On May 5, Fox News host Tucker Carlson lied that “almost 4,000 people” have “died after getting the COVID vaccines” and argued that the current vaccination campaign is the “single deadliest mass vaccination event in modern history.” There is no credible evidence to support Carlson’s claims about the vaccines, which are safe and effective. Instead, Carlson was misrepresenting unreliable information from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS — a public government database where individuals can self-report supposed adverse events following a vaccination.
And months before Carlson used the database to promote anti-vaccine misinformation, similar theories were circulating on fringe online platforms.
In reality, a majority of the reactions listed on VAERS appear coincidental and are likely not caused by vaccines; a disclaimer on the site urges users to consider that the information may be “incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable.” But Carlson and other more fringe right-wing media figures are now seizing on the data to undermine public confidence in the vaccines, after similar conspiracy theories circulated on online platforms for months.
Before Carlson’s May 5 monologue, anti-vaccine figures like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. were highlighting reports in VAERS to suggest that the vaccines are deadly or pose a specific risk to children. Some claimed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and VAERS were actually manipulating data to conceal the true dangers of the vaccines. VAERS-related misinformation is also often translated into Spanish, which boosts the false claims and fearmongering to a wider audience.
And now that these fringe narratives have been reinforced by the face of Fox News, other right-wing media figures are echoing Carlson’s claims. The day after his monologue, Turning Point USA founder and podcaster Charlie Kirk claimed on his show that “according to the official website of the government, 3,362 people apparently died after getting the Chinese corona vaccine in the United States.” Kirk explained, “We’re just following what Tucker had to say and asking questions.”
False claim: CDC/VAERS data shows how deadly vaccines are
In early February, many anti-vaccine social media accounts started using VAERS data to suggest there were severe adverse side effects or alleged deaths caused by the vaccines. A pattern quickly emerged in which users would appropriate numbers from VAERS to claim that adverse reactions were increasing, without noting that the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration review each reported case of death and have found that there is no causal link to the COVID-19 vaccines. However, the CDC has also reported that there is a plausible link between the Johnson & Johnson vaccines and cases of rare blood clotting -- which have led to deaths. In other instances, vaccine opponents have randomly selected reported cases of individual deaths from the VAERS database without clarifying that the VAERS data is unverified in order to amplify the narrative that vaccines are lethal.
The following posts are examples of how vaccine opponents utilize VAERS data to fearmonger about adverse side effects without providing nuance or information about the overall efficacy and low risks of the vaccines.
- On Twitter, anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote:
- TRUMPINTEL, a conspiracy theory Telegram channel, posted a screenshot of the database, writing: “Adverse Reactions From COVID-19 Vaccine from CDC (VAERS) Database.”
- CV19 Vaccine Reactions, an anti-vax Telegram channel, circulated this post: “16 years old. The HCW that submitted her VAERS report noted that she was on birth control. If you didn’t already know, oral birth control medication carries a risk of pulmonary embolism. Turns out, so do ALL (yep… look at VAERS) of these Covid vaccines.”
- An anti-vax video on the streaming platform BitChute used VAERS data to push unverified reports of deaths allegedly caused by the vaccine, titled “VAERS - ‘NOT SERIOUS’ DESIGNATION ACCOUNTING FOR 67% OF ALL EVENTS EVEN SOME DEATHS.”
- An anonymous 4chan user posted a thread titled “VAERS - Killer vaccine lots identified,” in which they alleged that “the vast majority of vaccine adverse events (miscarriage, death, etc) are caused by a tiny minority of vaccine lots” that could be tracked throughout the country using VAERS data.
False claim: CDC/VAERS is concealing casualties
Some anti-vaxxers falsely claim that VAERS and the CDC are purposely altering statistics or facing significant backlogs in reports and therefore releasing erroneous or false information about vaccine-related side effects and deaths. The CDC and FDA co-manage VAERS and investigate any potential adverse side effects based on the self-reported data. Although the CDC, FDA, and VAERS are all part of the same system, reported numbers may look different at any given time until reported data can be cross-referenced.
