When the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) was established in 1990, its creators at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would have scarcely imagined the government program would become a leading vector for vaccine misinformation amidst a global pandemic.
The VAERS dataset was created to manage reports of vaccine-associated side effects. With the authority of the CDC, whose official seal adorns the webpage, VAERS packs a shock. As of today, the online database alleges 1349 U.S. deaths attributable to COVID-19 vaccines. The database makes for gruesome reading, with side-effects of the vaccine appearing to include brain death, herpes and even one case of a gunshot wound. Quite the vaccine.
These statistics are, of course, patently false. Claims made by the VAERS database now form the foundation of a global online misinformation campaign which to-date has garnered little attention. The startling statistics are being shared far and wide by anti-vaccination activists and concerned readers alike. And the CDC’s role in the dissemination of vaccine misinformation, unwilling though it may be, is attracting increasing scrutiny as it jeopardises what President Biden calls his administration’s “most important battle”: the global coronavirus vaccine rollout.
The CDC describes VAERS as a “passive reporting system.” Pre-dating the internet, the VAERS database has virtually no guards against its potential role as a source of “fake news” and is credulous of even the most fanciful claims of COVID-19 vaccine side-effects. VAERS reports “can be submitted voluntarily by anyone, including healthcare providers, patients, or family members.” The CDC acknowledges the “quality and completeness” of reports “often lack details and sometimes can have information that contains errors.” Beyond that disclaimer, the CDC tries to ensure its readers know the data is inaccurate by offering users terms and conditions, which are presumably mostly unread, and a checkbox to acknowledge their contents. A federal agency seeking to disabuse citizens of the expectation that government health databases are accurate should be an indicator for the CDC that VAERS has a serious problem.
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.