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Data from vaccine reporting site being misrepresented online

February 4, 2021 GMT

CLAIM: Screenshots of the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System show people who have died after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. 

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. The VAERS system is an unverified reporting system that does not determine if a vaccine caused the events that are reported. 

THE FACTS:  As more and more Americans receive the COVID-19 vaccine, posts online are using data from an adverse event reporting system to cast doubt on the vaccine.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which run the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, are quick to note the limitation of the data, which serve as an early signal to detect issues with any vaccines. 

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VAERS was created in 1990 to give anyone from health care professionals to the general public the chance to submit reports. The data is publicly available online. The CDC says on its website that “reports submitted to VAERS often lack details and sometimes contain errors.”

Posts online are sharing VAERS data without any context. Screenshots of the data being shared online give a vague description to paint a much darker version of reality and mislead social media users into believing that the vaccine is causing more adverse events than the public is being told. 

“VAERS - A MUST WATCH!!!!,” one video showing VAERS data on Instagram said. “I bet you haven’t seen any of THIS information about the COVID-19 vaccine covered on CNN, or any off the other treasonous corrupt mainstream media!”

Some screenshots show only a VAERS identification number, the age of the person who was vaccinated, the day they received the vaccine and the day they died to suggest that people are dying from the vaccine. The posts with misleading captions are being widely shared across social media platforms. 

“I have not seen any data supporting that the vaccine caused a relationship with an increase in mortality rate or something like that,” said Dr. Werner Bischoff, an infectious disease specialist at Wake Forest University. 

According to the CDC, VAERS does not determine if the vaccine caused the reported adverse events, which can often happen coincidentally after immunization. 

VAERS has often been misrepresented by anti-vaccine advocates, and the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine has brought more attention to the  surveillance system.

There was a time when a number of reports in VAERS were from people concerned that vaccines were causing autism, which has been debunked, said Dr. James Campbell, professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. 

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Since anyone can submit a report to the system, it is impossible to know if the symptoms were caused by the vaccine. VAERS says on its website that knowingly filing a false report is against the law. 

“There are spikes of reporting on various things and some people unfortunately use VAERS inappropriately,” Campbell said. “Any symptoms can be reported by VAERS by anyone.”

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have undergone three phases of clinical trials and been tested on about 70,000 people. Subjects have undergone a two-month follow-up as part of the phase 3 of the clinical trial. So far, more than 20 million Americans have received the first dose of the Pfizer and Moderna shots since December.

Dr. Prathit Arun Kulkarni, an infectious disease expert at Baylor College of Medicine, said what people forget when sharing VAERS data is that populations have baseline issues that do not change based on the introduction of vaccines such as heart attacks or deaths. 

“The main purpose is to try and detect new, unusual, rare side effects or adverse events that can happen after vaccination,” Kulkarni said. “The limitations of such a system are that it can be difficult to tease out causality from temporality.” 

Despite what the false posts online may suggest about the vaccines, the evidence supporting their use is there. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been proven 95% effective against COVID-19 illness. 

“There is really good evidence that the vaccine prevents you from dying of covid,” Campbell said. “At this point, there is absolutely no evidence that the vaccine itself has increased rates of death.” 

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536