Colin Powell's death spurs confusion over vaccine efficacy

News that Colin Powell, the country's first Black secretary of state, died from COVID-19 complications after being fully vaccinated led to some reports questioning the effectiveness of vaccines. 

Tweets and news reports from some media officials asserting Mr. Powell's death offers evidence that vaccines are less effective have largely ignored the fact that he had conditions — including multiple myeloma, a blood cancer studies have linked to reduced vaccine effectiveness — that left him more vulnerable to severe breakthrough illness.

In response, health officials have taken to social media to resist those claims, emphasizing Mr. Powell was 84 and had multiple myeloma.

In one study, 46 percent of 67 patients with hematologic malignancies, or cancers that affect the blood, bone marrow or lymph nodes, did not produce antibodies a few weeks after receiving their second COVID-19 shot, according to an analysis led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

"Yes, Colin Powell died of a breakthrough infection. That is why boosters are recommended for people at high risk for severe COVID-19," Angela Rasmussen, PhD, a virologist and professor at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., wrote in an Oct. 18 tweet

"Yes, that means vaccines aren't 100 percent effective. No, that doesn't mean that vaccines are zero percent effective," the tweet said.

In a separate tweet, Ashish Jha, MD, a physician and dean at Brown University's School of Public Health in Providence, R.I., wrote, "Vaccines turn COVID-19 into a mild disease. For most of us, that's awesome. For vulnerable people, it's helpful but often not enough."

In addition to multiple myeloma, Mr. Powell's age was a risk factor, research shows. 

According to CDC data, vaccinated Americans 80 and up are still more likely to die from COVID-19 than anyone under 50 years, regardless of vaccination status. The data represents 30 percent of the U.S. population and was taken across 16 jurisdictions between April 4 and Sept. 4, 2021. The average weekly death rates stratified by age group underscores the idea that age is still one of the biggest risk determinants for severe COVID-19 and death.

When considering the general U.S. population though, unvaccinated Americans still have a 6.1 times higher chance of testing positive for COVID-19 and a 11.3 times higher chance of dying from COVID-19 than vaccinated Americans, according to CDC data.


Editor's note: This article was updated to clarify that unvaccinated Americans have an 11.3 times higher chance of dying from COVID-19 than vaccinated counterparts, not 11.3 percent higher chance. 

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