths seem destined to fuel unnecessary doubts about vaccine safety. We need a preemptive public messaging campaign to head off the coming storm.
Justin Fendos is a professor of cell biology at Dongseo University in South Korea. He is a regular contributor for The Diplomat with recent articles about COVID-19 published through the Brookings Institution, BBC, Georgetown University, and The National Interest’s Korea Watch.