A US early warning system to detect vaccine side effects is being turned into a weapon by the global anti-vaccination movement.
The Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System (VAERS), run by the Centers for Disease Control, has become the launching pad for conspiracy theories that claim COVID-19 vaccines have caused “thousands” of deaths and serious illness.
“INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF DEATHS FROM COVID19 VACCINES !!! Screams the headline of a viral Facebook video, which claims the CDC’s database displays a list of “all those who have died from vaccines.”
There’s only one problem: anyone can report a serious reaction, or death, and have their report included in the CDC’s publicly available VAERS database. No one checks if these statements are true.
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The agency has inadvertently given the anti-vaccination community a powerful tool to spread misinformation about the vaccines it encourages the world to use.
As of June 7, VAERS had recorded 5,208 unconfirmed reports of death among suspected vaccine recipients – the number often touted by vaccine skeptics. If true, it would represent 0.0017% of the total COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in the United States.
Still, CDC says close examination of these deaths “has not established a causal link with COVID-19 vaccines” except for a small handful of plausible cases of rare Johnson vaccine blood clots. & Johnson, which in very rare cases can result in death.
“These are incredibly safe vaccines, especially those used in the United States and Canada,” said Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.
Anti-vaccine groups use the numbers in a different way.
They claim that the sheer volume of VAERS reports tell the story of a huge security cover-up. They often mix unverified individual reports with seemingly overwhelming and equally unverified statistics.
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A leading anti-vaxx rights group called America’s Frontline Doctors promoted a now suppressed VAERS report which claimed that a two-year-old, who was not eligible for vaccination , had died from the vaccine – a claim echoed in several Facebook posts that were flagged as misinformation. The group did not respond to Global News’ request for comment.
Many other deaths reported to VAERS are equally questionable.
Two of the presumed vaccine deaths cite gunshot wounds as the cause of death.
Report # 1116353 explains that a 77-year-old woman in Minnesota died a month after receiving her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine. It does not mention a cause of death.
Report # 0917790 refers to a 90-year-old woman from Arkansas who died two weeks after receiving a first dose of Moderna vaccine. The report notes that she tested positive for COVID-19 and explicitly states: “There is no evidence that the vaccination caused the death of the patient. He just didn’t have time to save her life.
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There are countless other reports of people dying at some point after vaccination, in circumstances not conclusively related to the vaccine.
The FDA’s emergency use clearance for vaccines is probably one of the reasons for the increase in the number of reports. The EUA requires doctors to report through VAERS any deaths occurring after COVID-19 vaccination “regardless of whether the health care provider believes the vaccine was the cause.”
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Equally murky is the reports of vaccine side effects.
One lists a 39-year-old woman from Alaska whose post-vaccination symptoms reportedly included “Jesus visiting him” as well as a “sexually transmitted disease”.
In recent weeks, anti-vaccine advocates have started reporting hundreds of VAERS reports of myocarditis and pericarditis, a rare inflammation of the heart in vaccinated men under the age of 30. The CDC notes that there are 623 relevant VAERS reports, but only 268 have been verified. This is enough to warrant further investigation, which is now underway because the system was designed. There is still no conclusive determination of a link to vaccines.
“We have vaccinated a lot of people,” says Dr. Tara Kirk Sell, health misinformation expert at the Johns Hopkins School for Health Security. “We need to figure out what all of these problems are and if the pace of things is going at more than the bottom rate. “
VAERS was designed to be transparent by collecting as many reports as possible to identify trends and possible issues with vaccines.
The CDC has relied heavily on the honor system to keep things honest, warning that “knowingly filing a false VAERS report is a violation of federal law punishable by fine and jail time.” Readers of VAERS reports face a warning that “reports may contain incomplete, inaccurate, incidental or unverifiable information.”
That hasn’t stopped anti-vaccine advocates from claiming that everything recorded in VAERS is real.
“Anytime you have the benefit of transparency, you have the opportunity to use and distort that information in ways you never intended,” Sell says. “We have a whole spinning disinformation narrative that’s based on tiny kernels of truth. “
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In fact, CDC statistics have become the favorites of vaccine skeptics around the world.
Canadian anti-vaccination groups like Vaccine Choice Canada and Take Action Canada regularly use VAERS data on social media, sometimes mixing it up with various conspiracy theories on lockdowns, masks and the pandemic.
A Take Action Canada Facebook video titled “Do you know the VAERS statistics?” lists some seemingly alarming statistics on suspected vaccine reactions and deaths, not to mention that they are based on unverified claims. A spokesperson for the group admitted to Global News that VAERS reports are not entirely accurate, before making unproven claims that these inaccuracies also include underreporting.
Canadian statistics are much less alarming than what VAERS documents in the United States
In Canada, so-called adverse events are reported to physicians and pharmacists, who determine whether they should forward the reports to provincial and territorial public health departments. This data is then shared with the Public Health Agency of Canada.
As of June 4, Health Canada was tracking a total of 104 reported deaths following administration of a COVID-19 vaccine through the Canadian Adverse Events Following Immunization (CEAE) system.
The agency classifies 40 of those deaths as likely unrelated to vaccines, 43 are still under investigation, 15 do not include enough information, and six cases involve deaths from rare vaccine-related blood clots. AstraZeneca.
As of June 5 in Ontario, four deaths had been investigated for possible vaccine links. Only one, relating to rare cases of blood clots, had a definitive link.
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The CDC did not respond to a list of questions from Global News about the future of VAERS, including whether they were aware of its misuse or would institute better reporting controls.
Health experts have long applauded the system as a useful tool that can detect rare vaccine reactions, and they believe its openness and transparency are important.
Still, some wonder if it’s time to update VAERS for the age of disinformation.
“After this pandemic, there should be a review of the value of the sources of this information,” Dr Omer said. “I think it can be useful to do some quality control. “
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