FactCheck Social Media

Video misuses data to level flawed claims of vaccine deaths

2021-03-16 17:06:04

The Statement

A video being shared on social media has used data from a US vaccine reporting system in a misleading attempt to link COVID-19 vaccines to serious adverse health events including death.

The clip, posted to Facebook on March 2 by an Australian user, features a female speaker trawling through the US Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) database for records purportedly relating to COVID-19 vaccinations.

The speaker begins with a claim that “less than one per cent of vaccine injuries and deaths get reported” before scrolling through a list claimed to show people who have died within seven days of the inoculations.

“Do you see why I say it’s not safe? Unfortunately these people did not survive the vaccine,” the woman can be heard saying.

The video ends with a screenshot of the records sorted and a caption that claims “a healthy one-year-old died from a seizure after having the COVID-19 vaccine”.

At the time of writing, the post had been shared more than 330 times and viewed more than 21,000 times. Similar posts have used entries in the reporting system to try to link COVID-19 vaccines to other negative health effects.

A Facebook post
 A video wrongly claims US data shows many people didn’t survive COVID-19 shots. 

The Analysis

The video shows records contained in the VAERS database, however this information is not proof of a causal link between reported events and vaccinations.

The records are unverified and can be supplied by anyone, leaving open the possibility that some reports may be intentionally misleading, one expert says. To date, US health authorities have no confirmed reports of any deaths linked to COVID-19 vaccines.

As of March 15, US officials had administered more than 107 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, with over 37 million people fully vaccinated with one of the three treatments – Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Janssen – approved by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) for emergency use.

The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System was established in 1990 to monitor possible adverse events related to vaccinations. Anyone can lodge an incident report, including the general public.

However, as noted in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) factsheet, the system does not show that vaccines caused the reported events, rather it helps authorities determine where further investigation may be needed.

In a guide to interpreting the data, the VAERS website says: “The report of an adverse event to VAERS is not documentation that a vaccine caused the event.” It also noted that VAERS “reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable”.

“In large part, reports to VAERS are voluntary, which means they are subject to biases. This creates specific limitations on how the data can be used scientifically. Data from VAERS reports should always be interpreted with these limitations in mind,” it reads.

Dr Al Ozonoff, the associate director of the Precision Vaccine Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, said while VAERS is useful due to its accessibility, he cautioned about drawing conclusions based on the data.

“You can imagine it’s an open website so somebody can come in and there’s no way to verify their contact information,” Dr Ozonoff told AAP FactCheck in an interview.

“There is some reliance on the good faith of the participants … and in principle, somebody could submit erroneous or even intentionally misleading information.

“There may be some follow-up from CDC in certain cases but typically it’s not always possible to verify the information that’s provided in the report.”

A spokeswoman for the CDC told AAP FactCheck in an email that “anyone can report to VAERS, however, healthcare providers are required to report all deaths that occur following COVID-19 vaccination”.

There had been 1,637 deaths reported to VAERS by March 8 after the administration of more than 92 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, according to the CDC.

It said experts reviewed each death report by assessing all available clinical information including death certificates, autopsies and medical records.

The CDC spokeswoman said the organisation “has not received any confirmation of a COVID-19 vaccine-related death”.

A 2015 scientific review of VAERS found that interpreting data from the system alone or out of context “can lead to erroneous conclusions about cause and effect as well as the risk of adverse events occurring following vaccination”.

Another study assessing claims of deaths from vaccinations before the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted VAERS data as skewed, stating that it “is a voluntary system which accepts any submitted report of an adverse event without judging its clinical significance or whether it was caused by a vaccination”.

“VAERS is a signal detection and hypothesis generating passive surveillance system and therefore any broad claim of cause and effect with respect to deaths following vaccination based on VAERS reports should not be interpreted as proof of causality,” the study said.

It added that verified examples of deaths from any vaccinations were extraordinarily rare, pointing to a 2013 study which showed the US death rate one or two months after vaccinations were lower than among the general population.

The video also misrepresents the nature of some of the individual reports included in the pictured database.

In the case of the one-year-old boy, claimed in the video to have died after getting the inoculation, the related VAERS record shows he did not receive any COVID-19 vaccine shots (ID 0942246). CDC guidelines state children under the age of 16 should not receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Another sample entry is listed as dying age “1.08” after a COVID-19 vaccination however the VAERS entry notes the individual was killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound (ID 0958443).

A third example was recorded as dying 20 days after receiving a COVID-19 treatment, not within seven days as claimed in the video (ID 0936805).

Similar false and deceptive claims that VAERS data shows the vaccinations have caused widespread deaths have been fact-checked here, here and here. AAP FactCheck previously examined potentially misleading posts using VAERS data to link COVID-19 vaccines to purported miscarriages.

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccination by a doctor.
A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot by a doctor in a mobile vaccination centre. 

The Verdict

The video falsely claims the VAERS database shows records of people in the US who did not survive COVID-19 vaccinations. In fact, the CDC says there are no confirmed cases of people dying as a result of the inoculations.

VAERS data is unverified and does not identify causal links between vaccinations and reported events. In addition, the video misrepresents some of the individual reports included in the database.

False – Content that has no basis in fact.

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