COVID-19 ushered in the biggest vaccination campaign in history. And a relentless disinformation campaign about vaccines quickly followed.
One of the latest controversial statements about the vaccines came from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, and one of the biggest sources of anti-vaccine rhetoric today, as he spoke to Louisiana lawmakers.
Kennedy was given the floor for about 20 minutes during a Dec. 6 Louisiana House oversight meeting on a proposal that would require students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before entering school. The meeting ended several hours later with the state House Committee on Health & Welfare voting 13-2 to oppose requiring vaccination.
Kennedy used his time to make a series of problematic and false statements about the COVID-19 vaccines and, at one point, argued that the shots’ record “confirms that this is the deadliest vaccine ever made.”
Pointing to a pie graph that compiled deaths reported in the federal government’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System over the last 30 years, Kennedy claimed that there are “more people who have died in eight months from this vaccine than from 72 vaccines over the last 30 years.”
But there are several errors with Kennedy’s claim. We address them here, one by one.
VAERS is unreliable
The biggest issue is the low-quality data that Kennedy relies on to make his point.
VAERS, which is run by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, was established in the late 1980s to help health agencies and researchers collect and analyze data on vaccine after-effects and to detect patterns that may warrant a closer look. But the database is an open-access system and unlike other government data sources that are screened before being made available to the public.
VAERS is designed so that anyone — parents, patients and health care professionals — can freely report any health effects that occur after a vaccination, according to the CDC, whether or not those effects are believed to be caused by a vaccine.
The reports aren’t verified before they’re entered and have included car accidents and incidents of self injury. Still, anyone with a computer can search the data, download it, and interpret the numbers as they wish — making VAERS fertile ground for vaccine misinformation.
The VAERS search engine has a prominent disclaimer that says: “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.” VAERS reports alone “cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event or illness,” it says. People using the database are required to click on a form saying that they understand these limitations.
Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said VAERS is misnamed because it leads people to believe that if something was reported, it’s automatically an adverse effect of the vaccine.
“At its best, VAERS is a hypothesis-generating mechanism. It really should be titled ‘suspected adverse event,’” Offit said. “There is no screening. You could report that your child got the vaccine and turned into the Incredible Hulk.”
More than 459 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the United States from Dec. 14, 2020, through Nov. 29, 2021, according to the CDC. During this time, VAERS received 10,128 reports of death (0.0022%) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine, agency spokesperson Martha Sharan told PolitiFact in an email. That includes people who died of any cause.
“Reports of adverse events, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a COVID-19 vaccine caused a health problem,” Sharan added. “Statements that imply that reports of deaths to VAERS following vaccination equate to deaths caused by vaccination are scientifically inaccurate, misleading and irresponsible.”
Health officials have data on billions of individuals who have received multiple doses of the COVID-19 vaccines, said Dr. Rebecca Weintraub, an assistant professor in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“So yes, we are confident that we have a robust database that these vaccines are as safe and effective as other vaccines,” Weintraub said. “It prevents death, it prevents severe disease and it decreases transmission. And we know that for those who are vaccinated who get breakthrough cases, they clear the virus faster.”
On average, 2,800 people die each day in the U.S., and health officials say that there will always be people who got a vaccine who die afterward from unrelated causes. This is especially true for a vaccine that over 70% of the country’s population has received.
“Hank Aaron is one example,” Offit said. “He died of a stroke because he was in his mid-80s, not because of a vaccine.”
The CDC said in an email to PolitiFact that it hasn’t detected any unusual or unexpected patterns for deaths following immunization that would indicate that the COVID-19 vaccines are causing or contributing to deaths, outside of six confirmed deaths following the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to complications from a rare and serious adverse reaction called thrombocytopenia syndrome. The reaction prompted officials to pause injections of the vaccine for about 10 days.
In an email, Kennedy’s spokesperson, Rita Shreffler, cited the same VAERS numbers and said that a 2010 study found that, as opposed to overcounting, VAERS vastly undercounts vaccine injuries — fewer than 1%.
But that study evaluated an automated system that tracked a patient’s health changes following a vaccination, rather than the voluntary reporting system that Kennedy drew his numbers from. It also didn’t explain how it calculated the percentage.
In VAERS, the degree of underreporting varies widely depending on the symptom being reported, the Department of Health and Human Services said on its website.
“As an example, a great many of the millions of vaccinations administered each year by injection cause soreness, but relatively few of these episodes lead to a VAERS report,” HHS says. “Physicians and patients understand that minor side effects of vaccinations often include this kind of discomfort, as well as low fevers. On the other hand, more serious and unexpected medical events are probably more likely to be reported than minor ones, especially when they occur soon after vaccination, even if they may be coincidental and related to other causes.”
COVID-19 vaccines compare with other vaccines
René Najera, an epidemiologist and editor of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s History of Vaccines website, said that Kennedy’s statement is typical of anti-vaccine activists who make inflammatory comments without credible evidence.
Najera said that it’s difficult to compare the COVID-19 vaccines with vaccines from decades ago because the technology and communication are better. If anything, he said, a very small signal of an adverse reaction would be identified and detected more quickly now than back then.
“First, we had the smallpox vaccine in the early 1800s,” Najera said. “It was given to millions around the world, but we just don’t know how many people may have died from it — there was no such thing as a clean needle back then. But we do know that it prevented smallpox, and the epidemic started to die down afterward.”
The closest thing to a “deadly” vaccine was the result of a lab accident, Najera said, not the therapeutic itself.
When the polio vaccine was licensed in the 1950s, independent labs started to create it. One California lab, Cutter Laboratories, didn’t deactivate the virus used in the vaccine as it should have, and several thousand children were exposed to the live polio virus, with several dozen dying as a result.
When the flu vaccine rolled out in the mid-to-late 1970s, it was found that on very rare occasions, people developed Guillain-Barré syndrome after being vaccinated. Guillain-Barré is a disorder in which the immune system attacks the nerves, and it can also result from the flu itself. In the late 1990s, the live virus RotaShield vaccine was found to be a rare cause of intussusception, a type of bowel blockage caused when the intestine folds into itself like a telescope. There was one death, and the vaccine was pulled from the market.
“This was caught by the same surveillance systems we have now, and while it was very treatable it was still taken off the market,” Najera said.
Offit said vaccines have in rare cases been associated with adverse events, including the diseases they’re meant to prevent, but that Kennedy’s claim is “just not true.”
“The COVID-19 shots are very typical of vaccines, which have associated adverse events,” he said. “The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are a rare cause of myocarditis. The J&J vaccine is a very rare cause of one in 500,000 for blood clots.
“The flu vaccine can rarely cause Guillain-Barré syndrome. The polio vaccine that we used from the early ’60s to 2000s was a rare cause of polio. The yellow fever vaccine can cause yellow fever for about one per million recipients.”
Meanwhile, few measures in public health can compare with the impact of vaccines, which medical officials and analysts say have saved more lives than any other single medical advance. Vaccinations have reduced disease, disability, and death from a variety of infectious diseases by protecting those vaccinated and by reducing the spread of disease. One 2017 report highlighted the impact in the U.S. of immunization against nine diseases, including smallpox, measles and polio. All were shown to have been reduced by 90% or more.
Kennedy claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine is the deadliest vaccine ever made according to deaths reported in VAERS.
VAERS is an unreliable source, and the agencies that run it say its reports cannot be used on their own to establish whether a vaccine caused any adverse event.
Health officials and experts said that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and comparable to others, and that they would have been discontinued if they had caused many deaths.
We rate this Pants on Fire!
This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for these fact checks here and more of their fact checks here.