The claim: CDC data shows 'more children will die' from the COVID-19 vaccine than the virus
Public health officials are encouraging all American adults to receive COVID-19 booster shots due to the emergence of the omicron variant. Meanwhile, children are still receiving their first doses of the vaccine.
But online, some claim children face more risk from the vaccine than COVID-19 itself.
"HUGE: CDC and Big Pharma Data Confirm that More Children will Die from COVID Vaccine than from the COVID Virus," reads a Nov. 21 headline from the Gateway Pundit, a conservative website that has repeatedly shared misinformation about COVID-19.
As evidence for its claim, the Gateway Pundit cites an Oct. 31 Substack newsletter from Toby Rogers, who also writes for the anti-vaccine organization Children's Health Defense. The newsletter claims "the Biden administration plan would kill 5,248 children via Pfizer mRNA shots."
USA TODAY previously rated False a claim that children are 50 times more likely to die from the COVID-19 vaccine than the virus. This claim is similarly wrong.
Public health officials say the vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech is safe and effective at preventing COVID-19 in children ages 5-11. As other independent fact-checking organizations have reported, the benefits of the vaccine outweigh its known and potential risks.
"Over 700 children have died due to COVID-19 in the United States," Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a professor in the departments of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Florida, said in an email. "I am not aware of any deaths in children that have been attributed to the COVID-19 vaccine."
USA TODAY reached out to the Gateway Pundit for comment.
COVID-19 vaccine safe for children
In early November, the CDC recommended the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech for children ages 5-11. That decision was based on a number of small clinical trials – reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration – that found no serious side effects associated with the shot.
"By vaccinating children age 5 and older, we can help protect them from getting COVID-19 and protect them from severe disease, hospitalizations or developing long-term COVID-19 complications," Scott Pauley, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an email.
"There is no evidence to support these claims," Kit Longley, a Pfizer spokesperson, said of the Gateway Pundit article. "The FDA, CDC and health authorities around the world have reviewed data on the vaccine and recommend its use."
Longley pointed to data from Pfizer's clinical trials, which found the vaccine was safe and more than 90% effective at preventing COVID-19 in children ages 5-11. No deaths linked to the vaccine were recorded.
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Additionally, no deaths were reported in Pfizer vaccine trials for those 12 to 25 years old. Trials from Moderna, whose COVID-19 vaccine uses the same technology as Pfizer's, had a similar result for children ages 12-17.
"Serious health events after COVID-19 vaccination are rare but may occur," Pauley said. "However, the risk of serious complications related to COVID-19 infection ... are greater than the risks of myocarditis or pericarditis, hospitalization or death from vaccination."
USA TODAY reached out to the FDA for comment.
VAERS data not proof of vaccine deaths
The claim in Rogers' newsletter is partially based on a distortion of data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, commonly referred to as VAERS.
Public health agencies use VAERS as a "national early warning system" to detect possible safety problems associated with approved vaccines. Anyone, from vaccine recipients to manufacturers, can submit reports of adverse events following vaccination.
The 5,248 figure in the newsletter stems from a paper that claims VAERS undercounts fatal reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines by a factor of 41. Rogers then multiplied that number by 128 reports of death among Pfizer and Moderna vaccine recipients ages 12-24.
"The Pfizer data is so bad that it's useless," Rogers said in an email. "So I developed a 'best guess under the circumstances.'"
But his math is built on invalid assumptions, experts say.
As USA TODAY has previously reported, VAERS reports are unverified and cannot be used to determine whether an adverse event was caused by a vaccine. Dr. Sean O'Leary, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Campus, said anti-vaccine activists frequently use the database to spread misinformation.
"One cannot determine causality with VAERS," he told USA TODAY in an email. "Just because something is reported after vaccination in VAERS absolutely does not mean that the vaccine was the cause."
Martha Sharan, a spokesperson for the CDC's COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, said in an email that monitoring systems "have found no evidence that COVID-19 vaccination is causing – or contributing to – deaths in children."
"Specifically, no deaths in children after COVID-19 vaccination have been reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System where conclusive evidence demonstrated COVID-19 vaccination caused the patient’s death," she said.
VAERS says on its website that underreporting is a limitation of the system, but "more serious and unexpected medical events are probably more likely to be reported than minor ones." Al Ozonoff, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, confirmed that in a phone interview with USA TODAY.
Ozonoff, whose research is focused on public health surveillance, said he's not aware of any evidence-based estimates for the extent to which VAERS underreports fatal reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine – as Rogers attempted to do.
"In general, it's very challenging to estimate underreporting for surveillance systems," he said. "What I see here is not an especially rigorous derivation of the estimate."
Our rating: False
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that CDC data shows "more children will die" from the COVID-19 vaccine than the virus. The CDC and several experts say that's not the case.
Pfizer's vaccine has been found to be safe and effective at preventing COVID-19 in children ages 5-11. While rare serious side effects are possible, the shot has not been linked to any deaths – while children have died from contracting COVID-19. The claim is based on a distortion of VAERS data, which experts say has not shown any causal link between vaccines and deaths in children.
Our fact-check sources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed Nov. 30, COVID Data Tracker: COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States
CrowdTangle, accessed Nov. 30
Factcheck.org, Nov. 24, Benefits Outweigh Risks of Pediatric COVID-19 Vaccine, Contrary to Posts Misusing VAERS Data
Food and Drug Administration, Oct. 29, FDA Authorizes Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine for Emergency Use in Children 5 through 11 Years of Age
Nature, July 15, Deaths from COVID ‘incredibly rare’ among children
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed Nov. 30, Provisional COVID-19 Deaths: Focus on Ages 0-18 Years
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nov. 22, Myths and Facts about COVID-19 Vaccines for Children
Kit Longley, Nov. 24, email exchange with USA TODAY
The New England Journal of Medicine, Nov. 9, Evaluation of the BNT162b2 Covid-19 Vaccine in Children 5 to 11 Years of Age
Scott Pauley, Nov. 23, email exchange with USA TODAY
USA TODAY, April 30, Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines don’t cause death, won’t decimate world’s population
Food and Drug Administration, April 9, Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine EUA Amendment Review Memorandum
The New England Journal of Medicine, Aug. 11, Evaluation of mRNA-1273 SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine in Adolescents
Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, accessed Nov. 30, About VAERS
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed Nov. 30, Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS)
Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, accessed Nov. 30, Guide to Interpreting VAERS Data
Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, Nov. 30, Email exchange with USA TODAY
Yale Medicine, Nov. 19, Comparing the COVID-19 Vaccines: How Are They Different?
David Benkeser, Nov. 30, email exchange with USA TODAY
Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, accessed Nov. 30, Number Needed to Treat (NNT)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nov. 2, EtR Framework: Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in children aged 5–11 years
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Aug. 30, Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and myocarditis in individuals aged 16-29 years: Benefits-Risk Discussion
Toby Rogers, Nov. 30, email exchange with USA TODAY
Al Ozonoff, Dec. 1, phone interview with USA TODAY
Martha Sharan, Dec. 1, email exchange with USA TODAY
Dr. Sean O'Leary, Dec. 1, email exchange with USA TODAY
Lili Zhao, Dec. 1, email exchange with USA TODAY
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: More children will not die from vaccine than COVID-19