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SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project

Flawed Autopsy ‘Review’ Revives Unsupported Claims of COVID-19 Vaccine Harm, Censorship


This article is available in both English and Español

SciCheck Digest

COVID-19 vaccination is generally very safe, and except for extremely rare cases, there is no evidence that it contributes to death. Social media posts about a now-published, but faulty review of autopsy reports, however, are repeating an unfounded claim from last summer that “74% of sudden deaths are shown to be due to the COVID-19 vaccine.”


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Last July, an unpublished paper authored by several physicians known for spreading COVID-19 misinformation briefly appeared on a preprint server hosted by the prestigious British medical journal the Lancet. 

The paper claimed to have reviewed autopsy reports and found — in the opinion of three of its authors — that 73.9% of the selected deaths were “directly due to or significantly contributed to by COVID-19 vaccination.” Those conclusions, however, were often contrary to the original scientists’ determinations. Moreover, abundant evidence contradicts the suggestion that the COVID-19 vaccines are frequently killing people.

The preprint repository quickly removed the manuscript because, it said, “the study’s conclusions are not supported by the study methodology,” and indicated that the preprint had violated its screening criteria. 

Social media soon flooded with posts highlighting the purported findings and alleging censorship, with many falsely stating that the paper had been published in the Lancet.

Multiple scientists and fact checkers detailed numerous problems with the preprint and the resulting social media posts. As Dr. Jonathan Laxton, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Manitoba who frequently debunks misinformation online, wrote at the time on Twitter, “this is not a conspiracy, the paper was literally biased hot garbage and the Lancet was right to remove it.”

Despite these efforts, the same claims are back this summer after the paper was published in the journal Forensic Science International on June 21. Capitalizing on the paper’s now-published status, numerous posts are once again spreading the review’s supposed findings and realleging censorship.

“Largest autopsy series in the world. Censored by what was the most reputable peer reviewed journal,” reads one popular Instagram post. “74% of the 325 Suddenly Died Autopsies point the cause to the dart,” it added, using coded language to refer to the COVID-19 vaccines.

Another post, from Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopathic physician in Ohio known for her opposition to vaccines and her false claim that the COVID-19 vaccines magnetize people, also repeated the falsehood that the paper had been previously published in the Lancet.

“Bottom line results: 74% of sudden deaths are shown to be due to the COVID-19 vaccine,” the post went on to say. “This paper is a game changer. Sadly, it was censored for ONE YEAR. Just think of all the lives that could have been saved.”

As we’ve explained before, publication in a peer reviewed journal does not necessarily mean a paper is accurate or trustworthy, although the process can improve manuscripts and weed out bad science. In this case, the published paper is highly similar to the previously criticized manuscript. Experts say its conclusions are unreliable and misleading.

“The vast majority of these cases do not show a causal, but coincidental, effect,” wrote Marc Veldhoen, an immunologist at the Instituto de Medicina Molecular João Lobo Antunes in Portugal, in a thread on X, addressing the paper’s central claim. “This certainly does not apply to the general population!”

When asked about the published paper, Dr. Cristina Cattaneo, co-editor-in-chief of Forensic Science International, told us the journal was “currently looking into the matter.”

Problematic ‘Review’

For their “review,” the authors searched the medical literature for published autopsy studies related to any kind of COVID-19 vaccination. After excluding duplicates and studies without deaths, autopsies, or vaccination status information, the authors were left with 44 studies comprising 325 autopsies. Three of the authors then reviewed the described cases and decided for themselves if the deaths were vaccine-related; if at least two agreed, the death was counted as being attributable to COVID-19 vaccination.

In the end, the authors thought 240, or nearly 74%, of the reviewed autopsies were vaccine-related (rounded to one decimal, 240 out of 325 is actually 73.8%, not 73.9% as reported in the paper). Among these deaths, 46.3% occurred after a Sinovac vaccine, 30.1% after a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, 14.6% after an AstraZeneca vaccine, 7.5% after a Moderna vaccine and 1.3% after a Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

As others have pointed out before, there’s reason to suspect that the authors may have been biased in their determinations. All three adjudicators, including Dr. Peter McCullough, are well known for spreading COVID-19 misinformation. Dr. William Makis, a Canadian radiologist, has previously claimed, without evidence, that 80 Canadian doctors died from COVID-19 vaccines. The only pathologist, Dr. Roger Hodkinson, incorrectly claimed in 2020 that COVID-19 was a “hoax” and “just a bad flu.”

