There’s no doubt about it: Europe is having a terrible time with what looks like a severe new CCP Virus wave. Not made nearly as clear by the coverage – this new wave is rising despite high vaccination rates in most of the countries being hit. As this post will show, two key trends are casting serious doubt on broad claims of vaccine effectiveness claimed by the U.S. public health establishment and others who have viewed it as the only reliable source of “The Science” on the pandemic and fighting it.
The first trend is in reported infection rates. As known by RealityChek regulars, I don’t take this metric especially seriously because it can be impacted by developments having little to do with the actual severity of the pandemic – like testing rates and numbers of asymptomatic infections. (The latter complicates the situation because people carrying the virus who are feeling no effects are relatively unlikely to take a test.)
But the public health establishment takes infection rates very seriously – and evidently in Europe as well as in the United States. So here are the relevant figures for eleven European countries – with their full vaccination rates as of November 22 on the left and the change in the seven-day moving average (7DMA) of daily new infections between November 15 and November 22 on the right. The vaccination rates come (with the exception noted below) from the Washington Post‘s virus tracker feature, and the infection rates from the worldometers.info website. And for comparison’s sake, I’m including the U.S. figures as well.
Netherlands: 73.0 percent* +48.76 percent
Germany: 68.0 percent +30.62 percent
Belgium: 75.4 percent +45.52 percent
Austria: 65.7 percent +24.40 percent
UK: 69.1 percent +9.06 percent
France: 69.6 percent +81.76 percent
Czech Republic: 58.6 percent +39.58 percent
Portugal: 86.9 percent +48.04 percent
Denmark: 78.5 percent +21.30 percent
Spain: 79.8 percent +58.98 percent
Italy: 73.1 percent +26.59 percent
USA: 59.0 percent +11.24 percent
*See here for the Netherlands vaccination rate
It’s easy to see that there is absolutely no correlation between the two sets of numbers. Just look at the contrast in infection rate increases between the United Kingdom and France – even though their full vaccination rates are nearly identical. Also, how come highly vaccinated Spain and Portugal are seeing case numbers rise so quickly? Why are Italian case numbers rising much more slowly than those on the Iberian peninsula, even though it’s vaccination rate is somewhat lower? And why does the United States, with the second lowest vaccination rate (due to all those supposed kooks who won’t get vaxxed?) come in with the second lowest infection growth rate in this group?
But like I said, in my view, infection rates don’t deserve much relative attention. Death rates aren’t a flawless measure of virus severity, either, but they’re another matter – especially because so many inside and outside the public health establishment say that the main value of the vaccines is less their power to prevent infections than to prevent serious illness and death. That proposition holds more strongly for Europe, but as you’ll see, there are several big exceptions.
Below are the data comparing the same vaccination rates (on the left) and CCP Virus death rates (on the right) for the eleven European countries plus the United States. The death rate number is the change in the 7DMA between November 15 ad November 22 and is also from the worldometers.info site.
Netherlands: 73.0 percent* +52.17 percent
Germany: 68.0 percent +22.35 percent
Belgium: 75.4 percent +27.59 percent
Austria: 65.7 percent +27.27 percent
UK: 69.1 percent -5.80 percent
France: 69.6 percent +27.03 percent
Czech Republic: 58.6 percent +43.75 percent
Portugal: 86.9 percent +30.00 percent
Denmark: 78.5 percent +50.00 percent
Spain: 79.8 percent -26.09 percent
Italy: 73.1 percent +5.36 percent
USA: 59.0 percent +0.29 percent
The lessons of this table are more difficult to draw for one main reason – the absolute numbers of deaths involved for most of these countries are extremely low. Meaning single or double digits low. And as known by RealityChek regulars, very low numbers can be highly volatile when it comes to percentage change terms, because only a tiny move in absolute numbers can produce huge relative moves. (For exampile, an increase of one to two in absolute terms equals a 100 percent increase.)
The three exceptions are Germany (where the daily deaths 7DMA have been growing recently by the high-100s), the United Kingdom (where they’re rising by the mid-100s), and the United States (where daily growth still exceeds 1,000). Even taking these disparities into account, it’s interesting that the U.S. daily death rate has been stable lately and in fact has come way down since August; and that in the United Kingdom, with its average vaccination rate, mortality is declining.
And in relative terms, on this front, both countries have been out-performing Germany – whose vaccination rate is a bit lower than the United Kingdom’s but a good deal higher than the United States’. It’s true that death rates are lagging indicators (because CCP Virus victims typically take a while to pass away). But the different directions in this indicator in these three countries don’t seem to have much to do with their vaccination rates.
As for the high vaccination countries, the rates of mortality increase are indeed worrisome, and simply because of their often-soaring infection rates could worsen. But the absolute numbers are still so low that the only reasonable conclusion is “Wait and see.”
That’s why even though tight virus-related restrictions are reappearing all over Europe (see, e.g., here, here, and here), it seems panicky at best to close down entire economies and societies – especially given all the collateral damage that would result. Sweepingly linking employment opportunities to vaccination status, as the Biden administration has sought seems equally unreasonable in light of these mounting signs that the jabs simply aren’t the panacea that was initially advertised.
An announcement yesterday by the President’s coronavirus response coordinator that “We can curb the spread of the virus without having to in any way shut down our economy,” indicates that Mr. Biden is learning the first lesson. A more targeted approach toward vaccinations and other responses, focusing on the most vulnerable, would be a welcome sign that he’s learning the second.