A tweet shared on Instagram baselessly claims that a person is 300 to 900 times more likely to die “after getting the #Covid vaccine than the flu vaccine.” But the comparison is faulty — and there is no proof that people are dying from COVID-19 vaccines.
A Feb. 15 tweet, subsequently shared on Instagram, cites unvetted information submitted to a federal database to baselessly claim that COVID-19 vaccines are significantly more dangerous than influenza vaccines. Experts, however, say that’s a misuse of the numbers — and the suggestion that COVID-19 vaccines are killing one in every 10,000 immunized people is groundless.
“How much more likely are you to die after getting the #Covid vaccine than the flu vaccine?” the tweet, from novelist and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, begins.
“300-900 times, based on federal VAERS reports. Yes, 900,” he answers, referring to the government’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, adding that for COVID-19 vaccines, it’s “1 death reported per 35,000 shots or 10,000 completed vaccinations (so far),” but for flu “1 death per 9,000,000 vaccinations.”
“That’s a safe vaccine,” Berenson then says of the flu vaccine. “Those deaths are likely coincidental, a simple result of the number of shots given. The #Covid vax, not so much.”
But Berenson’s analysis relies on the fallacy that any death that occurs after vaccination must be related to the vaccine.
“VAERS does not determine death, period,” a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told us. “Just because somebody reports death doesn’t mean that the vaccine caused the death. So we don’t use VAERS to determine death rates or anything concerning death.”
In terms of the number of death reports following each vaccine at the time of his tweet, Berenson’s numbers check out. The CDC, for example, had written on its website that as of Feb. 7, 1,170 deaths had been reported to VAERS following the administration of 41 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. That’s around one report per 35,000 doses. (The number listed on the website is now 934 death reports out of 52 million doses, through Feb. 14; a CDC spokesperson said the decline is because the agency switched to include only domestic reports to match the number of doses administered in the U.S.)
But the comparison to flu is problematic, and the conclusion that COVID-19 vaccines are therefore unsafe is unfounded.
Reports through VAERS do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused the adverse event, as anyone can submit reports, regardless of whether an immunization is thought to have contributed. When deaths following receipt of a vaccine are reported, CDC and Food and Drug Administration physicians review those cases — and so far with the COVID-19 vaccines, there has been no link with immunization.
A CDC spokesperson told us that to date, the agency has not received confirmation of a single COVID-19 vaccine-related death.
Update, May 19: After investigating 15 cases of a rare clotting condition out of nearly 8 million Johnson & Johnson vaccinations, the CDC and Food and Drug Administration are warning of a suggested increased risk of the dangerous condition, which occurred in women and resulted in three deaths as of April 21. The CDC says “women younger than 50 years old especially should be aware of the rare risk of blood clots with low platelets after vaccination, and that other COVID-19 vaccines are available where this risk has not been seen.” As of May 11, 28 cases had been identified out of more than 9 million J&J vaccines administered. For more, see “Q&A on the Rare Clotting Events That Caused the J&J Pause.”
Moreover, experts said it’s not surprising that more death reports would be submitted to VAERS after COVID-19 immunizations compared with flu, given the increased attention on the vaccine.
“The difference in deaths reported following COVID-19 vaccine and flu vaccine administration is likely due to the enhanced reporting of all events occurring after COVID vaccination compared to after influenza vaccination,” Dr. Robert Legare Atmar, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine who also evaluates vaccines, told us.
Berenson, who frequently appears on conservative media, has previously misinterpreted a study to suggest that face masks are ineffective against the novel coronavirus. His tweets have formed the basis of another misleading claim online, also citing VAERS data, about adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines relative to flu vaccines.
To understand why Berenson’s scary-seeming statistics should not be alarming, it’s useful to know how VAERS works and the limitations of its data.
As its website explains, VAERS is an early warning system that “is not designed to detect if a vaccine caused an adverse event, but it can identify unusual or unexpected patterns of reporting that might indicate possible safety problems requiring a closer look.”
The system accepts any report of a reaction that occurs after an immunization. There is no screening or vetting of the report and submissions are accepted “without judging whether the event was caused by the vaccine.” A disclaimer users must read before accessing the public data therefore warns that reports “may include incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental and unverified information,” and notes that the utility of the data is limited because most reporting is voluntary.
The information is still valuable because it’s a way of being quickly alerted to a potential safety problem with a vaccine, which government scientists can then investigate. In the case of COVID-19 vaccines, VAERS is just one of several vaccine safety monitoring systems the government has in place to ensure the safety of the vaccine as it’s rolled out to a wider population.
But VAERS data isn’t meant to allow safety comparisons between vaccines or to arrive at any sort of estimate of a person’s chances of dying following an immunization. Indeed, the disclaimer specifically cautions against doing the kind of math Berenson performs. “The number of reports alone cannot be interpreted or used to reach conclusions about the existence, severity, frequency, or rates of problems associated with vaccines,” it reads.
Instead, a CDC spokesperson said, when a serious adverse event such as death is reported, the agency collects information, including medical records, autopsy reports, death certificates — and a qualified physician determines the cause of death.
“We look for patterns, we look for warning signals — but we do not use VAERS to determine death or death rates,” she said. “Those have to be verified.”
Increased Reporting for COVID-19 Vaccines
Given the way that VAERS works, there are several reasons why there would be more reports of death following a COVID-19 vaccine in the system than for influenza vaccines — none of which would have anything to do with the vaccine’s actual safety profile.
“There’s a heightened awareness of this virus, and hence, heightened awareness of this vaccine,” said Dr. Paul A. Offit, a vaccine expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a member of the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee reviewing COVID-19 vaccines.
The COVID-19 vaccines, too, have initially “been geared toward an older population that is more likely to have medical problems,” he said. Because the vaccines protect against COVID-19 but were “not designed to prevent everything else that happens in life,” Offit said, it’s expected that some number of people — especially the elderly — will die, entirely coincidentally, after receiving a vaccine. (SciCheck has addressed this before in “Video Makes Bogus Claims About ‘War Crimes’ and COVID-19 Vaccine Safety.”)
The CDC told us that reports of deaths occurring after COVID-19 immunization are under investigation, but that from the data thus far, “it appears many of these deaths are among nursing home residents who had serious underlying conditions and death was not hastened by the vaccination.”
Atmar, of Baylor, who has made recommendations about influenza vaccines as part of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, also said that it’s a mistake to overinterpret the VAERS death reports.
“Persons with underlying conditions and living in nursing homes/long-term care facilities die of their underlying conditions on a daily basis,” he said in an email. During flu season, those deaths are unlikely to be reported to VAERS because they are not thought to be related to the flu vaccine, he explained. But with COVID-19, whether or not a death is thought to be due to the vaccine or a person’s medical condition, the deaths are being reported to VAERS.
“This ‘biased’ differential in reporting makes it appear that there is a difference in [the] death rate among recipients of the two types of vaccines,” he said. “Instead, what it represents is a difference in reporting.”
Because COVID-19 vaccines are authorized under an emergency use authorization, there are in fact different reporting requirements to VAERS for the vaccines than for others. As is explained on the VAERS website, health care providers are required to report all deaths that occur after a COVID-19 vaccination, regardless of the suspected cause.
With other vaccines, providers are encouraged to submit reports of death following vaccination, whether or not they believe the vaccine was the cause, but they are not required to do so unless the death occurs following a so-called reportable event for the vaccine, such as an allergic anaphylactic reaction.
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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