Is it really true that only 32 vaccinated people have been hospitalised with Covid? People might have reason to think so after the claim circulated in the media on Wednesday. The story was prompted by a Telegraph “exclusive” that stated “just 32 vaccinated people” had been hospitalised “in recent months”, according to data described as “extraordinary”.

And it would be extraordinary, were it true. Sadly, the real number of people admitted to hospital even several weeks after receiving a shot of vaccine – the time it takes for the immune system to mount a good defence – will be many times higher.

The idea that only 32 vaccinated people have been hospitalised with Covid originates from a study published in March and released by the government’s Sage committee of experts the same month. It looked at the vaccination status and onset of symptoms in a proportion of people hospitalised during the UK’s second wave.

The researchers considered more than 74,000 hospitalisations between September 2020 and March this year. Since the UK vaccination programme did not start until 8 December, hospital admissions before that date are irrelevant for judging vaccine performance. From 8 December onwards, as the vaccine programme swung into action, the scientists had information on the date of first vaccination for nearly 1,700 cases among 43,000 or so admissions. Among those vaccinated, only 32, or nearly 2%, were admitted three weeks or more after having a first shot. The rest had picked up the infection shortly before or shortly after having the jab.

The numbers are hugely positive, but because the study includes only a fraction of hospitalisations, the total number of people in the UK admitted for treatment, even three weeks after vaccination, will be higher than 32. In the worst days of the second wave, pressure on the NHS was so intense that the scientists were only able to record information on about one in 10 new admissions at some hospitals involved in the study.

Prof Calum Semple, an author on the paper and a member of the government’s Sage scientific advisory group, said the data in the March report was preliminary and urged caution in interpreting it. As more data comes in, the number of people known to be hospitalised after vaccination will go up. “This is really early data, it’s very small numbers, and we’re expecting an update on this imminently,” he added. Most of the vaccinated people in the study had received the Pfizer vaccine, the first to be given to elderly people and the most vulnerable.

As more people are vaccinated and restrictions lift, the percentage of people hospitalised despite having the jab is expected to rise, simply because the vaccination won’t protect everyone, and elderly people are most likely to produce a weak immune response to the shot.

Another reason the percentage will rise is that many people who received a jab in the second wave hadn’t had the opportunity to become infected before 5 March, the cut-off date for admissions in the study. In other words, too little time had passed, under too tight restrictions, for the vaccine to have a chance to fail.

Whatever figure the scientists settle on, the data is still highly encouraging. What matters now, says Semple, is that people who have had their first shot of vaccine remember to get their second, and younger people who have waited their turn get immunised too.

“This virus does make people feel horribly sick, you lose time from work, and you spread it,” he said. “This is real world data that shows that the vaccine works, it will stop you getting sick, it will reduce you spreading it to your friends and family, and it is our way out of the pandemic.”

This content first appear on the guardian

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