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FactCheck: No, Conor McGregor wasn't correct to say vaccines 'have not worked' to stop Covid-19

The MMA athlete-turned-businessman claimed “The vaccines have not worked to stop this whatsoever.”

For general Factchecks not about Covid (1)

IN A NOW-DELETED tweet, Conor McGregor weighed in on Covid vaccine efficacy.

The tweet from @TheNotoriousMMA on 22 November read: 

“The vaccines have not worked to stop this whatsoever. More vaccinated than ever. More cases than ever. Re-evaluate this entirely. Stop taking handouts.” 

The MMA athlete-turned-publican/businessman has taken to tweeting and sometimes deleting Covid-related criticisms of the Irish government and others to his nine million followers. 

One of his latest missives seemed to take aim at Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer by referencing ‘tony baloni’ on 26 November.

tour-de-france-2020-day-1-nice-moyen-pays-to-nice Conor McGregor during the first stage of Tour de France, in Nice, France on August 29, 2020. Source: Poupart Julien/ABACA

But what about his take on vaccines and their effectiveness? The number of new Covid cases was at 5,634 in Ireland on the day he sent the tweet, and had hit 5,959 two days beforehand – one of the highest ever recorded during the pandemic. The latest daily new case number is 2950. At the same time, as of 6 December, 93.11% of the eligible Irish population (aged over 12) are fully vaccinated. 

So with both vaccine rates and case numbers high, does The Notorious have a point on this one? 

Let’s jump into the octagon and find out.

WHAT ARE WE CHECKING? 

“The vaccines have not worked to stop this [Covid-19] whatsoever. More vaccinated than ever. More cases than ever.” 

THE EVIDENCE

Let’s start with the ‘More vaccinated than ever. More cases than ever’ part of the tweet.

The case numbers on the day he sent the tweet were among the highest we’ve seen in Ireland at 5,634. For comparison, the latest daily number of new cases was 2,950 as of 6 December. These are both significantly less than the highest number of new cases ever reported in one day, which was 8,248 on 8 January 2021 when the UK variant had taken hold. 

According to the latest Health Protection Surveillance Centre 14-day epidemiology data, as of 3 December there were 64,657 total confirmed Covid 19 cases in Ireland over the preceding fortnight with a national incidence of 1,357 confirmed cases per 100,000 people. 

This is fewer than the 72,864 confirmed cases we saw on 15 January over the preceding 14 days with a national incidence of 1,530 confirmed cases per 100,00 people. 

So while the current number of cases is high, there are not more cases than ever. Ireland had more cases in January. 

Back in January, we also had less of the population vaccinated. The government’s vaccination program had only started at the end of December 2020. According to the ECDC vaccine tracker, 2.5% of adults in Ireland had been fully vaccinated by the beginning of February. According to ECDC’s latest data our fully vaccinated uptake rate of adults over 18 is 93.1%.  So McGregor is correct to say more people than ever before have been vaccinated but there are not ‘more cases than ever.’ There were more cases when less people were vaccinated.

In the substantive part of the tweet McGregor claims ”The vaccines have not worked to stop this whatsoever”. So aside from cases being lower now than at the peak (even if it isn’t as much as hoped), has anything else changed since more people in Ireland got vaccinated?

At a recent HSE briefing, The Journal’s Céimin Burke asked how Ireland had the seventh-worst incidence rate in the European Union at the time despite having one of the highest vaccination rates.

Ireland’s Chief Clinical Officer Colm Henry explained that ICU numbers separate Ireland from countries with lower vaccination rates. 

“What you see in countries with a much lower vaccination uptake is not just high numbers of cases but a much higher pressure on their hospitals and ICUs because they don’t have that layer of protection the vaccine program gives them in preventing severe illness.

“So yes, we are seeing a high level of infection from Covid 19 but we have to distinguish that from harm,” he said. 

He also added that if Ireland had a corresponding number of hospitalisations in ICU with that of other European countries then ‘we would be utterly overwhelmed.’ 

In late January during the peak of the third wave, we had 221 cases in ICU when vaccinations were in the early stages of rollout. As of 22 November, when the tweet was sent, despite cases climbing, the number of confirmed cases in ICU was 126. That number has since fallen to 110 as of yesterday. 

