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SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project

Viral Video Makes False and Unsupported Claims About Vaccines

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SciCheck Digest

A viral video makes a series of inaccurate and unfounded arguments for why people should not receive any vaccines, including those for COVID-19.

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As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the globe, anti-vaccination activists try to undermine people’s confidence by spreading misinformation around the safety, efficacy and value of the COVID-19 vaccines.

A 14-minute long video posted on January 13 by Steven Baker, a licensed chiropractor from Idaho, on Facebook and Instagram gives people five reasons why they “should definitely never vaccinate.” The video has been liked since by 1,600 viewers on Facebook and viewed by over 50,000 on Instagram.  

Baker, who describes himself as a healer who’s not anti-vaccine but anti-everything, has created a business selling misinformation about vaccines. In April, Facebook removed Baker’s ad account and page after he falsely claimed that a “silver spray” sold on his website protected people from COVID-19. In another video shared on TikTok and fact-checked by PolitiFact, he said people were dying because of the economic collapse caused by the pandemic, not from COVID-19.

In this video, Baker adds a disclaimer saying he’s not giving medical advice. But he is. 

Misleading Claim About Vaccine Ingredients

The first reason Baker gives to not get vaccinated is the ingredients in the vaccines. “You wouldn’t give your kid a shot of thimerosal, aluminum, aborted fetal tissue, chicken and eggs embryo — you wouldn’t,” he argues. 

But the fact is you probably already have for most of those items, and research shows the ingredients in vaccines are not harmful. Also, the two U.S. authorized COVID-19 vaccines don’t contain any of those ingredients. 

Thimerosal is a mercury-containing preservative used in multi-dose vaccines to help prevent potentially deadly contamination from harmful microbes. Although most vaccines for children don’t use it anymore, some influenza vaccines still do. Thimerosal contains ethylmercury, a kind of mercury that’s safer than methylmercury, which can be found in certain fish and animals. Ethylmercury is less toxic because it is broken down and excreted rapidly by the body. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the amount of mercury contained in a vaccine is roughly the same amount contained in a 3 ounce can of tuna fish. 

Aluminum salts are present in some vaccines. They are also found in some health products such as buffered aspirin and antacids, as well as in many foods and beverages, including fruit and vegetables, cereals, nuts, dairy products, flour, honey, and baby formula. The quantities of aluminum contained in vaccines are low and regulated. According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the amount of aluminum infants receive in their first six months of life from vaccines is about eight times lower than what they receive from formula, and about half of what they receive from breast milk in that same amount of time. 

Some vaccines are made in eggs — the influenza and yellow fever vaccines — therefore they contain egg proteins. Eggs from chickens raised on a farm are technically chicken embryos if fertilized by a rooster. 

Finally, Baker names fetal tissue as a vaccine ingredient. That’s not accurate. Fetal cells obtained from two aborted pregnancies in the early 1960s, one in Sweden and one in England, were made into cell lines that are used to grow virus to make some vaccines, such as varicella (chickenpox), rubella and hepatitis A. But those cells aren’t present in the vaccines themselves, since the virus is purified before it goes into a syringe.

As we’ve explained, the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines aren’t made from a virus. According to the CDC, neither vaccine contains eggs, preservatives or latex.

Vaccines do not go directly into the bloodstream, as Baker says in the video. Instead, most vaccines are injected into muscle or skin.

Inaccurate Claims About Vaccine Efficacy

Baker goes on to incorrectly say that vaccines “don’t work” because they don’t “prevent the virus or bacteria from getting in your body. What they do is that they reduce the amount of symptoms that you have from that bacteria or virus.”

Many vaccines are in fact helpful precisely because they reduce symptoms — less severe disease means less suffering and fewer deaths. This is a huge part of why vaccines have been so beneficial to society.

It is true that not all vaccines can prevent infection, or do so fully. But that’s not a requirement for a vaccine to be effective. A vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a “product that stimulates a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease, protecting the person from that disease.”

The idea is to train the immune system to recognize a particular pathogen so that if someone does encounter the germ, they will either not become infected or will not get sick — or if they do have symptoms, they will be less severe. This usually involves introducing a piece of or a small amount of weakened or killed virus or bacteria into the body.

Some vaccines produce what’s called sterilizing immunity, which is when antibodies glom onto a pathogen and remove it before it has a chance to enter cells and set up an infection. This happens, for example, with the measles, hepatitis A and human papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccines.

“If you’re given the measles vaccine — two doses — you have a 97% chance of being protected against measles for the rest of your life. And not just disease — also asymptomatic infection,” Dr. Paul A. Offit, a pediatrician and vaccine expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told us, referring to when someone is infected but doesn’t have symptoms. “You’re done with that virus.”

Many other vaccines, Offit said, including seasonal influenza, rotavirus, whooping cough and pneumococcal vaccines, keep people from becoming seriously ill but aren’t able to prevent infection. “That’s okay,” he said, because “the main goal you’re trying to do in these cases is prevent children or adults from being hospitalized or killed.”

Importantly, many vaccines can still reduce the spread of a disease even if they don’t stop infection, contrary to Baker’s other claim that vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, “don’t prevent transmission.”

