• Health

COVID-19 vaccines are safer than the risk of COVID-19 infection for people of all ages

Posted on:  2021-05-29

Key takeaway

COVID-19 caused millions of infections and over 3.5 million deaths worldwide. Most children and young adults who get infected only experience mild symptoms of the disease. However, a small proportion of people younger than 24 can still develop severe COVID-19 and die. Even those that survive the disease can suffer from persistent health problems after recovery. Despite the high survival rate among young people, COVID-19 vaccines can help protect them from risks associated with the disease. In parallel, COVID-19 vaccination can help reduce the spread of the virus, especially among vulnerable people who aren’t able to take the vaccine for medical reasons.

Reviewed content

COVID-19 vaccines caused as many deaths as the disease in young people

Source: Wendy Bell Radio, Wendy Bell, 2021-05-24

Verdict detail

Inadequate support: Death reports in the U.S. VAERS database contain unverified information and cannot demonstrate that COVID-19 vaccines caused the death of recipients.
Lack of context: The rate of COVID-19 survival alone is insufficient to estimate the risks of the disease. Even if a person only had mild symptoms, COVID-19 infections can lead to long-lasting effects after recovery, such as fatigue, cognitive issues, and tissue damage.

Full Claim

COVID-19 vaccines caused as many deaths as the disease in young people, VAERS records COVID-19 deaths

Review

The U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is a surveillance system that helps ensure the safety of vaccines used in the U.S. However, VAERS reports have been commonly misused to spread misinformation about vaccine safety, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. One example is this image, posted on Facebook by Wendy Bell on 24 May 2020, that used VAERS reports to claim that COVID-19 vaccines caused as many deaths among young adults as COVID-19 itself.

This comparison is misleading because VAERS reports alone don’t demonstrate that COVID-19 vaccines caused deaths, as Health Feedback explained in previous reviews here, here, and here. Furthermore, COVID-19 poses serious health risks to people besides death, including potentially long-term health problems in survivors, as we explain below.

VAERS death reports only state that a death occurred after vaccination; they don’t prove that the vaccine caused the death

Under the title “COVID vaccine deaths”, the post presented data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), implying that COVID-19 vaccines caused the death of 0.0017% of the people who received them. This figure comes from multiplying the number of deaths reported to VAERS as of 17 May 2021 (4,647 death reports) by 100 and dividing it by the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in the U.S. at that time (273 million doses).

While the data are accurate, the implication that COVID-19 vaccines are responsible for these deaths is incorrect and misuses VAERS reports.

VAERS is an open-access system that allows reporting of any health problems that occur after vaccination, from mild symptoms to serious medical events. The system collects information from anyone who wants to submit a report, regardless of what caused the adverse event. Hence VAERS contains “incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable” information, as the website clearly warns. This means that VAERS reports alone cannot demonstrate that a vaccine caused an adverse event, contrary to what the post claimed.

Because of the Emergency Use Authorization for the COVID-19 vaccines, healthcare providers bear the legal responsibility of reporting any serious adverse event following their use. This includes any deaths among vaccinated individuals, even if they are clearly unrelated to the vaccine. Then, the CDC and the FDA investigate each death report to determine whether it might be associated with the vaccine.

As of 26 May 2021, the U.S. administered almost 290 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. During that time, VAERS received 4,863 reports of death (0.0017%) among COVID-19 vaccine recipients. As the CDC explains, none of these deaths has been definitively attributed to the vaccine.

Safety monitoring identified a type of severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis in about two to five people per million vaccinated against COVID-19 with an mRNA vaccine. This reaction generally occurs within 30 minutes after vaccination and can be effectively treated. Recently, VAERS received 32 confirmed reports of blood clots with low platelets among individuals who received the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. Despite a possible causal link between the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine and rare cases of blood clots, the CDC concluded that the vaccine’s known and potential benefits outweighed its known and potential risks.

