The rollout of covid-19 vaccines in the U.S. is finally starting to pick up steam, but as vaccination becomes more common, the antivax movement is pulling its same old tricks. The latest disturbing trend: blaming the coronavirus vaccine for deaths, illnesses, or injuries without any solid evidence.
Antivax organizations are already trying to misrepresent reports of people dying or getting hurt after receiving the vaccine as proof that they’re unsafe. Last week, Children’s Health Defense—founded by well-known crank Robert Kennedy, Jr.—posted an article implying that baseball legend Hank Aaron’s death on January 22 was caused by the Moderna vaccine he had received on January 5. This week, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office reported that Aaron had died of natural causes at the age of 86. Health officials elsewhere have similarly had to spend time debunking viral claims of vaccine-related deaths.
As with so many conspiracy theories, there’s a grain of truth to the lies being told by anti-vaxxers.
Vaccines, like any medication, have side effects. Usually, though not always, these side effects are noticed during clinical trials, before they reach the general public. Soon after the similar Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines won emergency approval, for instance, there were isolated reports of allergic reactions to the vaccines, reactions that hadn’t been documented in clinical trials.
Not every bad thing that happens after you take a drug or vaccine—what scientists call an “adverse event”—is a side effect, though. People get sick for many different reasons, and often, the appearance of a nasty headache or other symptoms post-treatment are nothing more than coincidence. That’s why it’s so important to compare groups of people who get the real drug to those given a placebo. If some adverse events are a lot more common in the treatment group than in the placebo group, then we can be pretty sure they’re a real side effect.
Deaths, too, are an unfortunate part of reality, especially for high-risk groups such as the elderly who are currently being prioritized for covid-19 vaccines. People have died and will continue to die soon after getting a covid-19 vaccine, but that alone isn’t strong evidence that the vaccine caused their death.
In the largest clinical trials to date, involving tens of thousands of people, common symptoms linked to the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines included injection site pain, headache, fatigue, and muscle ache. Rarer side effects included an increased risk of Bell’s palsy, a temporary paralysis of the face. But there was no evidence of an increased risk of death following vaccination. And both vaccines were found to be highly effective at preventing illness from covid-19, which has killed more than 2 million people in the span of a year.
This doesn’t mean that reports of death or injury after vaccination shouldn’t be investigated by relevant health agencies and scientists (and, in fact, they are). One key part of scientific research involves keeping track of health problems in the public that are potentially linked to a new drug or vaccine, and sometimes new problems are found. But we should be wary of immediately blaming covid-19 vaccines for scary-sounding symptoms or tragic deaths, at least not without a good amount of evidence to back up those claims. Likewise, media outlets shouldn’t use sensationalized headlines when reporting on these cases.
Cherrypicked and anecdotal reports aside, the real-world evidence for the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines does appear to be encouraging. On Monday, Israel—arguably the top-performing country worldwide in getting people vaccinated—released some of its early data on how vaccination has gone. The data, pulled from the country’s state-run insurers, found that residents were extremely unlikely to be diagnosed with covid-19 following their second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Other data continues to show a very low risk of serious side effects like anaphylaxis—with 10 cases found out of 4 million people given the Moderna vaccine—and no reported deaths linked to these allergic reactions.