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SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project

COVID-19 Vaccines Save Lives, Are Not More Lethal Than COVID-19

This article is available in both English and Español

SciCheck Digest

COVID-19 vaccination reduces the risk of death from COVID-19. Social media posts have misused survey data and adverse events reports to falsely claim that COVID-19 vaccines have killed more people than COVID-19. But serious adverse events resulting from vaccination, including deaths, are rare.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 1.1 million Americans have died from COVID-19. COVID-19 vaccines have substantially reduced the risk of severe disease and death, according to multiple studies, even as more transmissible and immune-evasive variants have led to widespread infections.

Meanwhile, the vaccines have a strong safety record and have only been linked to serious adverse events and deaths in rare cases. Studies of mortality after vaccination provide reassurance that COVID-19 vaccination does not increase a person’s risk of death.

Despite these facts, anti-vaccine advocates continue to baselessly inflate the prevalence of deaths caused by COVID-19 vaccines, while also minimizing COVID-19 deaths. Most recently, posts have falsely claimed that more people have died from COVID-19 vaccines than from COVID-19.

One popular post shared the headline of an article from a notorious spreader of misinformation called the People’s Voice, which falsely claimed: “New Study Reveals Covid mRNA Jabs Killed ‘3.5X More Americans Than Virus Itself.’” The People’s Voice has a history of sharing COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation.

The article referenced a widely shared Substack post from Steve Kirsch, a former tech entrepreneur whose current enterprise is spreading vaccine misinformation online. Kirsch based this latest false claim about deaths from COVID-19 vaccines on a survey shared on his Substack, in which he asked readers how many people in their extended families they “believe” had been killed by COVID-19 vaccines, and compared that with the number readers said had died from COVID-19.

A self-selected survey of readers of a specialty publication is an inappropriate method for assessing vaccine safety. It is not even an appropriate method for assessing public opinion, according to the American Association for Public Opinion Research. It sheds light only on the beliefs of people who saw the survey and were motivated to complete it.

“I think we can’t put any validity to the survey itself,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told us. 

He said the survey is not a population-based survey, meaning that it does not reflect the perceptions of the general population. Additionally, he said, respondents ”can claim whatever they choose to claim,” without validation of whether their claims are accurate.

“It’s clearly erroneous and spurious and doesn’t in any way reflect reality,” Schaffner said of Kirsch’s claim that the COVID-19 vaccines have caused more deaths than COVID-19.

“Kirsch’s survey has numerous limitations and flaws that prevent it from providing any real insight into actual USA death rates linked to COVID-19 or vaccines,” Jeffrey S. Morris, a biostatistician at the University of Pennsylvania, told us in an email. “It is not at all a valid scientific study.”

Morris, who has previously written on his blog about Kirsch’s false claims about vaccine deaths, also pointed out that there’s no confirmation of the deaths reported in the latest survey, how they are connected to vaccination or COVID-19, “or even whether the individuals they refer to were in fact vaccinated or not, or infected or not.”

Another widely shared social media post, from a supplement company associated with Dr. Peter McCullough, also made a false claim about vaccine deaths. “The C🦠 S 💉 Directly K*lled More Americans Than C🦠 Itself,” said the post, which also promoted an unproven and unnecessary “detoxification protocol” for vaccinated people. McCullough has a long history of spreading health misinformation.

In the post, McCullough falsely claimed that COVID-19 deaths are “highly inflated” while also misusing data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System to vastly inflate COVID-19 vaccine-related deaths. VAERS, run by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, is an early warning system used to identify potential vaccine safety concerns. It encourages unverified reports of any health issue that occurs after vaccination, whether the cause is known or not. McCullough’s VAERS claims follow common patterns of deception, including inappropriately assuming deaths are caused by vaccines and making exaggerated and baseless claims about underreporting.

“He is misinterpreting and misusing VAERs in numerous ways that I have seen repeatedly done by him and others,” including Kirsch, Morris said.

Furthermore, both Kirsch’s and McCullough’s conclusions are inconsistent with the other available evidence on vaccine safety. “Deaths that are directly caused by a COVID vaccine, they are vanishingly rare,” Schaffner said.

We reached out to both Kirsch and McCullough with questions but did not receive a reply.