- Conservative author and Fox News favorite Alex Berenson tweeted on April 30 that the VAERS backlog was suspicious, claiming that the total number of VAERS reports was higher in one week than would typically be seen in an entire year. However, Berenson left out the fact that because vaccines are now accessible to more age groups, it is likely that adverse reaction reports would be more common.
- Along the same lines, QAnon influencer Mel Q claimed on the fringe far-right platform Gab that the CDC was “quietly” altering the total death count from 6% to 5% without clarifying that as more people get infected with COVID-19, more data will be available and allow for updated morbidity statistics.
- A user on Patriots.win, a pro-Trump message board that was founded after r/The_Donald was removed from Reddit, posted an article titled “CDC Witholding Information: 1,170 DEAD Following COVID Injections – Almost Twice as Many Deaths as Found in VAERS,” which claimed that the CDC is altering information to suppress the number of deaths being reported by VAERS data.
- An anonymous 4chan user posted a thread titled “HAPPENING: Thousands have died due to taking the COVID vaccine being swept under rug.” The user claimed not only that two 15-year-olds had died after receiving the vaccine, but also that hundreds of women are experiencing adverse reactions -- and that all of these cases are being covered up.
False claim: VAERS data proves that vaccines are dangerous for children
Claiming that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous for minors is another common false narrative that vaccine opponents push using cherry-picked examples of VAERS data. With the recent announcement that the FDA has approved the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents ages 12-15, vaccine opponents are doubling down on using VAERS data to push the narrative that vaccines are hazardous to those under the age of 18.
For instance, Berenson used unverified VAERS reports of an infant dying shortly after being exposed to a COVID-19 vaccine to suggest that these vaccines are lethal. Many other anti-vax influencers go further and claim children do not need to be vaccinated because they will not be affected by COVID-19. (Although children are less likely to develop severe illness than adults, according to the CDC, they can still develop serious illness or complications from COVID-19.)
- A Patriots.win user cited Berenson’s tweet to claim that “VAERS reports a breastfeeding five-month old infant has died of TTP - a rare clotting disorder linked to, yes, low platelets. He became ill one day after his mother received her second Pfizer shot. (Blood clots is an issue with the mRNAs as well as with AZ & JNJ).”
- Dr. Craig Wax, who seemingly promotes anti-vax content on social media, posted a tweet saying: “There is no compelling reason to VAX healthy 16-year-old who’s risk of infectious disease complication is near nil but is now dead due to government, FDA and CDC lack of caution.”
- A Patriots.Win user reposted a 4chan thread citing VAERS data and wrote: “HERE WE GO, IT'S HAPPENING. KIDS DON'T HAVE A HARD TIME WITH COVID BUT DO WITH THE VACCINE.”
VAERS misinformation is often translated into Spanish
Beyond the spread of misinformation narratives featuring selective misrepresentation of VAERS data in English, these same claims are often being translated into Spanish. Anti-vaccine sources like Natural News promote misleading claims involving VAERS, which are then translated into Spanish by right-wing outlets like Tierra Pura as well as by various influencers and channels on Telegram. These translated misinformation narratives are often shared across several Spanish-language Telegram channels, highlighting just how far these inaccurate claims based on VAERS data can spread -- even without the help of Tucker Carlson or Fox News.
For example, a Spanish-language Telegram channel with more than 6,000 followers translated a Natural News article titled “The genocide continues through the vaccines, as the CDC scrambles to deceive the public.” This translation was then repeatedly shared to other groups, increasing the misinformation’s spread.
- Q AnonPeru, a Spanish-language Telegram account that frequently promotes QAnon content, posted (translated): “Genocide continues through vaccines, as CDC rushes to mislead the public.”
- Another popular Spanish-language conspiracy theory channel, Resurgente 2020, posted (translated): “Explosive rise in deaths following vaccination in the U.S. As of mid-April 2021, the CDC VAERS database already shows 768% more suspicious cases than reported in 2020. The ratios in the timeline impressively illustrate just how “safe” DR. MENGELE's 1984 COVID PROTOCOL vaccines are in reality.”