The UK’s vaccination programme appears to have started reducing coronavirus deaths, according to an expert who says the effect is significant enough not to be a result of lockdown alone.
Deaths from coronavirus have fallen by 61% among over-80s since 24 January, the point at which a third of that age group had some level of immunity against coronavirus, having received their first vaccine dose at least two weeks earlier, data analysis shows.
This drop is larger than that among groups with a lower level of vaccination. Among people aged between 20 and 64 the drop in deaths is 51%, while the drop among those aged 65 to 79 is 48%.
“Deaths in over-70s are now falling faster than in younger age groups, which is very encouraging and is likely to be influenced by vaccination – there has been a steep decline in outbreaks in care homes,” said Prof David Spiegelhalter, the chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge.
As of 10 January, more than a third of those aged 80 and over in England – 1 million people – had received the first of their two vaccine doses. Adding two weeks for the inoculation to take effect, with a further two to three weeks being the average delay between a coronavirus infection and death from the virus, data from mid-February provides the first solid indication that the vaccine regime is turning the dial.
In comparison, fewer than 3% of under-80s in England had received a first jab by 10 January.
While Spiegelhalter’s referenced the over-70s, the Guardian analysis focuses on the over-80s because a significant proportion of that age group were vaccinated by early January.
After analysing the figures in the last week, George Batchelor, the director of health data company Edge Health, said he also believed the positive effects of the vaccine were starting to become apparent. “The drop in the proportion of Covid-19 deaths for the over-80s relative to other age groups since early February is a good sign that the vaccination programme is working,” he said. However, he also added: “There are reasons to still be cautious, deaths are still high and there are some concerns around the supply of vaccines.”
Some experts are more hesitant to identify the effect of the vaccine in the data, a stance echoed by the prime minister and England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, at a Downing Street press briefing on Monday.
Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “It is still difficult disentangling the impact of lockdown from the impact of vaccine.” He warned the data was “noisy” and it would take more time to be sure: “There is some suggestion of relatively greater decline in hospitalisations in the older age groups compared to the under-65s in the last few days and also in deaths in over-80s, but this data is intrinsically noisy so I would not have confidence for a few days yet.”
However, others point to promising data from Israel that shows both hospitalisations and deaths among elderly people are falling after widespread vaccination of those who are most vulnerable.
“Although studies from Israel are promising, we are not sure what levels of effectiveness are being achieved in practice in the UK.”
A study released on Sunday by Israel’s largest healthcare provider indicated the Pfizer/BioNTech jab offered 94% protection against Covid-19, echoing the results of vaccine trials.
Why we see the vaccine effect in deaths first
The impact of the vaccine is less visible in metrics other than deaths. Big falls in hospital admissions in the last month are more likely to be a result of lockdown measures – imposed in England since early January – rather than vaccines, with younger groups having very similar rates of hospitalisation to older, more vaccinated groups, experts believe.
However, many older people with life-threatening coronavirus may not be sent to hospital, Spiegelhalter suggests. “It may seem the wrong order, but modelling suggests that we would expect vaccines to affect deaths before hospital admissions, since so many elderly cases do not get admitted to hospital. But there is a suggestion that admissions are now falling faster in the older groups,” he said.
Hospitalisation rates among those aged 85 and over remain much higher overall, because age makes people much more vulnerable to the virus. Over-85s still make up approximately 20% of all hospital admissions for coronavirus. This ratio has fallen only slightly since vaccination took effect at the end of January.
There are still more than 20,000 coronavirus patients in UK hospitals – higher than the level seen in the first peak.
The Guardian’s analysis uses NHS England hospital admission data for coronavirus, which is only available for age groups: 0-5, 6-17, 18-64, 65-84, 85+. Population data used to calculate the rate for each age group in England is from the ONS 2019 mid-year population estimates. Deaths and hospital admission data for coronavirus is from Public Health England.