Kirsch Survey Does Not Shed Light on Vaccine Safety 

Morris said that Kirsch’s survey only reveals “the beliefs and perceptions of his followers,” noting that it is not surprising that the “survey responses would support the narrative he has been pushing since early summer 2021.” 

Kirsch posted a link to his “reader” or “subscriber” survey in his Substack newsletter on Oct. 24, requesting “EVERYONE reading this” take it. Kirsch launched his newsletter two years ago and has been exposing readers to false or unsupported claims about deaths from COVID-19 vaccines ever since.

Before getting to the questions on deaths, readers were asked: “When did you first figure out that vaccines were not safe?” According to survey responses posted by Kirsch, only nine people out of more than 10,000 respondents selected the option: “Still think vaccines are safe.”

“This is highly selected subgroup with particular views of Covid and vaccines leading them to follow him, whose attitudes and beliefs are undoubtedly influenced by his myriad past claims about covid vaccine deaths (many of which have been explicitly debunked),” Morris said.

According to his Substack post, Kirsch based his false claim that the vaccines have caused more deaths than COVID-19 on the first 9,620 survey responses. He tallied 804 deaths noted in response to the question, “How many people in your EXTENDED family DIED from the COVID virus?” He then prompted people to speculate, asking, “How many people in your EXTENDED family do you believe DIED from COVID vaccine?” In response to this question, people reported 2,830 deaths — around 3.5 times more deaths than were attributed to COVID-19.

There’s no reason to believe these death tallies are accurate. “There’s no documentation,” Schaffner said. 

Some people provided notes explaining their answers or expressing their concerns about vaccines. Many people shared personal stories of people who became ill and died at various points following vaccination, but this does not mean vaccination was responsible.

“Some people who got vaccinated on Monday will die on Thursday, but that doesn’t mean that the vaccine on Monday caused the death on Thursday,” Schaffner said. Further studies need to be done “to try to distinguish coincidence from causality,” he said.

Schaffner also pointed out there has been an emphasis on getting COVID-19 vaccines to older people, who also have an elevated likelihood of dying from unrelated causes. Kirsch did not systematically collect data on the ages of the people who allegedly died from COVID-19 vaccines.

Some respondents presented other possible explanations for their family members’ deaths, including remdesivir (presumably given for COVID-19) or fentanyl overdose, but attributed the deaths to COVID-19 vaccination. And some respondents said that unvaccinated family members were killed or injured by vaccines due to “shedding,” a theory that is unsupported by evidence and lacks a plausible mechanism. 

Kirsch invited fact-checkers to investigate the deaths of his readers’ family members, but he himself eschewed calling the over 10,000 readers and tracking down medical and death records on their many extended family members. Instead, he corroborated his claim with an anecdote about a man who said 15 of his friends “died suddenly” after vaccination.

Data Contradict Claims of Mass Vaccine-Related Deaths

The CDC and FDA have programs for monitoring vaccine safety, and researchers regularly share updates on vaccine safety based on data from these systems and other sources.

It is clear that the vaccines have not led to mass deaths, contrary to Kirsch’s and McCullough’s claims. “The body of evidence suggests there is no increase in risk of death after covid vaccination, and if anything there is a decrease,” Morris said.

“People receiving COVID-19 vaccines are less likely to die from COVID-19 and its complications and are at no greater risk of death from non-COVID causes, than unvaccinated people,” the CDC website says. “CDC scientists and partners have performed detailed assessments of deaths after COVID-19 vaccination and made the information available to healthcare providers and the public.”

Photo by candy1812 / stock.adobe.com

One of these monitoring systems, Vaccine Safety Datalink, gathers electronic health data from various health care organizations in the U.S. Researchers use this system to monitor for adverse events linked to vaccination and have not detected adverse events that could lead to the large number of deaths McCullough and Kirsch describe.

Analyses of deaths after vaccination do not indicate any increased risk of death. For instance, a study using VSD data on people vaccinated or not vaccinated during the initial COVID-19 vaccine rollout, through June 2021, found that people who received the vaccines had a lower rate of death through August 2021 from non-COVID-19 causes than those who did not get vaccinated. 

The authors of the study wrote that they did not think the large risk reduction they found could be entirely owing to “any real protective effect” of COVID-19 vaccines against non-COVID-19 death. They pointed out that people who believe they are near death may be less likely to get vaccinated, which could influence the results.