While the CDC and FDA will continue to monitor the safety of all COVID-19 vaccines, serious safety problems are rare. Safety data from clinical trials and monitoring of ongoing vaccination campaigns are reassuring and demonstrate that FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID-19[1-3]. Most people experience no or mild side effects, which may include pain or swelling at the injection site, fever, chills, tiredness, and headache. But in general, these effects go away in a few days.

Vaccinated people don’t die at a higher rate than unvaccinated people

Based on VAERS reports, the post also claimed that from 3 May to 17 May 2021, COVID-19 vaccines caused 469 deaths, which equates to 34 deaths per day. Apart from the fact that this is a misuse of VAERS reports as explained above, this claim lacks important context, making it misleading.

The reality is that many people die every day for many reasons. To put this number in context, the U.S. reported in 2017 an average of 7,708 daily deaths. Assuming that the U.S. population is similar to that in 2017 and considering that 49.7% of them received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, we would expect about 3,830 deaths per day. Comparing that figure with that presented by Bell shows that 34 deaths each day don’t indicate a problem with vaccine safety.

We can only infer that the vaccine might cause deaths if the number of deaths among vaccinated individuals exceeded the expected number of deaths in unvaccinated individuals. However, public health authorities haven’t observed higher rates of death among vaccinated individuals than in the unvaccinated population, as Health Feedback covered in this previous review.

The likelihood of survival alone isn’t enough to estimate the risks of a disease

The post claims that COVID-19 “survivability” of people under 24 years is 99.998%. This number comes from dividing the number of COVID-19 deaths in people under 24 by 50.5 million. It is unclear what the 50.5 million represents as we couldn’t find a source that matches this number.

The implication that a disease with a high survival rate poses a minor health risk is misleading because it fails to consider other important factors that impact the burden of a disease. For example, a virus with low lethality but high transmissibility may cause more infections and deaths than a more deadly virus that only infects a few people. Such is the case of COVID-19, where its rapid spread caused more than 33 million infections and 590,000 deaths in the U.S, as of 27 May 2021.

Such a simplistic view also overlooks the potential long-term consequences of a COVID-19 infection. Growing clinical evidence shows that COVID-19 outcomes go far beyond death or recovery. While children and young people are indeed less likely to develop severe COVID-19, some of them do, particularly those with underlying health conditions like obesity.

One study published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that COVID-19 caused over 11,000 hospitalizations and 178 deaths among children between March and December 2020. Furthermore, among the COVID-19 patients aged 18 to 34 that required hospitalization, 21% needed ventilation, and 2.7% died[4].

Though young people have a high chance of surviving COVID-19, some continue suffering “long COVID”, even if they only had mild or no COVID-19 symptoms. Symptoms include loss of smell and taste, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, and cognitive issues that can last for weeks or months[5]. As Health Feedback explained in this earlier review, COVID-19 infections might also cause lifelong problems in some survivors, including permanent lung and heart damage and neurological issues[6,7]. These long-lasting symptoms can significantly impair a patient’s recovery and highly impact their quality of life.

Finally, the post suggests that only 5% (29,317) of the total reported COVID-19 deaths (586,335 as of 23 May 2021) were actually caused by COVID-19, according to the CDC. This claim is inaccurate and misinterprets how deaths are certified. As the CDC explains on its website, 5% is the percentage of deaths in which COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned. However, just because other death certificates listed additional conditions, it doesn’t mean that these conditions caused the death. As Health Feedback explained in previous reviews, deaths are classified as “COVID-19 deaths” only if the sequence of clinical events leading to the patient’s death is compatible with COVID-19. Furthermore, some of the conditions listed on death certificates, such as respiratory failure, may not be pre-existing conditions but a consequence of COVID-19 itself.

In summary, the claim that COVID-19 vaccines are as unsafe to children and young adults as the disease itself is unsupported and misleading. VAERS death reports alone don’t demonstrate that COVID-19 vaccines caused an adverse event, and therefore, don’t provide evidence that COVID-19 vaccines caused deaths or are unsafe. Although children and young adults are very unlikely to die of COVID-19, the disease poses other health risks, such as long-lasting effects, even in people who only had mild or no COVID-19 symptoms.

REFERENCES

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