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Objective: Background incidence rates are routinely used in safety studies to evaluate an association of an exposure and outcome. Systematic research on sensitivity of rates to the choice of the study parameters is lacking. Materials and Methods: We used 12 data sources to systematically examine the influence of age, race, sex, database, time-at-risk, season and year, prior observation and clean window on incidence rates using 15 adverse events of special interest for COVID-19 vaccines as an example. For binary comparisons we calculated incidence rate ratios and performed random-effect meta-analysis. Results: We observed a wide variation of background rates that goes well beyond age and database effects previously observed. While rates vary up to a factor of 1,000 across age groups, even after adjusting for age and sex, the study showed residual bias due to the other parameters. Rates were highly influenced by the choice of anchoring (e.g., health visit, vaccination, or arbitrary date) for the time-at-risk start. Anchoring on a healthcare encounter yielded higher incidence comparing to a random date, especially for short time-at-risk. Incidence rates were highly influenced by the choice of the database (varying by up to a factor of 100), clean window choice and time-at-risk duration, and less so by secular or seasonal trends. Conclusion: Comparing background to observed rates requires appropriate adjustment and careful time-at-risk start and duration choice. Results should be interpreted in the context of study parameter choices.

Original publication




Journal article


Front pharmacol

Publication Date





COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, adverse events, background rates, incidence rates, sensitivity analysis, vaccine