To put that into perspective, at the time of McGregor’s tweet, Ireland has a lower ICU occupancy rate of 1.9 per 100,000 of the population compared to the European Union average of 2.6, according to European Centre for Disease Protection and Control numbers (Ireland’s occupancy rate has since risen to 2.5 per 100,000 and the EU average to 3.6). 

Slovenia has the highest ICU occupancy rate at 13.5 per 100,000. It also has the sixth lowest vaccination rate in Europe with 54.7% of  adults fully vaccinated, according to the ECDC. 

Bulgaria has the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated adults in the EA/EEA at 25.9% and the second-highest ICU occupancy rates at 11.2 per 100,000.  

Czechia (8.5) and Romania (7.1) also showed a significantly higher ICU occupancy rate than Ireland while having  lower vaccination rates sitting at 64.7% and 46% respectively. 

In comparison Portugal has 92.2% of the adult population vaccinated and their ICU occupancy is 1 per 100,000. This means they have a slightly lower percentage of adults fully vaccinated than Ireland but also less people in the ICU. However Portugal’s total percentage of population vaccinated (which includes children under 18 and those under 12 who cannot get vaccinated) is higher (81.7%) compared to Ireland (76.5%).

Separately, a UK study published in The Lancet: Respiratory Medicine analysed admissions and death after vaccination in 2.57 million people in Scotland. It found “Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths were uncommon 14 days or more after the first vaccine dose”, with fewer than 0.05% of people who received one dose of Pfizer or Astra Zeneca “suffering an adverse breakthrough event.”

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The study also found ‘high risk’ groups like older people and those with underlying health conditions still maintained a higher risk of hospitalisation and death.

Last month, some sceptical of the vaccine pointed out that 51.8% of notified Covid deaths in Ireland between 20 April and 20 November this year were fully vaccinated. However it should be noted 69.1% of people who died had an underlying medical condition, with the median age being 81 years old. This fits with research findings that vaccinations can reduce risk of hospitalisation and death but that identified high-risk groups such as older people and those with underlying medical conditions still have an elevated risk of severe outcomes overall. 

Research from the World Health Organization and the ECDC released this week estimated Covid vaccines saved 9,000 lives in Ireland among people aged 60 and over. The research estimates that 74% of deaths that could have been expected among this age group were averted because of vaccines. 

The study’s model found 470,000 lives were saved in the same age group in the WHO’s European region since the vaccine rollout commenced. 

As we revealed in an earlier Fact Check there is evidence that vaccinations reduce transmission in two ways. “First, by reducing the number of people who get infected. Second, by reducing the infectiousness of those who do get infected (vaccine breakthrough cases),” according to Chair of Infectious Diseases at the Imperial College of London, Professor Ajit Lalvani. 

HSE Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry said that the research from the WHO and the ECDC was proof that “immunity wins.”

“Yes, a booster campaign is necessary. That doesn’t mean it [the vaccine] didn’t work. That does not mean it didn’t save lives. That doesn’t mean it didn’t prevent healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed,” Dr Henry said.

The vaccine programme to date has been extremely effective at preventing serious hospitalisation and death.

Conor McGregor was contacted for comment via his agent but did not respond. 

THE VERDICT

While there are more people fully vaccinated than ever, there are not more cases than ever. Cases were higher earlier in the year when much less people had been vaccinated.

But is McGregor right in saying “vaccines have not worked to stop this whatsoever?” The ICU admissions for Covid cases in Ireland has decreased since the population started to get vaccinated. This is in line with what we already knew: that the Covid vaccine does not prevent infection completely, but it reduces the risk of severe illness. 

The ECDC data on vaccinations and ICU occupancy does show a correlation between vaccination rates and cases in the ICU. Recent studies show vaccines have an effect on hospitalisation and death rates. On the whole, we found that McGregor’s claim the vaccines have not worked whatsoever to be untrue. Coupled with debunking the claim that there are more cases than ever, we are putting the prizefighter’s tweet into submission and calling it: FALSE. 

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

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