Photo by dusanpetkovic1 / stock.adobe.com

Hodkinson and McCullough, along with five other authors, are also affiliated with and have a financial interest in The Wellness Company, a supplement and telehealth company that sells unproven treatments, including for purported protection against vaccines.

Perhaps most tellingly, the scientists who conducted many of the autopsy studies came to opposite conclusions than the review authors. Of the 240 cases, for example, 105 come from a single paper in Colombia, whose authors found “[n]o relation between the cause of death and vaccination.”

Similarly, the review authors counted 24 of 28 autopsies from a study from Singapore as vaccine-related, even though the original authors identified “no definite causative relationship” to mRNA vaccines.

The authors of a German study also attributed 13 of 18 autopsy deaths to preexisting diseases, but the review authors decided 16 cases were vaccine-related.

In a LinkedIn post debunking the preprint, Dr. Mathijs Binkhorst, a Dutch pediatrician, went back to each cited paper, and found that of the 325 autopsies and one heart necropsy the review authors said were vaccine-related, only 31, or 9.5%, were likely related and 28, or 8.6%, were possibly related. The rest — 267, or 81.9% — were unlikely, uncertainly, or not related to vaccination.

In other words, even among a set of studies that is more likely to identify some vaccine involvement, less than a fifth of deaths were possibly or likely vaccine-related.

Even if the authors aren’t biased, this type of study is not able to provide information on how frequently COVID-19 vaccination leads to death, and whether the risks outweigh the benefits.

“They only looked at ‘published autopsy and necropsy reports relating to COVID-19 vaccination,’” Veldhoen said of the published study on X. “If you look only at autopsies of those related (in time) with drugX: X-involvement is then a high proportion of all cases.”

Indeed, as Binkhorst noted, the autopsy reports come from 14 countries that collectively administered some 2.2 billion vaccine doses. If the COVID-19 vaccines truly were as dangerous as the review authors contend, this would be evident in other data sources — but it’s not.

Vaccine safety surveillance systems and other studies from across the globe have found that serious side effects can occur, but they are rare. 

The Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines, for example, can in very rare cases cause a dangerous and sometimes fatal blood clotting condition combined with low blood platelets. 

Rarely, the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech have caused inflammation of the heart muscle or surrounding tissue, known as myocarditis or pericarditis. In almost all cases, however, those conditions are not deadly.

There is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccination increases the risk of death and has led to excess deaths or a large number of deaths. Instead, a wealth of data supports the notion that COVID-19 vaccines protect against severe disease and death from COVID-19. The flawed autopsy “review” doesn’t change this.

Sources

Roley, Gwen. “Misinformation swirls around unpublished paper on Covid-19 vaccine risks.” AFP. 14 Jul 2023.

Hulscher, Nicolas et al. “A Systematic REVIEW of Autopsy findings in deaths after covid-19 vaccination.” Forensic Science International. Available online 21 Jun 2024.

Binkhorst, Mathijs. “McCullough’s misinformation.” LinkedIn post. Archived 4 Sep 2023.

Laxton, Jonathan (@dr_jon_l). “McCullough et al attempted upload a preprint to the Lancet server, and it was removed because it was hot garbage.  However, I feel going through this paper for you guys will help you spot dodgy science …” X. 6 Jul 2023.

Payne, Ed. “Fact Check: A ‘Lancet Study’ Does NOT Show COVID Vaccine Caused 74% Of Deaths In Sample — Lancet Rejected Paper And Its Methods.” Lead Stories. 7 Jul 2023.

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Cattaneo, Cristina. Co-Editor-in-Chief, Forensic Science International. Email to FactCheck.org. 26 Jun 2024.

No evidence that 80 Canadian doctors died from COVID vaccinations.” Reuters Fact Check. 22 Dec 2022.

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