CDC: People vaccinated against COVID are also less likely to die of other causes

AP Photo/Marta Lavandier

My God. The vaccine doesn’t just reduce death from SARS-CoV-2.

It reduces death from everything.

I kid. Although in a bizarro-world version of Tucker Carlson’s show where the host was constantly looking for dubious ways to exaggerate the benefits of vaccination, that’s how this new CDC study would be distorted tonight.

What we have here is an obvious example of correlation not equaling causation, I assume. Either that or I’ll be immortal once I get the booster.

To assess mortality not associated with COVID-19 (non–COVID-19 mortality) after COVID-19 vaccination in a general population setting, a cohort study was conducted during December 2020–July 2021 among approximately 11 million persons enrolled in seven Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) sites. After standardizing mortality rates by age and sex, this study found that COVID-19 vaccine recipients had lower non–COVID-19 mortality than did unvaccinated persons. After adjusting for demographic characteristics and VSD site, this study found that adjusted relative risk (aRR) of non–COVID-19 mortality for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 0.41 (95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.38–0.44) after dose 1 and 0.34 (95% CI = 0.33–0.36) after dose 2. The aRRs of non–COVID-19 mortality for the Moderna vaccine were 0.34 (95% CI = 0.32–0.37) after dose 1 and 0.31 (95% CI = 0.30–0.33) after dose 2. The aRR after receipt of the Janssen vaccine was 0.54 (95% CI = 0.49–0.59). There is no increased risk for mortality among COVID-19 vaccine recipients. This finding reinforces the safety profile of currently approved COVID-19 vaccines in the United States…

After excluding COVID-19–associated deaths, overall SMRs [standardized mortality rates] after dose 1 were 0.42 and 0.37 per 100 person-years for Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, respectively, and were 0.35 and 0.34, respectively, after dose 2 (Table 2). These rates were lower than the rate of 1.11 per 100 person-years among the unvaccinated mRNA vaccine comparison group (p <0.001). Among Janssen vaccine recipients, the overall SMR was 0.84 per 100 person-years, lower than the rate of 1.47 per 100 person-years among the unvaccinated comparison group (p <0.001).

If it’s not the vaccine that’s responsible, how do we explain vaccinated people faring better than unvaccinated people health-wise even in matters unrelated to COVID? I think the secret lies in this Gallup data from a poll published in June:

We’ve seen a hundred variations of that result across dozens of polls showing how vaccinated and unvaccinated people behave with respect to COVID precautions like masks and social distancing. Logically you would expect the vaccinated to be more willing to take risks than the unvaccinated by socializing more frequently with others, going maskless more often, etc, since they’re the ones who are protected against severe illness by their shots. The health risk from getting infected is greater to the unvaxxed; in a rational world, because the cost of an activity like socializing is greater for that group, they should be less likely to engage in it.

But we don’t live in a rational world. We live in a world in which different people have different innate levels of risk-tolerance. And what the polls tell us repeatedly is that the unvaccinated are more willing to risk infection by avoiding all precautions — social distancing, masking, and vaccination — than the more risk-averse vaccinated cohort is. That’s how Gallup ended up with data in which 90 percent of the vaccinated were still masking in June (pre-Delta!) while only a bit more than half as many unvaccinated were.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the average unvaccinated person turned out to be more risk-tolerant across all sorts of behavior than the average vaccinated person is, which is what this data suggests (without proving). If you’re not going to sweat the risk from COVID, maybe you’re less likely to sweat the risk from smoking. Maybe you’re more likely to drink or do drugs. Maybe your eating habits are less healthy. Maybe you drive faster on the highway. Broad behavioral differences between the unvaxxed and vaxxed may be a Goofus and Gallant cartoon come to life.

What’s fascinating in the CDC data is that the Johnson & Johnson people were somewhere in between the unvaccinated and the people who got mRNA vaccines in their risk of non-COVID mortality. That suggests that J&J people may be their own discrete cohort in terms of risk-tolerance, which sort of makes sense. If you opted for the one-shot vaccine knowing that it offered less protection against infection in trials than Pfizer or Moderna, maybe you tend to inhabit some middle ground on health risks. Just as you were willing to check the box by getting vaccinated but didn’t want the hassle of two shots, maybe you drive faster on the highway but are also scrupulous about seat-belt safety. Maybe you smoke occasionally but not regularly. Maybe you eat fast food a couple of times a week but take care not to overdo it. Etc.

The CDC data may also be an indirect measurement of social distancing behavior. It could be that people who got Pfizer or Moderna were the most risk-averse and therefore most likely to isolate at home during the pandemic, then the J&J people were next most likely, and then finally the unvaccinated. If you’re at home, you’re not out on the road risking a fatal car accident or any other external threat. That’ll cut the mortality rate for the group dramatically.

Whatever the explanation, don’t miss the forest for the trees in this study. While the data doesn’t conclusively prove it, it strongly suggests that there are no major health complications from the vaccines. In theory, I guess, it could be that the vaccinated would have had an even bigger advantage in mortality rates from non-COVID causes over the unvaccinated if they hadn’t gotten their shots, but c’mon.

That’s one side of the coin, that the vaccines aren’t hurting people. The other side of the coin is that the science supporting anti-vaxxers’ favorite miracle cure, ivermectin, is woefully thin:

Over the past six months, we’ve examined about 30 studies of the drug’s use for treating or preventing COVID-19, focusing on randomized studies, or nonrandomized ones that have been influential, with at least 100 participants. We’ve reached out directly to the authors of these studies to discuss our findings, sometimes engaging in lengthy back-and-forths; when appropriate, we’ve sent messages to the journals in which studies have been published. In our opinion, a bare minimum of five ivermectin papers are either misconceived, inaccurate, or otherwise based on studies that cannot exist as described. One study has already been withdrawn on the basis of our work; the other four very much should be.

In the withdrawn study, a team in Egypt compared outcomes among COVID-19 patients who did and did not receive ivermectin—but, for the latter group, they included deaths that had occurred before the study began. (According to the journal Nature, the lead author “defended the paper” in an email, and claimed that the withdrawal took place without his knowledge. He did not respond to an inquiry from The Atlantic.) Other papers also have egregious flaws. Researchers in Argentina said they recruited participants from hospitals that had no record of having participated in the research, and then blamed mistakes on a statistician who claimed never to have been consulted. A few studies show clear evidence of severe data irregularities. In one from Lebanon, for example, the same section of patient records repeats over and over again in the data set, as if it had been copied and pasted. (An author on that paper conceded that the data were flawed, and claimed to have requested a retraction.)…

Most problematic, the studies we are certain are unreliable happen to be the same ones that show ivermectin as most effective.

Studies on ivermectin with more rigorous protocols are being conducted here and abroad, so stay tuned. There’s no doubt that that drug is safe for human consumption so long as you’re getting it from a doctor instead of a veterinarian but there’s also no doubt after 350 million doses or whatever administered in the U.S. that the COVID vaccines are safe too. The CDC study is just the latest evidence.