Posts distort CDC official’s remarks on reported vaccine reactions

February 10, 2023 GMT
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is shown Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is shown Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

CLAIM: The deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitted that COVID-19 vaccines are causing “debilitating illnesses.”

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. This takes Dr. Tom Shimabukuro’s comments at the January meeting of the Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee out of context. Shimabukuro, the deputy director of the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office, was discussing reports of illnesses that people have filed after COVID-19 vaccination, but he never says the vaccines were proven to have caused the events.

THE FACTS: A video of Shimabukuro appearing before the vaccine committee during its January meeting is being shared widely online to falsely claim the official admitted that the COVID-19 vaccines the agency has backed are causing “debilitating” complications.

“As Today’s VRBPAC Meeting Ended, CDC Dep. Dir. Tom Shimabukuro Admits COVID Vaccines Are Causing “Debilitating Illnesses,” wrote one Twitter user shortly after the meeting ended. That post was shared more than 3,000 times.

The remarks came during a wider discussion of vaccine safety monitoring in which Shimabukuro was describing accounts in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, an early warning system kept by the FDA and the CDC to monitor signals of possible side effects from vaccines. Reports in the system are not verified. VAERS allows anyone to submit reports on any possible reactions after a vaccine, and has clear disclaimers that reports may “contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable.”

In the clip, Shimabukuro says: “We take vaccine safety very seriously. With respect to reports of people experiencing debilitating illnesses, we are aware of these reports of people experiencing long lasting health problems following COVID vaccination. In some cases, the clinical presentation of people suffering these health problems is variable and no specific medical cause for the symptoms have been found.”

“We understand that illness is disruptive and stressful, especially under those circumstances and we acknowledge these health problems have substantially impacted the quality of life for people and have also affected those around them,” he adds. “We hope for improvement and recovery and we will continue to monitor the safety of these vaccines and work with partners to try to better understand these types of adverse events.”

An Instagram post with the clip published on Thursday claimed Shimabukuro’s comments proved “The CDC has given up the ghost.”

But nowhere in his remarks does Shimabukuro say that the vaccines have been found to be the cause of the alleged “debilitating illnesses.” He simply says that the CDC acknowledges there are reports of such instances.

“Currently, there are no epidemiologic data from safety monitoring to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines are causing these types of health problems,” the CDC wrote in a statement to the AP.

Right before making the comments about reports of long-term illnesses allegedly caused by the vaccines, Shimabukuro cautioned that VAERS data does not prove causality.

“That is a spontaneous reporting system,” he said. “Anyone can report — a patient, a parent, a healthcare provider — and we accept all of those reports without judging the clinical seriousness or how plausible the adverse event may be with respect to causation.”

The CDC clarified in its statement to the AP that VAERS accepts all reports of adverse events “regardless of the plausibility of the vaccine causing the event or the clinical seriousness of the event.”

Severe reactions to COVID-19 vaccines, such as sustaining heart damage, are rare, according to the CDC. Myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, and pericarditis, inflammation of the heart’s outer lining, have been reported in male adolescents and young men several days after they received Pfizer or Moderna shots, but these cases are also uncommon. The CDC has attributed nine deaths to the shots, all linked to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Shimabukuro emphasized during the meeting that the CDC continues to recommend that everyone eligible for a COVID-19 mRNA booster shot gets vaccinated.


This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.