America’s COVID-19 vaccination program has been plagued with logistical issues from the start, but increasingly it seems a new enemy — misinformation — is proving even more dangerous. On social media, individuals have been perpetuating myths about the COVID-19 vaccine for weeks, claiming it can cause infertility or can alter a person’s DNA, neither of which is true.
The latest myth, that the vaccine is responsible for several recent deaths, may be the most alarming.
The idea gained steam with the loss of famed baseball player and civil rights activist Hank Aaron, who died on Jan 22, two weeks after receiving the Moderna vaccine. Aaron’s death was determined to be the result of natural causes but left some questioning whether his recent inoculation played a role. A similar conversation circulated online a few weeks earlier when a Florida doctor died of a rare blood disorder 16 days after getting the vaccine. His death led to since-deleted Reddit threads questioning if there was a link.
But now, with more than 33 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine administered in the U.S., is there any evidence that they are deadly? In interviews with Yahoo Life, three experts in infectious disease and vaccinology say the claims are unfounded, and likely motivated by a desire to make sense of the world. “Humans are wired to think this way, and it misleads them — temporality is not causality,” says Dr. Gregory Poland, an immunologist and director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group. “In other words, just because the event happened in association with another event doesn’t mean it was caused by it.”
Susan Ellenberg, professor of biostatistics, medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, agrees. “People are always looking for a cause,” Ellenberg says. “Why did this happen to me? Why did this happen to my child? Why did this happen to my spouse? There’s a certain comfort in at least knowing the cause and when you have something that happens in close temporal proximity, that’s an obvious thing to look at.”
Ellenberg points to the large clinical trials that both Moderna and Pfizer conducted as evidence of their safety — trials that were not only much larger than typical vaccine studies but also much longer. In the wake of these studies, both vaccines were granted emergency-use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, which conducted rigorous analysis of their safety data. The main side effects, as confirmed by the CDC, continue to be non-life-threatening and temporary, such as muscle aches, fever and fatigue.
Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, an infectious disease expert and professor at the University of Southern California, says that deaths occurring in the weeks afterward shouldn’t draw suspicion. “Most serious events from vaccines are going to occur within 15 minutes or 30 minutes,” says Klausner. Anaphylaxis, for example, a severe allergic reaction, occurs within minutes of exposure and can be treated with an EpiPen. The CDC says it is occurring at a rate of 11 out of a million for the COVID-19 vaccines.
Poland adds that with more than 30 million doses given, it would be extremely clear at this point if the vaccine was deadly. “If [the COVID-19 vaccine] had even a 1 percent chance of causing death, we’d have hundreds of thousands of deaths — it would be noticed immediately,” he says. “We’re just not seeing any difference in background [death] rates and that’s what’s important.”
Ellenberg, who spent more than a decade at the FDA, says Americans need to realize that deaths will happen. “The vaccine is intended to prevent illness associated with the infection, but it can’t prevent any other bad things that happen to people,” she says. “It’s not going to prevent you from being killed in an automobile accident. It’s not going to prevent you from having a heart attack. All of the things that happen to older people especially. So when you start giving a vaccine to millions and millions of people, all of the bad things that would have happened to people without the vaccine are still going to happen.”
As someone who’s spent decades helping people better understand vaccine safety, Ellenberg says she understands the desire to link a tragedy to a vaccine. “It’s the most natural thing in the world,” she says. “So I don’t fault people for being suspicious.” But she hopes Americans understand that two things occurring at once don’t prove one caused the other. “Some people will experience bad things and, by chance, some of them will happen shortly after a vaccine,” she says. “Even though it seems hard to think it’s a coincidence, when you’ve got millions and millions of people, coincidences are going to happen.”
“People should feel confident in this vaccine,” adds Klausner. “Both in the safety and that it works.”