Could the COVID vaccine be saving 1,000 lives in England and Wales each week?
Russell Cake analyses recent ONS data to see what it can reveal about how many deaths attributed to COVID-19 may already have been prevented by the UK’s vaccine roll out.
New ONS data was published earlier this week looking at deaths registered where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate in England and Wales.
I was struck that since the end of January, COVID death registrations have reduced at a faster rate each week in those aged 80+ and 70 – 79, than in younger age groups. Figure 1 below shows this faster rate of reduction.
It’s of course well documented that COVID has disproportionately affected the 70+ age groups and that from the age of around 40 to over 90 the risk of mortality from COVID approximately doubles with every five years of increased age. Why then did we see this faster reduction in deaths attributed to COVID in the over 70s since the end of January and what can it tell us about our COVID response?
January this year saw both a re-entry into national lockdown in England and Wales, and the continuation of the vaccine roll out which started with the over 80s in December 2020 and extended to the over 70s in early January 2021.
Published data doesn’t yet allow us to separate the vaccine rollout entirely from other potential causes of reduced mortality in this age bracket, such as over lockdown having a different impact on over 70s from the impact on younger age groups (for example because of differences in employment by age group). However, we can compare the profile of deaths by age group shown in Figure 1, to the profile by age group that occurred after the peak of the first wave of COVID in April 2020. Figure 2 shows this picture:
So, we can see that following the January 2021 peak, deaths declined most quickly in people aged 80+. Whereas following the April 2020 peak, with no vaccine, deaths decline most slowly in people aged 80+.
This is not proof that the vaccine roll out is the dominant factor in deaths now reducing more quickly in age groups 70+ relative to younger age groups, but it is certainly evidence that is consistent with the vaccine roll out being the dominant factor.
If vaccine roll-out is indeed the dominant factor that is causing deaths to decline faster in older age groups than in younger age groups, how many lives would that indicate that the vaccine is already saving?
To estimate this, we calculated how many deaths would have occurred, if deaths in the age groups 80+ and 70-79 continued at the same trajectory as the 50-59 age group after the end of January. This analysis indicates that the average weekly death count for the age group 70-79 could have been approximately 200 deaths higher than it currently is. For the 80+ age group, the average weekly death count could have been approximately 600 to 800 deaths higher than it currently is (see figure 3 below).
Based on this, we estimate that for the four-week period from 5 February 2021, of the order of 1,000 lives among those aged 70-79 may already have been saved by the COVID vaccine and of the order of 3,000 lives may already have been saved in the over 80s.
This is a staggering number and testament to the enormous efforts to ensure the COVID vaccine reached the most vulnerable age groups in the UK rapidly and effectively.
As the COVID vaccine roll out continues, I’ll be keeping a close eye on how the mortality rates among the new age groups that receive the vaccine are affected too. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the analysis in this document and invite any debate or conversation on this.
Author: Russell Cake
Russell is co-founder of The PSC and is recognised nationally, and increasingly internationally, as a leading thinker on public health and health system reform. His work across life expectancy, mortality, and most recently COVID-19 response has been picked up by the UK and devolved governments and cited in The Economist and other outlets.
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