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Ciara O'Rourke
By Ciara O'Rourke December 17, 2021

Old Fauci comments about vaccine safety are being taken out of context

If Your Time is short

  • In March 2020, about a week after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci commented on the importance of safety trials and studies before approving or authorizing a vaccine for use in the United States. His comments are being taken out of context today and misconstrued so that it seems as though he’s suggesting the COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved are making infections worse. 

A clip of Dr. Anthony Fauci that’s being shared on Facebook, divorced from its original context, makes it seem that he’s suggesting COVID-19 vaccines could actually make people sicker. 

"Dr. Fauci opens up the possibility that the COVID-19 vaccine could be making people more likely to be infected by the virus," a caption over the video says. It then quotes Fauci as saying, "this would not be the first time, if it happened, that a vaccine that looked good in initial safety actually made people worse." 

But this video is from March 19, 2020, about a week after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and before vaccines for the virus were available. Fauci’s comments related to the need for thorough testing of any vaccine before distribution and he was posing a hypothetical.

This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The clip comes from a conversation between Fauci and Mark Zuckerberg, and it was livestreamed on Facebook. The part that’s pertinent to this fact-check starts around the 17:30 mark. 

"You mentioned a vaccine, there are conversations about other therapeutics," Zuckerberg said. "Maybe talk about where are we in the vaccine development, you just announced a first trial for phase one to test the safety. What’s the timeframe for having something like that go through all the different trials, how would we expedite that and what should people expect on that?"

"To give our viewers a perspective," Fauci replied, "if this were 10, 15, 20 years ago and it was for any vaccine that we wanted to make, you would say a vaccine from the time you start, from the time it’s approved, to be safe and effective, is several years, five, six, seven years. That’s unacceptable for now. So what happened is that as soon as we got the sequence of the virus from the Chinese, we pulled it out from the public database and stuck the gene into a vaccine platform and worked on it literally within a day of when it came out. Sixty-five days later, namely two days ago, we gave the first injection to a normal volunteer for a phase one trial to see if it’s safe. That’s the fastest it’s ever been done. That’s the good news. The challenging news is that even at that rocket speed, it’s going to take a few months to show that the initial safety is okay. Then you go into a phase two trial, which instead of involving 45 people, which we have in the phase one trial, it involves hundreds if not thousands of people. That will take another six to eight months to even know if it works. So, at the fastest we can go, it’s going to take a year to a year and a half to even know if we have a vaccine that we can use. So apropos of the question you asked me a moment ago, that if we cycle to another season, that's when the vaccine is going to be very relevant."

Zuckerberg then asked why the government doesn’t "push harder" on rolling vaccines out more aggressively after the safety trials "even if you don’t know how effective it is." 

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"What’s the public health rationale and thinking behind needing to prove that it’s extremely effective before rolling out something that you know is safe?" he said.

Fauci responded that the "initial safety study is to see, if I inject it in the arm, does it have some idiosyncratic or bad reaction."

But, he said, "there’s another element to safety, and that is if you vaccinate someone and they make an antibody response, and then they get exposed and infected, does the response that you induce actually enhance infection and make it worse, and the only way you’ll know that is if you do an extended study — not in a normal volunteer who has no risk of infection, but in people who are out there in a risk situation. This would not be the first time, if it happened, that a vaccine that looked good in initial safety actually made people worse."

He then gave some examples and said, "You can’t just go out there and give it unless you feel that in the field, when someone is getting infected and exposed, being vaccinated doesn’t make them worse. That’s why you’ve got to do a trial." 

In short: Fauci wasn’t, in the present day, suggesting that the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States could be making people more likely to be infected by the virus. He was talking nearly two years ago about the importance of safety trials and studies before approving the vaccines. 

We reached out to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where Fauci is the director, about the Facebook post. The agency told PolitiFact in an email that there’s always a theoretical risk of unintended events with any new vaccine. 

"This is why the development of candidate vaccines proceeds in a stepwise fashion, starting with laboratory studies, then progressing to studies in animal models that mimic the human immune response, and finally to carefully controlled human clinical trials where participants are monitored closely for any adverse events," the institute said. "After a candidate vaccine is authorized or approved by the FDA, rigorous post-marketing safety surveillance is conducted to identify even very rare safety concerns. This is precisely the process NIAID has followed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To date, the agency said, the COVID-19 vaccines approved or authorized for use in the United States had been administered to more than 485 million people "and have proved to be very safe and effective." 

We rate this post False. 


Our Sources

Facebook post, Dec. 13, 2021

Tweet, Dec. 13, 2021

Facebook livestream, March 19, 2020

Statement from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dec. 14, 2021


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Old Fauci comments about vaccine safety are being taken out of context

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