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This claim cites the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, which the CDC and FDA warn cannot be used on its own to verify if a vaccine has caused an event. It accepts reports before verifying them, and reports can usually contain information that may have errors or lacks details.
When used properly, VAERS can detect true adverse health effects.
The CDC confirmed six deaths following the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which resulted from a rare but serious adverse reaction of thrombocytopenia syndrome, or blood clotting.
Throughout 2021, misinformation based on the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System has cycled persistently throughout social media. A new claim has popped up via Instagram: that thousands of COVID-19 vaccine deaths reported in VAERS are an undercount of an actual number of deaths.
The Dec. 6 Instagram post shared a screenshot, showing a number of deaths it attributed to vaccines: 1,621 deaths from Johnson & Johnson, 4,799 deaths from Moderna, 13,039 deaths from Pfizer and 73 from unknown vaccines. Those numbers were from the United States only, the Instagram user wrote in the caption.
"Only 1% of deaths are reported according to Harvard study," the user wrote.
We reached out to the Instagram user for more information but did not receive a response. We searched for the Harvard study that they referenced, but were not able to find one which stated 1% of deaths are reported. We did note in a separate fact-check that a well-known anti-vaccine advocate made a similar claim and cited a study that evaluated an automated system other than VAERS that tracked a patient’s health changes following a vaccination. But the study did not explain how it calculated 1%. The Department of Health and Human Services has said on its website that the degree of underreporting in VAERS varies widely depending on the symptom being reported.
Deaths and other adverse events following a vaccine have counted for many reports in the VAERS system — for more than 30 years, it’s been available as a public database that anyone can use to report an adverse health event that occurred after a vaccine. It helps government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration detect whether a vaccine has a serious health side effect. There are thousands of reports entered into the VAERS system constantly.
But federal officials, health experts and organizations have warned repeatedly that correlation does not imply causation — just because an adverse event is reported as having occurred does not mean that a vaccine was the cause.
In addition, officials warn the public that VAERS cannot be used on its own to verify if a vaccine has caused an event. Its reports "often lack details and sometimes can have information that contains errors," warned the agencies that run the system. VAERS accepts reports before verifying them — so it doesn’t provide enough concrete evidence. However, it has become used as a source for false claims that spread quickly across social media and other platforms. We’ve fact checked many of them.
This Instagram post said these numbers of deaths were only in the U.S.
Right now, the CDC reports that 200.4 million people have been fully vaccinated within the United States. The agency also reports that between Dec. 14, 2020, and Nov. 29, 2021, VAERS received 10,128 reports of deaths among people who were vaccinated — that figure would represent 0.0022% of vaccinated people.
"FDA requires health care providers to report any death after COVID-19 vaccination to VAERS, even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was the cause. Reports of adverse events to VAERS following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem," the FDA reiterates.
It isn’t clear where the numbers in the Instagram post came from. When we ran our own search in the VAERS database by using the CDC WONDER search tool to verify, we found a total of 8,843 reports had been made through Nov. 26, 2021 — 1,021 regarding Johnson & Johnson, 3,745 for Moderna, and 4,077 for the Pfizer BioNTech. Altogether, this is fewer than half what the post claims. Reports in VAERS are updated every week, and "include reports processed through the preceding Friday" according to database information.
And again, no matter what the number of reports are in the VAERS system, those reports have yet to be verified. To say that a certain number of deaths have been caused by the COVID-19 vaccines is to make assumptions from inconclusive evidence.
VAERS can detect true adverse events when used correctly. The government in April confirmed a handful of reports made to VAERS about women who experienced rare blood clotting following vaccination. In response, the FDA added a warning to the label and resumed administration of the vaccine. The incidents accounted for a tiny fraction of over 6.8 million Johnson & Johnson shots given at that point.
The CDC said in an email to PolitiFact that it hasn’t detected any unusual or unexpected patterns for deaths after immunization, but did confirm six deaths following the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which resulted from a rare but serious adverse reaction of thrombocytopenia syndrome, or blood clotting.
An Instagram post claims that there have been 1,621 deaths from the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, 4,799 from Moderna, 13,039 from Pfizer and 73 from unknown vaccines, and claims that this is an undercount because only 1% of people reported deaths.
Available data in VAERS does not confirm these figures. What’s more, VAERS can’t be used on its own to verify if a vaccine has caused an event. The government agencies that run the system warn that it accepts reports before verifying them, and reports can usually contain information that may have errors or lacks details.
We rate this claim False.
PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Instagram Post, Dec. 6, 2021
Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, About VAERS, accessed Dec. 7
VAERS, Guide to Interpreting VAERS Data, accessed Dec. 7
PolitiFact, Federal VAERS database is a critical tool for researchers, but a breeding ground for misinformation, May 3, 2021
PolitiFact, No truth that VAERS system shows 6,000 "died because of" COVID-19 vaccines, Aug. 9, 2021
PolitiFact, Report shares wildly unfounded claims on COVID-19 vaccine, Oct. 1, 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States, accessed Dec. 8, 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Selected Adverse Events Reported after COVID-19 Vaccination, Nov. 30, 2021
Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, VAERS Data, accessed Dec. 7, 2021
Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System Summary, accessed Dec. 9, 2021
COVID-19, CDC Recommends Use of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine Resume, updated Nov. 15, 2021
Email interview, Rita Shreffler, director of communications at Children’s Health Defense, Dec. 9, 2021
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