How conspiracy theorists are using a CDC database to spread misinformation and fear

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A U.S. early-warning system for detecting vaccine side effects is being weaponized 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 illnesses.

“COVID19 VACCINES DEATH TOLL CLIMBING!!!” screams the headline on one viral Facebook video, that claims the CDC database shows a list of “all the people who have died from vaccines.”

There’s just one problem: anyone can make a claim of severe reaction, or death, and have their report included in the CDC’s publicly accessible VAERS database. No one checks if those claims are true.

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The agency has inadvertently given the anti-vax community a powerful tool for spreading misinformation about the vaccines it’s encouraging the world to use.

As of June 7, VAERS logged 5,208 unconfirmed reports of death among alleged vaccine recipients — that’s the number often touted by vaccine skeptics. If true, that would amount to 0.0017 per cent of total COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in the United States.

Yet the CDC says that a careful review of those deaths “has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines,” with the exception of a small handful of plausible instances of rare blood clots from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which, in very rare cases, can lead to death.

“They are incredibly safe vaccines, especially the ones that are being used in the U.S. and Canada,” says Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.

Anti-vaccine groups are using the numbers in a different way.

They claim the sheer volume of VAERS reports tells the story of a huge safety cover-up. They often mix in individual, unverified reports with the seemingly overwhelming, and equally unverified statistics.

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A prominent anti-vaxx advocacy group called “America’s Frontline Doctors,” has promoted a now-deleted VAERS report that claimed a two-year-old child, who would not have been eligible for vaccination, died from the vaccine — a claim echoed in several Facebook posts that have been flagged as misinformation. The group did not respond to Global News’ request for comment.

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Many other reported deaths in VAERS are just as questionable.

Two of the supposed vaccine fatalities list gunshot wounds as a cause of death.

Report #1116353 explains that a 77-year-old woman in Minnesota died one month after receiving her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine. It does not list a cause of death.

Report #0917790 references a 90-year-old Arkansas woman who died two weeks after receiving a first dose of the Moderna vaccine. The report notes that she tested positive for COVID-19 and explicitly states, “there is no evidence that the vaccination caused patient’s death. It simply didn’t have time to save her life.”

There are countless other reports of people who died at some point after vaccination, through circumstances that are not conclusively linked to the vaccine.

The FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization for the vaccines is likely part of the reason for the surge in reports. The EUA requires that doctors report through VAERS any death that occurs after COVID-19 vaccination “regardless of whether the health care provider believes the vaccine was the cause.”

The reports of vaccine side effects are similarly murky.

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One lists a 39-year-old Alaska woman whose post-vaccination symptoms allegedly included “Jesus visiting her,” along with contracting a “sexually transmitted disease.”

In recent weeks, anti-vaccine advocates have begun to point to hundreds of VAERS reports of myocarditis, and pericarditis, a rare heart inflammation among male vaccine recipients under age 30. The CDC notes there are 623 relevant VAERS reports, but only 268 have been verified. That’s enough to warrant further investigation, which is now underway as the system was designed. There is still no conclusive determination of a link to vaccines.

“We vaccinated a lot of people,” says Dr. Tara Kirk Sell, a health misinformation expert at the Johns Hopkins School for Health Security. “We have to figure out what all of these issues are and if the rates of things are happening at more than the background rate.”

VAERS was designed to be transparent by collecting as many reports as possible to identify trends and possible problems with vaccines.

The CDC has largely relied on the honour system to keep things honest, warning that “knowingly filing a false VAERS report is a violation of Federal law punishable by fine and imprisonment.” Readers of VAERS reports are met with a disclaimer that “the reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable.”

That hasn’t stopped anti-vaccine advocates from claiming everything recorded in VAERS is real.

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“Whenever you have transparency, you have the opportunity for that information to be used and twisted in ways that you didn’t intend,” Sell says. “We have a whole spinning narrative of misinformation that’s based on tiny kernels of truth.”

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In fact, the CDC’s statistics have become the runaway favourite among vaccine skeptics worldwide.

Canadian anti-vaccination groups like Vaccine Choice Canada and Take Action Canada regularly make use of VAERS data on social media, sometimes mixing it in with various conspiracy theories about lockdowns, masks and the pandemic.

One Facebook video by Take Action Canada titled “Are you familiar with the VAERS Stats?” rattles off a list of seemingly alarming statistics about alleged vaccine reactions and deaths, with no mention that they’re based on unverified claims. A spokesperson for the group acknowledged to Global News that VAERS reports are not fully accurate, before making unproven claims that those inaccuracies also include under-reporting.

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Canadian statistics are far less alarming than what VAERS documents in the U.S.

In Canada, so-called adverse events are reported to doctors and pharmacists, who determine whether to relay the reports to provincial and territorial public health departments. That data is then shared with the Public Health Agency of Canada.

As of June 4, Health Canada was tracking a total of 104 deaths reported after administration of a COVID-19 vaccine through the Canadian Adverse Events Following Immunization (CAEFI) system.

The agency classifies 40 of those deaths as likely not linked to vaccines, 43 are still under investigation, 15 do not include sufficient information, and six cases involve deaths from rare blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine.

As of June 5 in Ontario, four deaths had been investigated for possible vaccine links. Only one, relating to rare instances of blood clots, had a definitive link.

The CDC did not respond to a list of questions from Global News about the future of VAERS, including whether it was aware of its misuse, or would institute better reporting controls.

Health experts have long applauded the system as a helpful tool that can catch rare vaccine reactions, and they believe its openness and transparency are important.

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Still, some wonder if it’s time to update VAERS for the era of misinformation.

“After this pandemic, there should be a review of the value of the sources of that information,” Dr. Omer says. “I think there may be some value in doing some quality control.”

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