Lax vax resulted in thousands more COVID deaths, UK-wide study shows
The largest study of its kind ever carried out in the UK has found that 7,180 of the 40,393 hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 could have been avoided had the population been fully vaccinated.
The landmark study from Health Data Research (HDR) UK and the University of Edinburgh looked at the hospitalizations and deaths that occurred across the region – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – from June 1 to September 30, 2022.
The extensive work saw researchers access secure, anonymized National Health Service (NHS) data for every individual over the age of five – or some 67 million people. Addressing understandable concerns regarding dissemination of confidential health data, approved researchers only had access to de-identified information and could assess it under tight security controls.
After the data from the four nations was pooled and made uniform for analysis, the population was sorted into age groups, with vaccination status the variable, and mathematical modeling revealed how many serious and fatal illness could have been prevented over the four months.
In the UK, the first COVID-19 vaccines were administered in December 2020, but by 2022, the study revealed that, together, nearly 30.5 million people – or 44.4% of the four nations – had failed to get or keep up with doses. The researchers found that under-vaccination was associated with a higher risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes compared to full coverage.
“We found that under-vaccination (receiving fewer than the recommended number of SARS-CoV-2 vaccine doses) was associated with increased risks of severe COVID-19 outcomes across all age groups studied,” the researchers noted. “This is the first epidemiological analysis using individual-level electronic health records covering the entire population of the UK.”
The harmonized, or uniform, data of vaccinated/under-vaccinated people was assessed in the age groups of 5-11 years, 12-15 years, 16-74 years and 75 years and older. The researchers found that the highest rate of under-vaccination was among younger people, in males aged 5-74 years, and those in poorer socio-economic areas. And, not surprisingly, vaccine uptake was highest towards the start of the sampled data time frame, and tapered off significantly by the September 30 cut-off.
The data showed that under-vaccinated 5-15-year-olds were more than two times as likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19. Those aged 16-74 were about 50% more at risk, and older adults aged 75 and over were three times as likely to experience poor outcomes.
“Younger age was strongly associated with under-vaccination,” the researchers noted. “The results in each country were broadly similar for the common and extended adjustment analyses.”
While the vaccines were never designed to prevent infection, there is a growing body of robust scientific evidence that shows how effective they have been in shielding people from hospitalization and death. That is, for those who remained on top of their doses more than two years after the onset of the pandemic.
“The research outcome is a powerful validation of the benefits of vaccination,” said study co-author Alan Keys, a public contributor at the British Heart Foundation Data Science Centre at HDR UK.
While this massive data set was only made possible due to developing the harmonized and anonymized analysis framework, scientists hope that it can be broadened to gain better insight into other serious healthcare concerns.
“The infrastructure now exists to make full use of the potential of routinely collected data in the NHS across the four nations of the UK,” said Cathie Sudlow, Chief Scientist at HDR. “We believe that we could and should extend these approaches to many other areas of medicine, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes to search for better understanding, prevention and treatment of disease."
The UK reported that 90% of residents over the age of 12 years had received at least one vaccination by January 2022, however, uptakes of boosters, as the data reveals, has significantly slowed.
“Large-scale data studies have been critical to pandemic management, allowing scientists to make policy-relevant findings at speed,” said co-lead author Sir Aziz Sheikh, HDR UK Research Director. “COVID-19 vaccines save lives. As new variants emerge, this study will help to pinpoint groups of our society and areas of the country where public health campaigns should be focused and tailored for those communities.”
The research was published in the journal The Lancet.