Posts misrepresent reports in WHO vaccine safety database
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends Covid-19 vaccines amid carefully monitoring the safety of the jabs, but posts claim its database shows more than five million people have been harmed by the shots. This is false; the figure includes all reported adverse events following vaccination -- including those that are unverified or detail minor reactions -- and are not necessarily caused by the injections.
"According to WHO's own data, more than 5,000,000 people are suspected to have been harmed by the COVID vaccines. The exact number today is 5,026,245 people, including tens of thousands of deaths," said Tess Lawrie in an April 29, 2023 tweet.
Lawrie is co-founder of the World Council for Health, a group that AFP has repeatedly fact-checked for spreading vaccine misinformation.
On May 13, she tweeted photos from a rally in London with the caption: "More than 5M Covid #Vaccine injuries and deaths on Vigiaccess #truthbetold These 5M reports are not statistics, they are people like you and me. We have been deceived."
Screenshots of Lawrie's tweet and similar claims spread across social media platforms in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
But the posts misrepresent publicly available data from the WHO's VigiAccess website (archived here).
The database collects reports of adverse events from around the world. In Canada, patients are encouraged to ask their doctor to record them, while in the United States, anyone can submit a report.
The WHO told AFP there is a distinction between adverse events -- observations that do "not necessarily have a causal relationship" with a medicinal product -- and adverse reactions, which include "noxious and unintended" responses.
Adverse event reports alone do not prove a product "caused the observed events" or that it is unsafe to use, according to the WHO.
"Confirming a causal relationship is a complex process that requires a thorough scientific assessment and detailed evaluation," the agency said in a statement emailed May 19.
Asked about the volume of reports related to Covid-19 shots, the WHO said it has observed similar spikes after the introduction of other vaccines.
"Billions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines were given in a short period of time, so there was clustering of reported adverse events following vaccination," the agency said. "The entire global community was encouraged to report all (even very minor) events following vaccination."
Common misinformation tactic
Timothy Mackey, director of the Global Health Policy and Data Institute, said Lawrie's posts are the latest to selectively use adverse event reporting data "to amplify concerns about (the) safety of vaccines."
"The majority of reports that populate these systems may be for labeled minor adverse events," he said in a May 18 email. "So absolute numbers of adverse events that are presented by these anti-vaxx groups are influenced by a higher number of non-serious adverse events and also unvalidated reports."
He said the number of confirmed serious adverse events, compared to the 5.5 billion people estimated to have received at least one dose, "is very low."
AFP has previously reported on misleading claims about the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System in the United States and a similar database in Australia.
Vaccines are safe
The WHO database does not provide a specific global number for confirmed serious adverse effects. But reports from individual countries show these are rare.
Data from Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada show more than 97 million Covid-19 doses have been administered in the country.
Serious adverse events account for 0.01 percent of all doses administered, according to Health Canada's website (archived here). A similarly low number is reported in the United States.
Canada continues to investigate "adverse events of special interest," including a rare blood clotting condition and heart problems such as myocarditis and pericarditis.
Health Canada reports that, among vaccinated people, heart inflammation occurs at rates "higher than what would be expected in the general population, particularly among males and females less than 40 years old and following the second dose."
However, a large study (archived here) found myocarditis is more common following a Covid-19 infection.
"Evidence indicates that the benefits of Covid-19 vaccines continue to outweigh the risks of the disease," Health Canada says on its website.
More of AFP's reporting on vaccine misinformation can be found here.