The claim: “Death toll” of COVID-19 vaccines is more than 20 times higher than that of past vaccines
A system that public health officials use to track vaccine side effects is once again being used to spread misinformation about the safety of the coronavirus vaccines.
The Vaccine Adverse Reporting System (VAERS) has been cited by some people as evidence that the three coronavirus vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States are potentially dangerous. Perhaps most notably, Fox News host Tucker Carlson featured the number of deaths reported to VAERS in a May 5 segment of “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
“Between late December of 2020, and (April), a total of 3,362 people apparently died after getting the COVID vaccines in the United States,” Carlson said on the show.
More recently, the number of deaths associated with COVID-19 vaccines came up in an article published by conservative website enVolve. The May 14 story, which doesn’t have a byline, cites Carlson’s figure and says in its headline that “The Death Toll From COVID Vaccines Is Greater Than Every Vaccine In The Last 20 Years COMBINED.”
More than 1,600 Facebook users have shared the piece, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.
But the article is based on a falsehood.
Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines don’t produce dangerous toxins
Deaths reported to VAERS are not a “death toll.” The database includes all serious adverse events following vaccination against COVID-19 — regardless of whether the vaccines are to blame. There have been more deaths reported to VAERS following COVID-19 vaccination than for other vaccines, but experts told USA TODAY that’s not because the vaccines are deadly. Anti-vaccine advocates have erroneously cited the database for decades.
“Statements that imply that deaths following vaccination equate to deaths caused by vaccination are scientifically inaccurate, misleading, and irresponsible,” Dr. Tom Shimabukuro, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Immunization Safety Office, told USA TODAY in an email. “Vaccines are one of the tools that are going to help the U.S. get back to normal life. Vaccines save lives. CDC recommends that everyone who is eligible should get vaccinated.”
USA TODAY reached out to enVolve for comment.
In 1990, the Food and Drug Administration created VAERS. The goal was to set up “a national early warning system to detect possible safety problems in U.S.-licensed vaccines.”
VAERS relies on healthcare providers, vaccine manufacturers and vaccine recipients to submit reports of adverse events following vaccination. Those events are not called “symptoms” or “side effects” because events reported to VAERS are not all verifiably linked to the vaccines, as the CDC says on its website.
These reports are relatively rare for FDA-approved vaccines. Between 2000-2020, VAERS received 1,005 reports of death after vaccination, according to a USA TODAY analysis of VAERS data.
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That isn’t the case with the COVID-19 vaccines, which the FDA approved via emergency use authorization.
Since clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccines began, VAERS has received more than 5,200 reports of death following vaccination. That may sound like a big number, but since all VAERS data isn’t vetted, those reports do not prove a causal link between COVID-19 vaccination and death, as USA TODAY previously reported.
So why the discrepancy in death reports?
COVID-19 vaccine has broader reporting requirements
One reason for the inflated reports of death following COVID-19 vaccination is that healthcare providers are required to report all serious adverse events, regardless of whether they think they’re related to the shot.
“Healthcare providers’ reporting requirements (for COVID-19 vaccines) are much broader than for other vaccines,” Shimabukuro told USA TODAY.
After someone receives a COVID-19 vaccine, their healthcare provider is required by law to report all serious adverse health events, even if the provider does not think the vaccine caused that event. These events can include death, inpatient hospitalization or a serious case of COVID-19. That reporting protocol is due to the fact that the FDA authorized the COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use.
Registered nurse Anna Yadgaro, not pictured, hands Geidy Chirinos a vaccination card after inoculating her with the second dose of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine at the Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center in New York. (Photo: Mary Altaffer, AP Images)
For other vaccines — such as the flu vaccine and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines — the requirements are different. According to Shimabukuro, providers do not have to report deaths or other adverse events for FDA-approved vaccines unless they fit specific criteria of reportable events.
Reporting bias possible for COVID-19 vaccines
Anyone can submit adverse events following vaccination to VAERS. Experts say that could result in reporting bias.
