Matt Slocum / AP
The largest US database to identify events that could be side effects of vaccines is used by activists Spreading disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
Known as Reporting system for adverse vaccination events (VAERS), the database contains hundreds of thousands of reports of health events that occurred minutes, hours or days after vaccination. Many of the events reported are random – things that happen randomly and are not caused by the shot. But when millions of people are vaccinated in a short period of time, the total number of events reported can seem large.
Epidemiologists only view the VAERS database as a starting point in finding rare but potentially serious side effects of vaccines. Much more work needs to be done before a cause and effect relationship can be established between a reported health event and a vaccine.
“It’s a very valuable adverse event detection system, but it needs to be used properly,” said William Moss, executive director of the International Center for Access to Vaccine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “And it’s ripe for abuse.”
In fact, VAERS has played an important role in spreading misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. The data is regularly appropriated by anti-vaccine advocates who use the reports to falsely claim that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous. They are aided by the fact that the entire VAERS database is public – anyone can download it for any purpose.
“There is very little control over what can be accessed and what can be tampered with,” says Melanie Smith, Director of Analysis at Graphika, a company that tracks vaccine misinformation online. She says she sees VAERS data being shared through a variety of anti-vaccine social media channels. “I would say that almost every misinformation and disinformation story we cover is accompanied by a number of VAERS data.”
VAERS was founded decades ago, in part as a direct response to the anti-vaccine movement. In 1982 a TV documentary entitled “DPT Vaccine Roulette” was broadcast nationwide. It was filled with unfounded claims that the vaccine against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus administered at the time could lead to mental and physical disability.
“It has led to a massive number of lawsuits,” says Dr. Walter Orenstein, Associate Director of the Emory University Vaccine Center and former director of the US Immunization Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The litigation got so bad that many Pharmaceutical companies decided that the vaccines were not worth making. The USA started with bottlenecks. Congress came in with a law to protect manufacturers, and that’s part of that law created VAERS in 1990. The database immediately looked different from other government medical records: anyone could report a vaccine side effect (not just doctors), and anyone could request the entire VAERS database for whatever reason. Orenstein says the goal was to make it as open as possible.
“There were conspiracy theories, there were concerns that people were hiding things, and we didn’t want to hide anything,” he recalls. “It was very important that this system be publicly available for others to look at and draw their own conclusions if they don’t trust the data the CDC and FDA are releasing.”
Since then, anti-vaccine groups have used VAERS to spread their unsubstantiated theories about the dangers of vaccination. “VAERS data is often shared in the anti-Vax community with an understanding that they fought for it,” says Smith. Since the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccines, anti-vaccine advocates have shared YouTube videos showing the data being downloaded, according to Smith. Lately, she says that infographics based on the data “seem very popular right now”. They multiply on alternative social media platforms like Telegram.
The most frequently cited statistic among anti-vaccine groups is post-vaccination death. Graphics of opponents of vaccinations often note the number of deaths directly reported in VAERS – without indicating that the reports there were not investigated or that the cause was linked to a vaccination. Those numbers even made it onto Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson’s show last month. in the a segment On the alleged dangers of COVID-19 vaccines, Carlson falsely claimed the system had recorded thousands of unexplained deaths. “It is clear that what is happening now is nowhere near normal,” he told his audience.
The problem says Saad Omer, Director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, is that many of these deaths in the VAERS database were caused by other illnesses that occurred around the same time as vaccination and were unrelated to a vaccine: “Vaccines decrease your COVID- Risk. 19 “, Omer notes,” they don’t make you immortal. “
In fact, COVID-19 vaccines were first given to some of the oldest and sickest people in America. Her risk of dying from COVID was high, but “her risk of dying from other causes was also high. In fact, very high, ”says Omer.
He says it is not surprising that after giving many millions of doses, a few thousand might accidentally die shortly after receiving the vaccine. VAERS is where this data is recorded and anti-vaccine activists then report the number as people killed by the vaccine.
Meanwhile, Omer and his colleagues have theirs own analysis and found that the vaccines save some people’s lives. “We have shown that two-dose mortality is reduced by 99% and even after one dose is reduced by 64%,” he says.
Individual case reports in VAERS are also often cited as if they were studies on what can go wrong with a vaccination, says Moss. “It’s really hard because individual stories are really strong,” he says. But because of the openness of the system, these anecdotes are untested. In the early 2000s, an anesthetist falsely reported that the flu shot turned him into the incredible Hulk, and the report appeared in VAERS (it was later removed).
“There’s absolutely no screening,” says Moss. While most of the reports are honest, they don’t come close to establishing a causal link between a vaccine and a health event.
In a statement sent by email, the CDC informed NPR that the agency is aware of the misuse of VAERS data but has no immediate plans to change the system. That’s partly because VAERS is one of the agency’s best sources for early warning of real side effects. VAERS data helped identify allergic reactions and bleeding disorders caused by the COVID-19 vaccines. Both side effects are extremely rare, and doctors say the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.
“Although VAERS has limits, it is imperative for VAERS to keep the system open to all reporters and users in order to fulfill its early detection function,” says the agency.
Orenstein says he agrees to keep VAERS as open as possible. “I have the feeling that we have to live with it,” he says, “because I think it’s very important that we have an open and transparent system.”
While some anti-vaccination campaigners will skew the data, he thinks it’s better to have it out there – available to every member of to see the public.