As hundreds of thousands of Americans test positive for COVID-19 each day, public health officials are encouraging booster shots to prevent the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant.
But online, some still doubt the safety of the coronavirus vaccines.
“1 million COVID-vaccine injuries now reported on CDC’s database,” reads a Jan. 3 headline from WorldNetDaily, a website that has previously published false claims about COVID-19.
The article accumulated about 1,500 interactions on Facebook within two days, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. Politicians like Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Texas, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., have also promoted the claim on social media.
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WorldNetDaily’s article references genuine reports in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a database maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. But that doesn’t mean serious COVID-19 vaccine side effects are widespread.
“One cannot assume that these reports are things caused by the vaccine,” Daniel Salmon, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University, said in an email.
USA TODAY reached out to WorldNetDaily for comment.
As USA TODAY has previously reported, reports in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, commonly known as VAERS, are not proof of widespread serious side effects or death due to the COVID-19 vaccines.
Public health agencies use VAERS as a national early warning system to detect potential safety problems with approved vaccines. Anyone – from doctors and nurses to parents and patients – can submit a report of an adverse event following vaccination to the database.
VAERS reports are unverified, and the CDC says on its website that the database “is not designed to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event.” If public health officials detect a reporting pattern, they conduct follow-up studies to determine whether a vaccine was to blame.
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“I can get a COVID vaccine and my dog gets hit by a car – I can make that report and it will show up in the database,” Salmon said. “It does not mean that my getting a COVID vaccine caused my dog to get hit by a car.”
Still, anti-vaccine advocates have previously used unconfirmed VAERS reports to make unfounded claims about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. The WorldNetDaily article is the latest example of that trend.
“The Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System, known as VAERS, reports that as of Dec. 24, there were 21,002 COVID vaccine deaths and 110,609 hospitalizations along with a total of 1,000,227 COVID vaccine adverse events,” the article reads.
As evidence, WorldNetDaily cites OpenVAERS, a website that “posts publicly available CDC/FDA data of injuries reported post-vaccination.” A USA TODAY analysis of VAERS data confirms those numbers, which include adverse event reports for all COVID-19 vaccines in any location worldwide.
However, there are nearly 300,000 fewer results when searching for adverse events reported in the U.S. and its territories.
“As of December 24, 2021, there were 709,085 reports of adverse reactions after COVID-19 vaccination in VAERS,” Martha Sharan, a CDC spokesperson, told USA TODAY in an email.
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But again, those reports alone are not proof of “COVID-vaccine injuries” or “COVID vaccine deaths,” as WorldNetDaily claims.
The CDC says on its website that “serious adverse events after COVID-19 vaccination are rare but may occur.” The agency has “not detected any unusual or unexpected patterns for deaths following immunization” that would indicate the COVID-19 vaccines are to blame, Sharan said.
The exception is Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which has been linked to nine confirmed deaths due to thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome. The CDC recommends shots from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna for people 18 and older.
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that 1 million “COVID-vaccine injuries” are reported in a CDC database. As of Dec. 24, there were more than 700,000 reports of adverse events following COVID-19 vaccination in the VAERS database. But since those reports are unverified, they are not proof of vaccine injuries or deaths. The CDC says serious adverse events related to the COVID-19 vaccines are rare.
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