However, the results are inconsistent with claims that the COVID-19 vaccines are causing mass deaths. “In the context of widespread suggestions on social media that COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe, it is reassuring that we found no evidence of any association of COVID-19 vaccination with increased risk of death,” the researchers wrote.

Another system, commonly used deceptively by anti-vaccine groups, is VAERS. Anyone can submit an unverified report of a death or other health problem to VAERS. There are also requirements that health care providers file VAERS reports about deaths after vaccination, “even if it is unclear whether the vaccine was the cause,” the CDC explains on its website.

“It’s like a giant vacuum cleaner,” Schaffner said of VAERS, explaining that it collects “anything that happens after vaccination,” or even sometimes reports of events that occurred before vaccination. “You cannot just count up things in VAERS and draw conclusions,” he said. “You have to do further studies.”

The CDC and FDA review and investigate reports of adverse events and take action if needed. For instance, as we’ve previously written, the FDA temporarily stopped use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after six reports to VAERS of a very rare and sometimes fatal condition involving blood clotting and low platelets. The CDC later endorsed a “clinical preference” for giving other COVID-19 vaccines, and the FDA eventually limited the authorization of the vaccine — which was found to have caused nine deaths in the U.S. after 19 million doses administered — to adults who couldn’t or didn’t want to get another COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine is not currently available in the country, after the remaining supply expired.

VAERS data do not indicate increased risk of death after COVID-19 vaccination. For instance, a study of deaths after COVID-19 vaccination reported to VAERS through November 2021 found that the rate of reported deaths was lower than the expected death rate in the general population. “These findings do not suggest an association between vaccination and overall increased mortality,” the authors wrote.

But anti-vaccine advocates often incorrectly attribute all reports of deaths in VAERS to vaccines. The Instagram post quoting McCullough, for instance, said there were “18K VAERS d❌aths” and then multiplied this by an “underreporting factor” to falsely claim there have been more than half a million U.S. COVID-19 vaccine deaths.

The CDC indeed said there were around 18,000 preliminary reports of death after COVID-19 vaccination as of December 2022, according to a prior article by the Associated Press. But the social media post neglected to say that these reports were not verified and that VAERS deaths are not necessarily causally linked to vaccination.

In fact, it is fully expected that people will coincidentally die after vaccination. “For example, in the USA if there are 2.8 million deaths per year, that means >7500 per day and 50,000 per week,” Morris said. “Thus, if vaccines were given to every USA resident at a random time and all events within a week of vaccination were reported to VAERs, we’d expect >7500 deaths within 1 day of vaccination to be reported to VAERS and 50k within 1 week. Thus, it is not surprising to see many reports of deaths to VAERs even if vaccines contributed to none of them.”

McCullough then multiplied the number of preliminary reports of deaths by an “underreporting factor” of 30. As we have previously written, claiming underreporting is a common VAERS-related deception, and ad hoc estimates of an “underreporting factor” are scientifically unsound. The underreporting rate is not simple to determine, and there will be no single underreporting rate that applies to all types of adverse events or all vaccines.

Morris said that it’s known that severe events like death are reported to VAERS at a higher rate than other adverse events, for instance, and that reporting rates are up for COVID-19 vaccines compared with other vaccines prior to the pandemic.

Morris went on to explain that the U.K. Office of National Statistics was able to link national medical records to death rates and published the dataset. “These data clearly show death rate was lower, not higher, after vaccination,” he said.

ONS does not adjust for people’s health problems, Morris said, limiting the ability to say there is a causal relationship between vaccination status and the lowered death rates. But again, the data run counter to claims of large numbers of deaths from vaccines.

Individual studies using other sources of data, such as records on U.S. nursing home residents and national registries in the Netherlands, also have not found an elevated risk of death after COVID-19 vaccination. 

“None of this rules out the possibility that there have been deaths related to vaccination,” Morris said, giving the example of the very small number of deaths causally linked to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. He added that “there are likely more, but there is no plausible way given existing data that claims like those of McCullough (and Kirsch) can be true.”

Editor’s note: SciCheck’s articles providing accurate health information and correcting health misinformation are made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.


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