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Tucker Carlson’s misleading claim about deaths after COVID-19 vaccine
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Tucker Carlson was citing data from the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System database, or VAERS. The VAERS system is open to anyone, and reports to it are not verified, making it a breeding ground for misinformation about vaccine safety.
The entries in the VAERS database are not enough to determine whether a vaccine causes death or any other adverse event, experts said. People can die after getting vaccinated for any number of reasons unrelated to the vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed the death reports submitted to VAERS through May 3 and concluded that there’s no “causal link to COVID-19 vaccines.”
Fox News host Tucker Carlson suggested that thousands of Americans have died since December because of the COVID-19 vaccines, citing an unverified federal database that has become a breeding ground for anti-vaccine misinformation.
The comments were the latest in a series of controversial remarks by Carlson raising doubts about the vaccines, which clinical trials and real-world studies have shown are both safe and effective.
"Between late December of 2020 and last month, a total of 3,362 people apparently died after getting the COVID vaccine in the United States — 3,362," Carlson told millions of viewers during his primetime TV show May 5. "That’s an average of roughly 30 people every day."
"The actual number is almost certainly higher than that, perhaps vastly higher than that," he added. "It’s clear that what is happening now, for whatever reason, is not even close to normal."
Carlson said he was citing numbers from the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, an open-source database often misused by anti-vaccine activists to make false claims about vaccine safety. Experts rejected Carlson’s claim as misleading.
That’s because VAERS data is considered unreliable for drawing causal conclusions. And dying after a vaccine is not the same thing as dying because of the vaccine.
"It is exceptionally irresponsible for this man to claim that all these are causal associations. It’s wrong," said Dr. Paul Offit, the chair of vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. "He puts people’s lives at risk with bad information during a pandemic."
Unlike other official government sources, which flow through consistent reporting channels and get screened by statisticians and analysts before they are made available to the public, VAERS is an open-access system. The reports submitted are not verified before they become public.
"Anybody can report to it," Offit said. "If I get a vaccine, or I give my child a vaccine, and I believe that they have turned into the ‘Incredible Hulk,’ then I can write up a one-page report online and submit it, and that then is included. And that’s been done."
A disclaimer on the VAERS website says the "reports alone cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event or illness," in part because they "may include incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental and unverified information." People accessing the database must click an option that says that they’ve read and understand the disclaimer.
Offit said VAERS works best as "a hypothesis-generating mechanism" that can tip scientists off to issues for further study, such as the rare cases of blood clots that prompted the agency to recommend a temporary pause on use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
In this case, the CDC has analyzed all the reports of death among COVID-19 vaccine recipients that were submitted to VAERS between Dec. 14, 2020, and May 3.
"A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines," the agency concluded.
To establish causation, scientists need to find proof that an adverse event is significantly more common among vaccinated people than unvaccinated people. VAERS doesn’t provide enough data to do that.
As of May 5, nearly 150 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and many of the early shots went to older and more vulnerable people.
"When you’re giving a COVID-19 vaccine to elderly adults, there are going to be people who die shortly after vaccination because they would have died anyway," Dr. William Moss, executive director of Johns Hopkins’s International Vaccine Access Center, previously told PolitiFact.
An estimated 8,000 Americans die every day of all causes, according to the CDC.
Offit cited the case of baseball legend Hank Aaron, who died of natural causes — likely a stroke — weeks after getting his shot. Social media posts falsely claimed the vaccine killed him.
"You can get the vaccine and still die from other reasons," Offit said.
After his segment baselessly linking the COVID-19 vaccines to "roughly 30" deaths per day, Carlson interviewed Martin Kulldorff, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Kulldorff told Carlson that VAERS is "not a very useful system," in part because it doesn’t take into account "what is expected by chance" in terms of adverse reactions.
Carlson has questioned the vaccines and U.S. vaccination efforts on several occasions. In April, we rated Pants on Fire his claim that, "Maybe it doesn’t work, and they’re simply not telling you that." Fox News defended that statement by pointing to other instances where Carlson claimed to support vaccines, such as when he said he is "pretty pro-vaccine."
Elsewhere in his May 5 segment, Carlson similarly said the "vaccines aren’t dangerous" based on "the official numbers."
But his claim about thousands of deaths is wrong. On Facebook, a video of the claim was viewed more than 155,000 times, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.
The video 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.)
Carlson said, "Between late December of 2020 and last month, a total of 3,362 people apparently died after getting the COVID vaccine in the United States … The actual number is almost certainly higher."
That’s highly misleading. The source of Carlson’s numbers is the VAERS database, which is often exploited by anti-vaccine activists to make false vaccine claims. The CDC analyzed the VAERS death reports and concluded that there’s no "causal link to COVID-19 vaccines."
People can die after getting vaccinated for any number of reasons unrelated to the vaccine.
We rate Carlson’s statement False.
Fox News, "Tucker Carlson Tonight," May 5, 2021
Fox News, "Tucker Carlson: How many Americans have died after taking the COVID vaccine?" May 6, 2021
Facebook posts, May 6, 2021
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "VAERS Data," accessed May 6, 2021
The Washington Post, "Tucker Carlson’s worst vaccine segment yet," May 6, 2021
CNN, "Tucker Carlson's Fox News colleagues call out his dangerous anti-vaccination rhetoric," May 6, 2021
Media Matters for America, "Tucker Carlson's blatant lie about the COVID-19 vaccines, debunked," May 6, 2021
The Daily Beast, "Tucker Carlson Makes BS Claim ‘30 People Every Day’ Are Dying From Vaccines. Here’s the Truth," May 5, 2021
Forbes, "Tucker Carlson Says Vaccine-Related Deaths May Be Abnormally High — But Vaccines Haven't Been Linked To Deaths," May 5, 021
Craig Spencer MD MPH on Twitter, May 5, 2021
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Selected Adverse Events Reported after COVID-19 Vaccination," May 5, 2021
Reuters, "Fact Check-VAERS data does not prove thousands died from receiving COVID-19 vaccines," April 2, 2021
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "QuickStats: Average Daily Number of Deaths,* by Month — United States, 2017," July 5, 2019
PolitiFact, "Federal VAERS database is a critical tool for researchers, but a breeding ground for misinformation," May 3, 2021
PolitiFact, "Tucker Carlson falsely claims COVID-19 vaccines might not work," April 15, 2021
PolitiFact, "COVID-19 vaccines have not led to 6,000% increase in patient deaths, as post suggests," April 6, 2021
PolitiFact, "Deaths after vaccination don’t prove that COVID-19 vaccine is lethal," Feb. 16, 2021
Correspondence with Fox News, May 6, 2021
Email interview with Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, May 6, 2021
Phone interview with Paul A. Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and chair of vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, May 6, 2021
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