The claim: COVID-19 surge in India connected to rollout of vaccine
After weathering the first wave of the pandemic, India is now dealing with another widespread outbreak of the coronavirus that has yielded overcrowded crematoriums, a short supply of medical oxygen and understaffed hospitals.
India has nearly 23 million cases of the coronavirus and has had nearly 250,000 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. On May 1, it set a daily global case record with more than 400,000 new cases.
As researchers and health officials attempt to identify what’s behind the COVID-19 surge in India, some users have taken to social media to suggest vaccines are to blame.
“India was doing just fine until they started mass vaccinating,” reads a screen grab of an April 28 tweet that was shared to Instagram on May 4 and Facebook on May 3.
Accompanying the text is a graphic purportedly showing the number of COVID-19 vaccination doses administered per 100 people in India compared to the number of deaths in the country per million people.
The chart has a timeline from Jan. 30, 2020, to April 14, 2021, and claims India’s second wave started on Jan. 16, when the country launched its vaccination drive against COVID-19.
In a direct message, the Instagram user said the data is “cited” and claimed the post “did not make a statement that one led to another.” The Facebook user did not return a request for comment.
The person who posted the original tweet, Suneil Jain, similarly told USA TODAY he was simply presenting data for people to “interpret as they wish.”
Of course, presenting those datasets together with text pointing out the overlap in timing leaves readers with a clear impression the two are connected.
And that’s false.
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The image cites Our World in Data for the numbers, however, Lucas Rodés-Guirao, a senior data analyst with the organization, said the “image showing both metrics (deaths and vaccinations) did not come from us.”
“We should make clear that the inference that vaccinations are in any way driving COVID deaths does not come from us,” he said via email. “The data on vaccinations and deaths across countries does not support this conclusion.”
Vaccines did not cause outbreak in India
While the COVID-19 outbreak in India followed the Jan. 16 rollout of two vaccines (Covishield, developed by AstraZeneca with Oxford University, and Covaxin, by Indian firm Bharat Biotech), the two are not associated with each other.
Government data shows India has administered about 167 million doses total, with around 34 million people receiving both doses. That’s just a little over 2% of the country’s population of 1.3 billion.
India’s second wave of COVID-19 started in February when it reported an average of 10,000 infections a day.
“It’s a common fallacy that correlation implies causation,” said Sumit Chanda, director of the immunity and pathogens program at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute. “There’s actually an inverse correlation between those people who got the vaccine and those people are getting sick.”
In others words, people who got the vaccine are getting infected less often, not more.
Some users in the comments claim those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in India are “shedding” the virus and infecting others. However, that claim has been previously debunked. Chanda reiterated that vaccine shedding claims are “completely false.”
Fact check: COVID-19 vaccinated people don’t ‘shed’ viral particles from the vaccine
Covishield has an efficacy of about 70%, and Covaxin showed clinical efficacy of 78% from interim data in its phase 3 trials. In March, a government panel in India found deaths occurring after injection of the two vaccines were connected by timing only, with no causal relationship, according to The Economic Times.
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Immunologist Robert Quigley, senior vice president and global medical director at International SOS, a health risk mitigation firm, also said the COVID-19 outbreak in India has “nothing to do with the vaccine.”
A number of factors
Researchers and experts say a variety of forces caused the resurgence of COVID-19 in India: a lack of preparedness, emerging variants of the virus, eased lockdowns and large gatherings.
“I think a lot of people were letting their guard down in India thinking that the worst is behind us, and government policies equally promoted that stance,” Chanda said.
COVID-19 cases in India began to dip around September and followed that trend for 30 consecutive weeks, and the government did not pause Hindu religious festivals or elections. A report in The Lancet medical journal says those mass gatherings and a lack of protective measures allowed the virus to spread freely.
Chanda said these factors created a “perfect storm” for a delayed second wave in India, which he says “was not unpredictable.” He added people are dying in India not from vaccines, but due to COVID-19 symptoms, a lack of oxygen and “the near collapse of the health care system.”
Quigley also pointed to the country’s underfunded health care system. Per Reuters, India spends 1% of gross domestic product on health, which is lower than most major economies.
“Their health care infrastructure is fragile on a good day.” Quigley said. “It’s clearly overwhelmed with all these cases. A lot of people are not in the upper echelons of society, so they don’t have good health care to begin with.”
A new strain of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus called B.1.617—a “double mutant” having two mutations on the virus spike—is likely another contributing factor, however, more research is needed on that point, Quigley said.
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India’s National Centre for Disease Control recently said samples containing B.1.617 have been found in several states with high case numbers but that it has not been able to fully establish a correlation, according to The Indian Express.
Our rating: False
A chart claiming India’s second wave of COVID-19 cases is connected to its vaccination drive is FALSE, based on our research. Our World in Data, which is referenced as the source for the claim, said the metrics did not come from it and there is no research supporting that vaccines are causing COVID-19 deaths. Experts agree that an overwhelmed health care system, new variants and large mass gatherings without restrictions led to a surge in COVID-19 cases and fatalities. Cases were, predictably, less common in people who had received the vaccine.
Our fact-check sources:
- Sumit Chanda, May 7, phone interview
- Robert Quigley, May 7, phone interview
- Lucas Rodés Guiaro, May 7, email correspondence
- Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Jan. 9, tweet
- Suneil Jain, May 10, email correspondence
- Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Government of India, May 8, Cumulative Coverage Report of COVID-19 Vaccination
- Worldometer, accessed May 7, India Population
- CNBC, May 3, India accounts for 1 in 3 new Covid cases being recorded. Here is its second wave in 5 charts
- USA TODAY, May 7, Fact check: COVID-19 vaccinated people don’t ‘shed’ viral particles from the vaccine
- The Lancet, Dec. 8, 2020, tweet
- Indian Council of Medical Research and Bharat Biotech, April 21, Bharat Biotech and ICMR Announce Interim Results from Phase 3 trials of COVAXIN; Demonstrates overall Interim Clinical Efficacy of 78% and 100% efficacy against Severe COVID-19 disease
- The Economic Times, March 18, Panel finds no casual link yet between Covid jabs and deaths
- Associated Press, April 22, EXPLAINER: Why India is shattering global infection records
- The Lancet, May 1, Experts criticise India’s complacency over COVID-19
- Reuters, Jan. 31, India’s ‘get well soon’ budget boosts healthcare spending 135%, opens up insurance
- BBC, April 28, Why India’s Covid crisis matters to the whole world
- The Indian Express, May 6, Finally, Centre flags surge link to double mutant
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