On June 2, Sputnik Abkhazia published an article headlined “Soviet miracle: doctor explains low COVID-19 mortality in the former USSR.” The article quotes Russian doctor Alexander Myasnikov as saying that low COVID-19 mortality in post-Soviet countries has been driven by Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccines actively used throughout the Soviet Union. Myasnikov dubbed a BCG vaccine “a Soviet miracle.”
Alexander Myasnikov: “Politicians, serious doctors are now clarifying it, looking at the former Soviet countries. It is just a Soviet miracle. The number of seriously ill or deceased patients reflects the true state of the pandemic. All former USSR countries have lower mortality rates. We should understand why it happens.”
The opinion as if low mortality rate in post-Soviet countries has been driven by the use of BCG vaccines in these countries is not substantiated by scientific evidence. There are a lot of other factors explaining high mortality rates in specific countries, among them methods of counting the dead, age structure of population, level of development of healthcare systems and so on. The headline of Sputnik Abkhazia’s article creates a misleading impression as if BCG vaccine is a Soviet achievement. In fact, the vaccine was created in France at the beginning of the 20th century.
BCG vaccine was created by French bacteriologists
Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin created BCG vaccine in France to fight tuberculosis (TB). The vaccine itself carries their name - Bacillus Calmette–Guérin vaccine, abbreviated BCG. Calmette and Guérin began their research for an anti-tuberculosis vaccine at the Pasteur Institute in Lille in 1900. After the vaccine was tested on guinea pigs, rabbits, cattle and horses in 1919, Calmette decided in 1921 that the time was ripe for a trial of the vaccine in man.
Photo: Albert Calmette/britannica.com
Photo: BCG vaccination among Filipino children, 1952/UNICEF
The link between BCG vaccination and COVID-19 fatality is not confirmed
BCG vaccination theory has no scientific grounds. Physicians involved in the research claim that BCG vaccine is unreliable in protecting against COVID-19; moreover, even BCG vaccinated patients are subject to severe disease or death from COVID-19.
As of May 8, in Brazil, where a mandatory BCG vaccination program is implemented for all groups, there have been 672,846 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 35, 930 deaths. In Russia, which also pursues the same BCG vaccination policy, there have been 467,673 confirmed cases with about 6,000 deaths. Armenia, where BCG vaccination is also mandatory, precedes Russia by number of confirmed cases (13,325) and deaths (211) per 1 million population.
Map: Countries with mandatory BCG vaccination programs are marked in blue/bcgatlas.org
According to the study conducted by Immunology Frontier Research Center at Osaka University in Japan, no causal relationship has been substantiated yet between BCG vaccination and reduced numbers of severe and/or fatal COVID-19 cases. The study has revealed that Finland and Australia, which ceased their universal BCG vaccination programs in 2006 and mid-1980s, respectively, show a low mortality of COVID-19 per 1 million population, compared with countries with current mandatory BCG vaccination. According to the researchers, two relevant traits shared by Finland and Australia are their excellent medical care systems and low population densities, and the latter of which could make social distancing measures more effective than in population-dense countries.
There are a lot of factors affecting the epidemiological situation, among others:
- Median age of population
- Cultural norms
- State of healthcare system
- Previous epidemiological experiences
However, description of epidemics in specific countries depends on how population testing is organized and how statistics are produced.
Death counting methods
It is important what doctors actually count as a COVID-19 death. According to BBC, at first it might seem simple enough, because “if a patient dies while infected with Covid-19, they died of Covid-19.” However:
- Noteworthy that Italy counts any death of a patient who has COVID-19 as a death caused by COVID-19; so does Germany and Hong Kong. At present in the U.S., any death of a COVID-19 patient, no matter what the physician believes to be the direct cause, is counted for public reporting as a COVID-19 death.
- The picture is murkier still when patients have not had a COVID-19 test, but are a suspected case.
Factors determining high COVID-19 mortality rates
The number of hospital beds available could also play a role among the factors determining high mortality rates, as countries with lower capacity in their health services may have to start making decisions sooner about which COVID-19 cases to prioritize for treatment.
Age category of infected and diseased patients as well as underlying conditions also plays an important role. In the United States, which is leading by number of infected and diseased patients, people above 65 and with underlying conditions appeared to be more vulnerable to COVID-19, as of May 13.
As for one of the coronavirus epicenters in Europe – Italy, the spread of COVID-19 has hit mostly people over 60 years of age that increases a probability that these people had chronicle diseases. Furthermore, it should be noted that almost one fourth of Italian population is aged 65 years and older.
Regional Network of Myth Detector Lab