A video falsely claims that people receiving authorized COVID-19 vaccines are taking part in a deadly clinical trial and that those administering the doses are war criminals under the Nuremberg Code. That’s bogus. People getting the vaccines, which have been shown to be safe and effective, consent to receive them and aren’t participating in research.
A popular video from a British conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccine activist makes a slew of false claims about government-authorized COVID-19 vaccines, including the incorrect notion that they are “experimental” and that the clinicians administering them are violating the Nuremberg Code.
That’s wrong on both counts. While phase 3 clinical trials of the vaccines are continuing as planned to collect additional data, that doesn’t mean the immunizations are experimental or that people who are now getting vaccinated are participating in a trial.
Moreover, nothing about the Nuremberg Code applies to the situation, as people getting the vaccines are doing so as part of their own medical care, not research. They also consent to receive the jabs and information about the vaccines is widely available.
The video also baselessly claims that the authorized COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous and tantamount to a “global genocide,” citing deaths that have not been proven to be from vaccines.
The claims are made in a 15-minute video by Dr. Vernon Coleman, a former general practitioner in the U.K. who is no longer registered to practice medicine. Coleman has a history of peddling discredited medical information and has argued that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax and that AIDS does not exist.
The U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has authorized three COVID-19 vaccines for use during the pandemic: Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s viral vectored vaccine, Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine and Moderna’s mRNA vaccine. The U.S.’s Food and Drug Administration has authorized the latter two for emergency use. (See SciCheck’s guides to those here and here.)
False Claims About Human Experimentation & War Crimes
In the video, Coleman claims the COVID-19 vaccine is “experimental” and says because the vaccine trials are still ongoing, “Everyone having the vaccine is therefore taking part in an experiment.”
He then goes on to claim that people giving the vaccines are legally war criminals under the Nuremberg Code.
“The Nuremberg Code on medical experimentation written in 1947 … stated that explicit, voluntary consent from patients is required for human experimentation,” he says. “That means that patients must be told that they’re taking part in a trial and they must be warned of all the possible adverse events. That’s what informed consent means. … And so legally, all those people giving vaccinations are war criminals.”
“Everyone giving the COVID-19 vaccines without explaining that … it’s an experiment and without listing all the possible adverse events is a war criminal,” he continues. “That’s not rhetoric. It’s not opinion. It’s fact.”
Except that it’s not fact. People receiving the authorized vaccines are not participating in clinical trials. And because it’s not research, the Nuremberg Code has no bearing on anything — even though ethically, everything is still above board. No one is in danger of being a war criminal.
Holly Fernandez Lynch, an assistant professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine told us the claims were “ridiculous.”
The Nuremberg Code, as we’ve explained before, is a code of research ethics created in the wake of the Nazis’ horrific treatment of human subjects in experiments during the Holocaust. One of its primary principles is that individuals participating in research should do so voluntarily and with adequate information about the experiment to make an informed decision.
Fernandez Lynch confirmed that Nuremberg only pertains to research and would have nothing to do with any COVID-19 vaccines given outside of a trial. But even if it did, the claim is bogus.
“People are consenting to get the vaccine,” she said. So even if Nuremberg was applicable here, “it’s not non-consensual. And no information is being hidden. It’s all very front and center.”
In the U.S., the FDA, for example, provides fact sheets for vaccine recipients that clearly state the findings of the clinical trials — including the potential risks and benefits — and a description of an emergency use authorization. An EUA is a bit different than full FDA approval, although the agency required a high level of evidence from a large, phase 3 randomized controlled trial.
Fernandez Lynch acknowledged, as the FDA does, that not everything is known about the vaccine, but noted that no one was being forced to be vaccinated and that there was full transparency.
“We ideally would be able to watch for longer to gather more safety information about these products, but we have to make tradeoffs when we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “And each individual person is going to have to decide whether those tradeoffs are acceptable to them.”
As our colleagues at Reuters have written, people in the U.K. give informed consent to be vaccinated, as outlined in the country’s Green Book. The consent forms for the COVID-19 vaccines are available on the government’s website.
In making his argument, Coleman focuses on the fact that the COVID-19 trials are still ongoing, referring viewers to the U.S. government’s clinical trial registration page for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which says the completion date for the trial is nearly two years away, on Jan. 31, 2023.
That’s true, but misleading. The trial won’t technically end until it follows participants for two years, but that neglects the reality that the main trial results are already available and have demonstrated the vaccine’s basic safety and efficacy in tens of thousands of individuals.
Based on that phase 3 trial information, which is publicly available and has been reviewed by multiple panels of experts, the U.S. and U.K. governments concluded the benefits outweigh the potential risks and decided to authorize the vaccine for emergency use. People getting the vaccines now are not trial participants.
Coleman also suggests that the U.K. government’s efforts to monitor people who are vaccinated is somehow suspicious.
“They advertise for special software so that they could keep track of the high number of adverse events they were expecting — for two years,” he says.
That, too, is misleading. The government is not necessarily expecting adverse events, but does want to be able to detect them if they occur. This is standard practice after the release of a new vaccine and the U.S. has similar efforts underway.
As we’ve explained before, these vaccine safety monitoring systems are important because while large phase 3 trials can show that there are no common safety concerns, rare events might only be observed once the vaccine is given to millions of people.
Bogus Claims of Vaccine-Related Deaths
A prevailing theme throughout Coleman’s video is the baseless idea that the available COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous to large numbers of people.
