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No, the CDC’s VAERS database does not show thousands of people have died from COVID-19 vaccines

The questions about vaccine-related deaths have increased since the FDA recently granted full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

INDIANAPOLIS — Social media posts swirling around the internet claim thousands of people have died as a result of taking a COVID-19 vaccine.

Those online posts are prompting some 13News viewers to write angry messages to VERIFY, claiming the government’s own vaccine data proves COVID-19 vaccines are responsible for thousands of deaths and the media refuses to report on the real numbers.

Other viewers who’ve seen the claims are just curious. 

“My unvaccinated daughter-in-law says 7,000 people have died from a Covid vaccine. Is this true?” asked Terre.

The questions about vaccine-related deaths have increased since the FDA recently granted full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine and as hospitals continue to deal with the latest surge of COVID-19 cases from people who are still unvaccinated.

THE QUESTION

Does the CDC’s own VAERS database show thousands of people have died because of the COVID-19 vaccine?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

No, data on the VAERS database does not show thousands of people have died because of the COVID-19 vaccine. Any person can report any adverse event that occurs after vaccination to the site to be further investigated, but it does not prove causation.

WHAT WE FOUND

The claim that thousands of people have died from COVID-19 vaccines has been around for months.

Politicians and some TV talk shows have been spreading the claims, and their social media posts all refer back to a government database as alleged proof. The database is called the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System or VAERS, which was set up by the FDA and CDC for people to report adverse responses and side effects from all vaccines.

But missing from the social media posts are lots of important disclaimers that appear prominently on the VAERS database website. Those disclaimers warn the reports included in the VAERS database can include “incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental and unverified information,” and the CDC cautions that the reports alone cannot be used to determine if a vaccine contributed to an adverse event or death.

Credit: Screenshot of VAERS report accessed through CDC WONDER online database

The VAERS system has been used since 1990 as a sort of early warning system, allowing researchers to monitor reported, suspected side effects to detect potential unusual or rare patterns that might require further investigation or intervention.

More than 377 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have now been administered in the United States, according to the CDC. As of September 8, VAERS received 7,086 reports of death (0.0018 percent) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine.

The FDA requires health care providers to report any death after COVID-19 vaccination to VAERS, according to the CDC, even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was the cause.

“The VAERS system is set up to be open-ended,” explained Dr. Arnold Monto, a professor in epidemiology and public health at the University of Michigan and acting chair of the FDA's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. “In other words, you can report anything that occurs after vaccination, but it doesn’t mean it’s caused by the vaccination.”

Credit: VAERS
Screenshot of part of the VAERS disclaimer.

The VAERS database includes many reports that suggest a death is not related to a vaccine at all. For example, a 64-year-old man who was in hospice care for metastatic cancer received a COVID-19 vaccine last December. His death seven days later is included in VAERS even though a physician’s notation states: “The patient's death was felt to be due to underlying terminal illness” rather than the COVID vaccine.

Some reports in the VAERS system include deaths that occurred weeks or months following vaccination, and others provide only vague or confusing information that leaves epidemiologists puzzled.

“Girl's family who got vaccinated died along with their dog due to have been being exposed [sic] to the members who got vaccinated,” someone reported to VAERS.

That’s why doctors say the database cannot be used to tally deaths allegedly caused by a COVID vaccine.

“There’s a baseline rate of people passing away every day,” said Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, a Baylor College of Medicine infectious disease specialist. “Now you’re suddenly giving millions of people the vaccine, so there could be some idea that the vaccine caused it, but it might’ve happened anyway.”

The VAERS database includes all reports of possible vaccine side effects and deaths -- whether they are eventually found to be true or not. For example, after receiving the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, someone submitted a VAERS report claiming an adverse event was "Alien abduction, turning green, super strength, rage attacks."

COVID-19 vaccine-related deaths are rare, according to the CDC, but have occurred.

“A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines,” reads a statement on the CDC site. “However, recent reports indicate a plausible causal relationship between the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine and TTS, a rare and serious adverse event—blood clots with low platelets—which has caused deaths."

There are three known deaths associated with vaccines, according to this Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices report.