Fact checking the source of so much COVID-19 vaccine misinformation: The VAERS database

Coronavirus

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines continues to spread — and much of it might come from people misinterpreting the government’s list of reported side effects.

CBS 17 fact-checked a claim that a viewer made about the vaccines and deaths, tracing the source of it to that database that has become a treasure trove for skeptics.

THE CLAIM: The viewer wrote that “more people have died as a result of the shot than have died from all other vaccines combined over the last 30 years. Fact check that.”

THE FACTS: We did fact-check it, and an expert said it was simply not true.

“Absolutely not,” said Dr. Lavanya Vasudevan of the Duke Global Health Institute.

That claim appears to be rooted in the Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System — or, VAERS — database, in which anyone can report a side effect from a vaccine.

SEARCH THE VAERS DATABASE HERE

“Many of these types of claims that we hear are actually a misrepresentation of the VAERS data,” Vasudevan said.

The pace of reporting has picked up: In North Carolina alone, roughly 70,000 reports have come in related to the COVID vaccines — more than triple the total back in May, when CBS 17 explained what the database does — and does not — tell you.

“It is reasonable to expect that reports on VAERS increase whenever there is a new vaccine on the market,” Vasudevan said. “And that’s definitely what we are seeing with COVID.”

What the system makes perfectly clear: It does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship between any vaccine and those side effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explicitly says the reports “may include incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental and unverified information.”

Among the reported side effects of the COVID vaccines in North Carolina: Yawning, fractures, a foot deformity, and wisdom tooth removal.

She estimates that 85 percent of the reports on VAERS are “either completely unrelated to vaccinations, or about events that pose little to no concern.”

(A screengrab of some of the thousands of reported side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines in the federal VAERS database. Source: CDC.)

“There’s an example of a researcher who actually posted on VAERS that, as a research study, they turned into the Incredible Hulk after vaccination,” Vasudevan said. “And you know, things like these are completely out there. And so you know, such kinds of reports are not true.”

But that doesn’t stop the skeptics from picking up on them.

“If you show them information that’s available to the public on VAERS, it’s easy to be scared or to think that vaccines are causing all of these safety events,” she said.

An email from another viewer included a screengrab of a website that scrapes the data from those reports and makes them even easier for skeptics to use.

The website — www.openvaers.com — is run by “a small team of people with vaccine injuries or who have children with vaccine injuries” and was created “to help others browse the VAERS records,” according to its frequently asked questions.

CBS 17 emailed the unnamed site creator to ask for an interview but only received what appears to be an automated form response.

It all raises one key question: If the VAERS data can be misused so easily, is it even worth having in the first place?

Vasudevan says it is — and points to the brief pause in administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last spring as proof. The rare blood clots were reported through the VAERS system and were deemed plausible enough to investigate further.

“So it does give us a very important signal with respect to vaccine safety,” she said. “But again, it’s important to evaluate the data that is on VAERS carefully.”


CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.


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