“Anyone can report data to the system, including vaccine manufacturers, clinical providers, parents, patients — anyone,” Lili Zhao, a research associate professor in the biostatistics department at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, told USA TODAY. “As long as the event happened after the vaccination, CDC encourages you to record it.”
According to Zhao, this makes the system vulnerable to reporting bias. Because COVID-19 vaccines have attracted more attention from the media and the public, people may be more likely to report events to VAERS than they would for other vaccines.
In other words, the unique circumstances around the worldwide pandemic mean comparing VAERS reports around COVID-19 to those from any prior vaccine (as the Facebook post does) is far from an apples-to-apples situation.
Fact check: CDC data on adverse effects of vaccine cannot determine cause
And just because an adverse event is listed in the VAERS database doesn’t mean vaccines are to blame.
“Maybe the patient had diabetes, or maybe (they) had late-stage cancer. They receive a vaccine, and maybe after two months, the patient dies,” Zhao said. “It was not due to the vaccine, but because it occurred after the vaccine, it is OK to report.”
Not a ‘death toll’
EnVolve claimed there have been more deaths due to the coronavirus vaccines than any other vaccine in the past 20 years. But that’s wrong — COVID-19 vaccines have not been definitively linked to death.
“VAERS is not designed to determine if the vaccine caused the reported adverse event. While some reported adverse events may be caused by vaccination, others are not and may have occurred coincidentally,” Shimabukuro said.
More than 300 million COVID-19 vaccines have now administered in the U.S., an enormous vaccinated group within which all manner of disease and death naturally occurs. Someone dying or developing a particular symptom after being vaccinated doesn’t mean those two events are related.
Even though there are broader reporting requirements for COVID-19 vaccines, adverse event reports are investigated just as they are for any other vaccine. This means that following a report, the VAERS staff and CDC’s Immunization Safety Office examine medical records such as autopsies and hospital records.
Public health officials investigate adverse event reports submitted to VAERS. The CDC’s Immunization Safety Office examines medical records, such as autopsies and hospital records, to determine if the reports are credible.
(Photo: Getty Images)
With this protocol, the CDC and VAERS were able to detect that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was linked to a rare kind of blood clot that killed three people. Outside of those deaths, Shimabukuro said, “the CDC has not detected any unusual or unexpected patterns for deaths following immunization that would indicate that COVID-19 vaccines are causing or contributing to deaths.”
Our rating: False
The claim that the “death toll” of COVID-19 vaccines is more than 20 times higher than that of past vaccines is FALSE, based on our research. Deaths reported to VAERS for the COVID-19 vaccines do outnumber reports for past vaccines, but those reports have not been verified as being causally related. Anyone can submit adverse events to VAERS, making the system susceptible to reporting bias, experts say. Healthcare providers are also required to report adverse events following COVID-19 vaccination, even if the provider does not think the vaccine caused the event.
Our fact-check sources:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated June 11, 2021, Selected Adverse Events Reported after COVID-19 Vaccination
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed June 7, COVID Data Tracker
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated May 14, Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System
- Fox News, May 5, Tucker Carlson Tonight
- Fox News, May 6, Tucker Carlson: How many Americans have died after taking the COVID-19 Vaccine?
- PolitiFact, May 3, Federal VAERS database is a critical tool for researchers, but a breeding ground for misinformation
- Lili Zhao, June 8, Phone interview with USA TODAY
- Dr. Tom Shimabukuro, June 10, email interview with USA TODAY
- USA TODAY, April 8, Fact check: CDC data on adverse effects of vaccine cannot determine cause
- USA TODAY, April 30, Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines don’t cause death, won’t decimate world’s population
- Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, accessed June 7, Deaths from 2000-2020
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 21, 2017, VAERS Table of Reportable Events Following Vaccination
- Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, accessed June 11, Frequently Asked Questions
- Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, accessed June 11, About VAERS
- EnVolve, May 14, CDC Quietly Admits The Death Toll From COVID Vaccines Is Greater Than Every Vaccine In The Last 20 Years COMBINED
- USA TODAY, April 23, Pause on Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine in US lifted by FDA, use to resume
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