That can happen, Offit said, because a vaccinated person often sheds less virus, making them less contagious.

It’s not known yet whether the authorized COVID-19 vaccines prevent transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but it’s likely the same dynamic will be at play and the vaccines will limit transmission to some degree. 

Until more is known, it’s important that people who receive a COVID-19 vaccine don’t assume they can’t pass the virus on to others — and continue to wear masks and physically distance — but it’s also premature for Baker to declare the vaccines to be useless in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

False Polio Claim

As part of Baker’s specious argument that vaccines “don’t work,” he brings up the example of polio and falsely says the disease subsided because of sanitation, not vaccination.

“Obviously, polio went away because of sanitation because it’s a fecal-oral disease,” Baker says. “And if you start washing your hands and not drinking water in the streets, you’re probably not going to get polio.”

While better sanitation helps reduce the spread of poliovirus, which is passed along primarily through feces but can also be spread through infectious droplets from sneezes or coughs, it is vaccination that is credited with eliminating the virus in the U.S. 

After all, sanitation was quite good in 1950s America, but polio was still a major threat to families every summer.

Perhaps counterintuitively, improved sanitation is thought to be why there was a surge in polio cases in the U.S. in the beginning of the early 20th century.

“Before 1910, polio was silently circulating,” explained Micaela Martinez, an infectious disease ecologist at Columbia University who has studied the history of the disease.

The virus was rampant, she said, but because virtually everyone would become infected as an infant when there is a low risk of getting severe disease and developing paralysis, it wasn’t particularly noticed.

As sanitation improved, however, children wouldn’t encounter the virus until they were older, when the risk of paralysis was greater. “So sanitation actually led to this first emergence of polio as being a widespread paralytic disease,” Martinez told us.

Polio epidemics became even worse after World War II with the baby boom, as more children were around to further spread the disease, she added. It wasn’t until vaccines arrived that cases began to fall — from more than 15,000 paralysis cases every year, according to the CDC, to fewer than 100 annually in the 1960s and fewer than 10 each year in the following decade.

The disease was eliminated in the U.S. in 1979, meaning there is no ongoing transmission of polio in the country, and no cases have originated in the U.S. since that time. Polio vaccination is still important, however, as the disease could be introduced at any time by travelers.

Vaccine Trial Misinformation

Baker proceeds to incorrectly say that there is “no such thing as a safe trial with vaccines,” because no vaccines are tested against what he considers true placebos. This is categorically false.

“What they do is they actually compare the vaccine that they’re testing to a different vaccine, or they will compare the vaccine they’re testing to a syringe that is full of aluminum and everything in the vaccine, except for the antigen,” he says, referring to the part of the vaccine that will trigger the specific immune response.

In fact, many vaccines have been tested against a saline, or saltwater, placebo in randomized controlled trials, including influenza and certain mumps, polio and measles vaccines. But there are also good reasons to use different placebo controls in trials — and it does not mean a vaccine has not been fully vetted for safety.

For example, as outlined by a World Health Organization expert panel, if a safe and effective vaccine against a specific disease already exists, then the real question becomes whether the new vaccine performs similarly or better, and in many cases it would be unethical to deprive a group of people of a protective vaccine.

It is also argued, Offit said, that it’s not fair to enroll participants in a vaccine trial and not give them something of benefit, which sometimes means giving a different vaccine as a control.

Another potential reason for deviating from a saline placebo is preserving the blinding of a trial, making sure volunteers in trials don’t know whether they have been randomly assigned to the control group, since many vaccines do have some minor, temporary side effects, such as arm soreness, that can clue participants into which shot they received.

Baker gets his facts wrong once again when says the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine was tested against a meningitis vaccine. Both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, which are the only two COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for use in the U.S., were tested against a saline placebo. 

Some arms of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine trial did include a meningococcal vaccine as a control to reduce the chance that control volunteers would know they didn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine. That’s true of the U.K. portion of the trial and part of the Brazilian trial, which used the meningococcal group A, C, W and Y conjugate vaccine as a control for the first dose, but not the second. 

Saline, however, was used for the South African arm of the trial and the 30,000-person trial in the U.S., which is still ongoing.

Vaccine Liability

Baker also argues people should not get vaccinated because vaccines are not safe and companies are not liable.

“You cannot sue them, but yet they have a special court. And that special court to date has paid out over $4 billion in damages,” he says.

Baker is referring to the National Vaccines Injury Compensation Program, created by the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986.

Vaccines are extensively tested to ensure they’re effective and safe. But just like any other medication, they’re not risk-free and can cause adverse events or side effects. Most vaccines can cause pain, redness or tenderness where they were injected, and some can cause more severe events.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, several lawsuits were filed against vaccine-makers and health care providers, which led manufacturers to stop their production. They were forced to pay for damages despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting injury claims. The threats of a vaccine shortage moved Congress to pass the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which creates a compensation fund. According to the latest data, the government has paid out nearly $4.2 billion in compensation since 1988.

