Misleading: The implication that official reports of COVID-19 deaths are being inflated because they include COVID-19 deaths in people with pre-existing health conditions wrongly suggests that such deaths aren’t true COVID-19 deaths.
FULL CLAIM: “Total Deaths From COVID MUCH LOWER Than Reported”; “There's a new Freedom of Information request release from the United Kingdom that shows the number of deaths actually solely attributable to Covid may be way lower than anyone had thought”; “Where COVID-19 is the only attributable cause of death, we see that the rate of death is actually remarkably low”; “there's still deaths but it's much lower than we've been thinking and it's much lower than mainstream media seems to be intimating”
Retired nurse practitioner John Campbell published a YouTube video, titled “Freedom of information revelation”. In the video, Campbell claimed that this request “shows the number of deaths actually solely attributable to Covid may be way lower than anyone had thought”. His video received more than 1.4 million views. It also attracted more than 39,000 engagements on Facebook, including more than 17,000 shares. The video was later promoted by the comedian Jimmy Dore in a video titled “Total COVID deaths way lower than reported”. Dore’s video received more than 171,000 views, as well as more than 2,300 shares on Facebook.
Campbell cited statistics from the U.K. Office of National Statistics (ONS), which reported that “From the week ending 13 March 2020 to the week ending 7 January 2022, the number of excess deaths above the five-year average in England and Wales was 127,704; of these, 122,467 were recorded in England and 6,520 were recorded in Wales.”
He next looked at the number of deaths with COVID-19 on the death certificate, listed as 174,233. He then compared it with the number of deaths in which only COVID-19 was listed on the death certificate, which was released in response to a Freedom of Information request, that asked “Please can you advise on deaths purely from covid with no other underlying causes (sic)”.
The ONS responded:
“Please see below for death registrations for 2020 and 2021 (provisional) that were due to COVID-19 and were recorded without any pre-existing conditions, England and Wales.
2020: 9400 (0-64: 1549 / 65 and over: 7851)
2021 Q1: 6483 (0-64: 1560/ 65 and over: 4923)
2021 Q2: 346 (0-64: 153/ 65 and over: 193)
2021 Q3: 1142 (0-64: 512/ 65 and over: 630)“
These numbers add up to 17,371. Contrasting this much smaller number with the number of deaths with COVID-19 on the death certificate (174,233), Campbell called it a “profound” discovery.
He went on to claim that “Where COVID-19 is the only attributable cause of death, we see that the rate of death is actually remarkably low”, “there’s still deaths but it’s much lower than we’ve been thinking and it’s much lower than mainstream media seems to be intimating”, and that “the official figures were pretty well eight times higher than those where COVID-19 was the only attributable cause of death”. These claims suggested that COVID-19 deaths involving pre-existing health conditions should have been excluded from reports of the COVID-19 death toll, which in turn suggested that such deaths aren’t true COVID-19 deaths.
These claims, combined with his statement that the Freedom of Information response “shows the number of deaths actually solely attributable to Covid may be way lower than anyone had thought”, essentially implied that COVID-19 deaths in people who had pre-existing conditions weren’t actually due to COVID-19, and that COVID-19 didn’t kill as many people as reported. Indeed, this is the message that several of Campbell’s viewers came away with, as evidenced by multiple comments on his YouTube video, as well as the same message that Dore communicated in his own video.
As we will explain below, this claim is false and provides the misleading impression that COVID-19 isn’t dangerous. Despite the impression given by Campbell’s words that this is a novel discovery (“revelation” and “profound”), this claim isn’t new. It had already made the rounds on social media platforms in August 2020, notably due to comments made by former U.S. President Donald Trump, as reported in an earlier Health Feedback review. Trump’s comments followed a 26 August 2020 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that only 6% of COVID-19 deaths listed COVID-19 as the sole cause of death.
Anthony Fauci, then part of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, refuted the claim in September 2021, explaining that people with underlying illnesses also die from COVID-19. “That does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of Covid didn’t die of Covid-19. They did […] So the numbers you’ve been hearing — there are 180,000-plus deaths — are real deaths from Covid-19. Let (there) not be any confusion about that”.
The above shows that the basis for Campbell’s claim strongly resembles the misunderstanding that occurred with the CDC report in 2020.
On death certificates, doctors list the underlying cause of death and also other health conditions that were unrelated to the cause of death but contributed to the death (see an example below). The ONS guidance for completing medical certificates of cause of death can be read here.
An example of what a death certificate in the U.K. might look like. Source: Geeky Medics. The ONS guidance for completing medical certificates can be read here.
Therefore, the number of deaths provided in the Freedom of Information response comes only from certificates listing solely COVID-19 in Part I under “Cause of Death” and nothing in Part II.
But labeling only these deaths as the actual deaths from COVID-19 indiscriminately dismisses the majority of COVID-19 deaths which occurred in people with underlying health conditions, as these death certificates would list COVID-19 in Part I, and also list underlying health conditions in Part II. There’s no reason to exclude such deaths from the COVID-19 death counts, given that COVID-19 was still the sole cause of death in such cases.
As explained by Susan Oliver, a scientist specializing in materials for medical use, in her debunk of Campbell’s claim, even though these people had an underlying health condition, they wouldn’t have died if they hadn’t gotten COVID-19. This is corroborated by U.K. data presented in a video by Greg Tucker-Kellogg, a professor of biology at the National University of Singapore, showing that nearly 90% of people who were admitted to the intensive care unit—who make up the majority of COVID-19 deaths—had been capable of caring for themselves in their daily lives without requiring assistance from others, a marker of their state of health. This counters an assumption, held by some, that the majority of COVID-19 deaths occurred in people who were already in a state of decline or dying anyway.
Attempts at downplaying the impact of COVID-19 have repeatedly cropped up during the pandemic—whether it is by claiming that COVID-19 didn’t actually kill as many people as reported, which we see here, or that COVID-19 PCR tests cannot be relied on—helping to feed the narrative that the pandemic isn’t a serious health threat. These then open the door for people to question the need for vaccination and other public health measures like mask-wearing.
Such claims also feed conspiracy theories that the pandemic is a hoax that was manufactured to control people. In fact, this made an appearance in Dore’s video in which he claimed, with no evidence, that “You’ve been fear-mongered, you’d been lied to since the start of this […] the entire media is bought by Big Pharma and this we’ve been victims of a scare-mongering campaign”.
To date, COVID-19 has killed five million people worldwide, and officially accounts for more than 866,000 deaths in the U.S. Certain pre-existing conditions, like asthma, diabetes, and Down syndrome, increase a person’s risk of severe COVID-19 and death. As such, it isn’t surprising for the majority of COVID-19 deaths to be associated with a pre-existing condition. However, this doesn’t mean that most COVID-19 deaths aren’t actually caused by COVID-19. The presence of a pre-existing medical condition on a death certificate for a COVID-19 death doesn’t mean that COVID-19 wasn’t the true cause of death. The claim that only 17,371 people actually died of COVID-19 in the U.K., as opposed to more than 170,000, is a misreading of death certificate information.
In addition to the debunks published by Susan Oliver and Greg Tucker-Kellogg, cited above in the review, molecular biologist Dan Wilson also published a video pointing out the misleading interpretation Campbell gave to COVID-19 death certificates listing pre-existing health conditions.
UPDATE (1 February 2022):
Following reader feedback, we provided additional context from Campbell’s video and explanations to clarify why John Campbell’s video was found to be misleading.