Deaths after vaccination don’t prove COVID-19 vaccine is lethal | PolitiFact

Safety data involving tens of thousands of people have shown the approved COVID-19 vaccines to be safe and effective.
Registered Nurse Rita Alba, right, gives Gustavo Hernandez the first dose of coronavirus vaccine at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination site at the Bronx River Addition NYCHA complex Jan. 31.
Registered Nurse Rita Alba, right, gives Gustavo Hernandez the first dose of coronavirus vaccine at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination site at the Bronx River Addition NYCHA complex Jan. 31. [ MARY ALTAFFER | AP ]
Published Feb. 17, 2021

Learn the Risk, an anti-vaccine group, recently published a post on Facebook with a list of people who died after receiving COVID-19 vaccines.

“AGE 25. MALE. Vaccinated 12/22/2020. Found unresponsive and subsequently expired at home on 1/11/2021. Moderna vaccine,” reads the first of almost 30 entries featured in the Feb. 9 post.

These entries are copied from the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System, a national vaccine safety surveillance program set up by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration that records health issues that arise after vaccinations in the U.S.

The implication: That the reports show that COVID-19 vaccines contributed to the deaths of dozens of people, as young as 24.

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

Vaccine skeptics commonly cite the reports as evidence that vaccines are lethal or otherwise dangerous. But the agencies that run the tracking system warn that the reports shouldn’t be misinterpreted. Search results on the system come with this caveat: “VAERS reports alone cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event or illness.”

Without further study, vaccine experts say, it’s not possible to tell whether a particular adverse event is linked to the vaccine or merely occurred afterward as a coincidence, and they cautioned against drawing inferences from reports published in the database.

Without that context, posts like this one risk misleading people by implying that the vaccine caused or contributed to these deaths.

The limitations of the VAERS

An adverse event is a health problem that arises after someone has received a vaccine. The Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System accepts and records any and all reports of adverse events, and the government acknowledges that “reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable.”

To illustrate the shortcomings of the database, one physician reported that a vaccine had turned him into the Incredible Hulk, the comic-book character. Both the CDC and the physician confirmed to PolitiFact that his report was initially accepted and entered into the system as an adverse event.

Since the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System doesn’t show whether an adverse event was caused by the vaccine or occurred coincidentally, it’s generally not useful on its own for assessing whether a vaccine poses a risk to human health, said Dr. Walter Orenstein, associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center in Atlanta.

Instead, vaccine experts said, the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System should be seen as a “hypothesis-generating” system, which helps scientists decide which negative side effects to test for.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

For example, in 1999, the reports helped physicians realize that a rotavirus vaccine was associated with a form of bowel obstruction called intussusception, said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. After physicians monitoring the system noticed a cluster of reports detailing intussusception in young vaccinated children, they commissioned additional studies comparing vaccinated patients with non-vaccinated patients. These studies found that the incidence of intussusception in vaccinated patients was significantly higher than in a control group. The vaccine was pulled from the market.

In this case, the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System was used as an early warning system that prompted scientists to commission more comprehensive studies. The reports weren’t themselves used to make a determination about vaccine safety.

“A system like VAERS can never answer the question of whether a vaccine causes a particular outcome,” said Offit. “The only way to establish causation is through a study involving a control group.”

The COVID-19 vaccines now being rolled out to the public were subject to these kinds of studies to determine whether they caused serious health issues. Tens of thousands of people participated in clinical trials last year to demonstrate to regulators that the COVID-19 vaccines were safe. To receive FDA emergency-use authorization, vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna had to follow up with at least half of participants for at least two months after they received their vaccinations.

Our ruling

A Facebook post from an anti-vaccine group shows a list of people who died after receiving COVID-19 vaccines, implying that the vaccine caused or contributed to those deaths.

The claim relies on reports from a federal tracking system of adverse events occurring after vaccinations. The agencies that maintain that system warn that the reports should not be used to draw conclusions about whether a vaccine causes a particular adverse event. To establish causation, experts look beyond isolated data points to studies of large groups of people to see if a negative symptom is more prominent in vaccinated people than in non-vaccinated ones.

The COVID-19 vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective in tens of thousands of people.

We rate this statement Mostly False.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

HOW CORONAVIRUS IS SPREADING IN FLORIDA: Find the latest numbers for your county, city or zip code.

VACCINES Q & A: Have coronavirus vaccine questions? We have answers, Florida.

FACE MASKS: Read the latest on guidelines, tips for comfort and long-term wear

GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information.

THE CORONAVIRUS SCRAPBOOK: We collected your stories, pictures, songs, recipes, journals and more to show what life has been like during the pandemic.

A TRIBUTE TO THE FLORIDIANS TAKEN BY THE CORONAVIRUS: They were parents and retirees, police officer and doctors, imperfect but loved deeply.

HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.