But as we have previously explained, the fact that there have been payouts doesn’t mean that vaccines caused an injury. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, approximately 70% of all compensation awarded by the fund is a result of a negotiated settlement between the parties, previous to any review of the evidence, to save time and money. 

Still, the number of complaints and compensations is very low. Over 3.7 billion doses of covered vaccines were distributed in the U.S. from 2006 to 2018, according to the CDC. In that same period of time, only 7,589 petitions were adjudicated and of those 5,317 were compensated.

The World Health Organization estimates that immunizations prevent 2 to 3 million deaths every year globally. In the U.S., the CDC estimates flu vaccines averted 105,000 hospitalizations and 6,300 deaths in the 2019-2020 season, according to preliminary data.

The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act also requires health care providers to report side effects occurring after immunization to the Vaccines Adverse Event Reporting System, a program created in 1990 and co-administrated by the CDC and the FDA.

The act also allows individuals to pursue legal action against a vaccine manufacturer under certain conditions, including negligence on the part of the vaccine-maker. 

Unvaccinated Children Not Healthier

In the video, Baker falsely claims that unvaccinated children are healthier than vaccinated children and cites a study published in November 2020 in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, an open-access journal. The journal says it is peer-reviewed but its lack of rigor has been cause for concern. The quality of its publisher, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, has also been questioned — in 2018, 10 senior editors resigned, saying they were being pressured to receive mediocre studies.

Update, Aug. 11: The study, which claimed that kids with fewer vaccinations had fewer office visits at one of the authors’ private practices, was retracted by the journal on July 22, following concerns “regarding the validity of the conclusions.” “Adhering to our complaints procedure, an investigation was conducted that raised several methodological issues and confirmed that the conclusions were not supported by strong scientific data,” the retraction reads.

The study is co-authored by James Lyons-Weiler and Paul Thomas, and funded by The Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge, a nonprofit directed by Lyons-Weiler, a scientist who has been spreading misleading information on COVID-19 and vaccines for years. 

Thomas, a pediatrician in Portland, Oregon, had his license revoked in December for failing to adequately vaccinate patients. According to the Oregon Medical Board, his conduct “has breached the standard of care and has placed the health and safety of many of his patients at serious risk of harm.” One of his unvaccinated patients developed a severe case of tetanus that required a two-month stay in an intensive care unit. 

In the video, Baker baselessly accuses the CDC of profiting off vaccines and falsely states that Dr. Thomas’ license was removed because of the “truth” revealed in his study. “The CDC is not in the business to make you safe or help you and your kids, the CDC is in the business of marketing vaccines and profiting off of you and your family getting vaccinated, period,” he argues.  

Vaccination is essential because it helps provide immunity and prevents potential life-threatening diseases, according to the CDC. All vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, meet rigorous safety criteria set by the FDA.

“The fact of the matter is, not shockingly, people who are vaccinated are healthier because they’re not likely to catch bacterial and viral infections,” Offit said. “There’s not a year that goes by at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia where we do not see a child suffer and die from a vaccine-preventable disease because the parent chose not to vaccinate them.”

Unsupported Claim About Autoimmune Diseases

The top reason to avoid all vaccinations, Baker baselessly says, is that vaccines cause autoimmune diseases. He even goes so far as to say that COVID-19 vaccines will “create millions and millions of people with an autoimmune disease.” There is no evidence for that.

Baker betrays his lack of knowledge on the subject by claiming this happens because with vaccines you are “bypassing natural defenses” instead of “having a true actual immune response” and by likening vaccination to getting an organ transplant in which you need drugs to suppress the immune system.

But vaccination is nothing like an organ transplant. And vaccines only temporarily activate the immune system, doing so in a safer way than natural infection.

“Since vaccines don’t drive the immune response nearly as vigorously as natural infections do, it is less likely that they would induce autoimmunity,” explains the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s website.

Scientists have looked into whether vaccines trigger autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis, and have come up empty, with no clear signal that they do.

“It’s okay to ask the question,” Offit said, “but when study after study after study shows that vaccines don’t induce autoimmunity and it doesn’t make sense they would induce autoimmunity, people should believe them.”

One autoimmune disorder, Guillain-Barré syndrome, has been linked to influenza vaccination, but inconsistently so — and at very low frequencies, around 1 to 2 in 1 million doses. Most people who develop the condition fully recover, although some people are left with permanent nerve damage and some people die.

Cases of the disease also follow infections, and research shows that the risk of developing Guillain-Barré from flu is much higher than after immunization with a flu shot.

In another rare instance, a pandemic flu vaccine in Europe in 2009-2010 may have provoked some people with a genetic predisposition to develop an autoimmune reaction that led to narcolepsy. But in that case as well, it’s not entirely clear what role the vaccine played, and it’s possible natural infection with influenza poses a similar or higher risk.

While scientists continue to monitor for any sign that immunizations might lead to autoimmunity, there is no basis for Baker’s claim that vaccines, including those for COVID-19, are dangerous because they cause autoimmune diseases.

Clarification, Jan. 28: We have removed the “Dr.” title for Baker. As we wrote in our story, Baker is not a medical doctor. 

Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over our editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.


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