“Thousands of people who’ve had the vaccine have died or been seriously injured by it,” he says. “That’s an undeniable fact. Elderly people in care homes are dying in huge numbers. We’re told it’s the infection, but it’s not, of course, it’s the damned vaccine they’re being given.”
Coleman later claims there is a “horrifying avalanche of evidence showing that these damned vaccines are killing and maiming people” and says, “This is genocide.”
As his supposed proof, Coleman rattles off headlines from dubious websites proclaiming that people have died, without mentioning that the deaths have not been shown to be caused by the vaccine — and very likely are completely coincidental.
For example, Coleman cites an article from Health Impact News, a website known for spreading misinformation about vaccines, that misleadingly claims “181 Dead in the U.S. During 2 Week Period From Experimental COVID Injections.” The number comes from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, which as we’ve written before, does not imply that the vaccine was necessarily responsible. Anyone can report through an online form and there is no vetting of the report.
In another case, Coleman reads off a headline from another vaccine misinformation website about a man and woman in South Dakota dying a day after getting a vaccine. But he doesn’t mention that the state’s department of health concluded that immunization didn’t contribute to those deaths.
There is no evidence that authorized COVID-19 vaccines are harming people on any kind of wide scale. While many people have the expected sore arms or temporary flu-like symptoms following vaccination, serious side effects are uncommon.
A review of the vaccine safety monitoring data in the U.K. through the end of January found that the “overall safety experience” with the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines “is so far as expected from the clinical trials,” with the expected benefits “far outweigh[ing] any currently known side effects.”
According to the report, severe allergic reactions occurred in a small number of people, but these are very rare and have not resulted in death.
In the U.S., the vaccine safety monitoring data also is very encouraging. Dr. Paul Offit said in a Feb. 11 interview with JAMA that a recent review by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices had not revealed any safety signals from the two authorized COVID-19 vaccines.
One potential issue raised by the trials was that the vaccines might very occasionally trigger a usually temporary form of facial paralysis known as Bell’s Palsy. But so far, Offit said, there’s no sign that the condition is any more likely in people who get vaccinated. Data from the U.K. also support that finding.
According to a paper the CDC published in JAMA Insights, cases of anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, following the vaccines in the U.S. are also very unusual — 2.5 cases per million doses of the Moderna vaccine and 4.7 cases per million of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, as of Jan. 18.
Officials in the U.S. are investigating a few instances of thrombocytopenia, or a lack of blood-clotting platelets, following vaccination, including one death. But it is still unknown whether that type of reaction can be due to COVID-19 vaccination. Even if it is, it would be an extremely rare event and experts say it would pose less risk than the chance of getting COVID-19 and suffering severe health consequences.
Update, May 14: 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.”
It’s true, of course, that people have died after receiving a vaccine — but this doesn’t mean the vaccine is to blame for the deaths. Every day, around 8,000 people in the U.S. die from a variety of causes. And as the University of California, San Francisco’s department of medicine chair Dr. Robert Wachter has pointed out, if 10 million people are vaccinated, in the following two months you’d expect 4,025 of those people to have a heart attack, 3,975 to have a stroke and 14,000 to die. “And the vaccines will have zero to do with any of them,” he wrote.
“There are always going to be these temporal associations, and you read about them in the newspaper,” said Offit. “But at least right now, those temporal associations have not been found to be causal associations.”
This is especially the case when vaccines are being given to older people who may not be in good health.
“Older age and chronic underlying illnesses make it more likely that coincidental adverse events will occur, especially given the millions of people vaccinated,” the U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency explains in its report. “It is therefore important that we carefully review these reports to distinguish possible side effects from illness that would have occurred irrespective of vaccination.”
Throughout the video, Coleman makes a series of other false claims, including the long-debunked notion that COVID-19 “has been proved to be no more dangerous than the annual flu.” That’s wrong.
While scientists are still trying to pin down how deadly COVID-19 is, studies estimate that between 0.5% and 1.0% of people who are infected with the coronavirus will die — much more than influenza’s usually well below 0.1% mortality rate, as we’ve written.
And the sheer number of deaths from COVID-19 far outstrip those for influenza. As of Feb. 11, more than 470,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, according to the CDC. That’s more than the estimated number of flu deaths from the past 10 flu seasons combined — and more than 20 times the number of deaths estimated to have occurred during the 2019-2020 flu season.
Coleman also cites statements from the World Health Organization to undermine and distort the facts on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
“The fact is that even the World Health Organization only expects these vaccines to help reduce the extent of the symptoms,” he says. “They’re not promising that the vaccine will stop people getting COVID-19 and they’re not expecting the vaccine to stop people spreading the infection if they do get it.”
No one can promise that a vaccine will prevent disease in all people, as no vaccine is 100% effective. But data from the trials for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, for example, found that vaccinated people were 94% or 95% less likely to develop symptoms of COVID-19 than those who were unvaccinated.
It’s true that the vaccines may not prevent infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as the trials were primarily designed to show that the vaccines kept people from falling ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. (See our video on the distinction between virus and disease.)
But it’s incorrect to say that the WHO is not expecting the vaccines to do anything for transmission. On webpages dedicated to the Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines, the agency simply says that there isn’t data or that it’s not known yet if vaccination will protect against onward transmission. The WHO has also said the same more broadly in press briefings.
In fact, many scientists do expect COVID-19 vaccines to keep people from spreading the virus to at least some degree. That’s because it’s likely an infected but mildly ill or asymptomatic person would shed less virus and therefore be less contagious than a sicker unvaccinated person. But because this has not been demonstrated or known to what degree viral spread might be halted, public health officials have been upfront that it’s possible the vaccines may only prevent disease.
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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