COVID-19 fake news concept illustration.

COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation and the Anti-Vaccine Movement

By Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

The anti-vaccine movement is aggressively working to promote misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, up to and including promoting fake claims of deaths from vaccines. We need to be aware of its efforts, and be prepared to respond.

It’s worth emphasizing that this blog post is focused on the anti-vaccine movement, not people with concerns about vaccines (the “vaccine hesitant”).

In relation to COVID-19, anti-vaccine activists have aggressively promoted misinformation from the start of the pandemic.

In March 2020, anti-vaccine activists incorrectly alleged – by misrepresenting a study – that flu vaccines increase COVID-19 risks. In June, anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree described COVID-19 as a “cold,” blamed those who died for their own deaths, and called on his followers to “catch that cold.”

And from the beginning, anti-vaccine activists were committed to the ideas that COVID-19 vaccines would not work, would be dangerous, and would be promoted by a nefarious global conspiracy. They continue to spread these allegations, for example, using the fact that there are liability protections for COVID-19 vaccines to imply the vaccines are dangerous. Liability protections for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers are real; but they are not evidence that the vaccines are unsafe.

This post will focus on one type of misinformation: alleged deaths from COVID-19 vaccines.

In a prescient article from December 4, 2020 – before either Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna’s vaccine was authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use – Dr. Derek Lowe warned us about coming “false side effects” from COVID-19 vaccines. He reminded us that:

“…if you take 10 million people and just wave your hand back and forth over their upper arms, in the next two months you would expect to see about 4,000 heart attacks. About 4,000 strokes. Over 9,000 new diagnoses of cancer. And about 14,000 of that ten million will die, out of usual all-causes mortality. No one would notice. That’s how many people die and get sick anyway.

But if you took those ten million people and gave them a new vaccine instead, there’s a real danger that those heart attacks, cancer diagnoses, and deaths will be attributed to the vaccine.”

It is inevitable that, with millions of people vaccinated, some adverse events will happen subsequently, by coincidence alone. And it is inevitable that the anti-vaccine movement will take advantage of that to create fear and doubt. But they have done more.

The Anti-Vaccine Movement Spreads Fake Death Stories

In at least four cases that I know of, the anti-vaccine movement has made baseless claims that people have died from COVID-19 vaccines.

The most extreme example is nurse Tiffany Dover, who fainted for a moment after her vaccine – and immediately revived. Anti-vaccine activists claimed that she died, and the claim is still being spread on Facebook, along with her personal photos, a fake obituary, and attacks on her and her family. There is even a Facebook group seeking “Justice for Tiffany Dover” (who is not dead).

In another case, an unnamed screenshot alleged that the speaker’s aunt, a nurse in Alabama, died. But the Alabama health department checked and found no such death.

Another young woman had to go online and make a video alerting viewers to the fact that she is not, in fact, dead. The fourth claim, too, involved an unnamed screenshot of someone’s mother-in-law. Maybe the mother-in-law died, but there is no evidence to indicate it. Nonetheless, the unnamed screenshot is shared as fact on anti-vaccine sites.

The Anti-Vaccine Movement Claims Deaths Unrelated – or Potentially Unrelated – to Vaccines

In addition to blaming the vaccine for deaths that did not, as far as we can tell, happen, anti-vaccine activists are also attributing deaths caused by COVID-19 to the vaccine.

The first example I saw of this was the tragic tale of nurse Jennifer Lee McClung, who died from COVID-19 complications at the age of 54. Anti-vaccine activists shared her story, alleging that she died from the vaccine – although her death occurred before she could reasonably get vaccinated.

On a larger scale, anti-vaccine activists tried to blame deaths of nursing home residents, also from COVID-19, on vaccines – although the fatal outbreak began before vaccines were given, and the victims were unvaccinated.

Other stories are less clear, but lack of clarity does not prevent anti-vaccine activists from seizing on them. For example, a report on the Norwegian Medicines Agency’s investigation of 23 deaths after the vaccine – with a cautious recommendation to consider not vaccinating the most frail patients, for whom even mild symptoms can trigger issues – became, on anti-vaccine sites, a claim that these 23 deaths were caused by the vaccines, which is not what the report from Norway claimed.

We can expect anti-vaccine activists to continue to present deaths after vaccines – or even, as the first two examples show, deaths without a vaccine – as vaccine-related on little or no evidence, or against the evidence. These claims will be spread by their believers online.

What Can We Do?

As these examples show, anti-vaccine organizations and activists do not hesitate to promote and spread claims about COVID-19 that are, at best, unproven, and, at worst, flatly untrue. What can we do?

First, it is important to raise awareness of the fact that such claims exist and are spread, and to encourage everyone to be cautious in evaluating claims of vaccine harms.

Some sources are simply unreliable. For example, the anti-vaccine organizations Children’s Health Defense, led by activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has a long history of spreading misinformation (most recently through its new publication, The Defender). So does the anti-vaccine organization Informed Consent Action Network, led by activist Del Bigtree. Any content shared from these sources should be approached with caution.

Take caution when encountering anonymous claims, unverified claims, and conspiracy-based claims apply here. Even testimony from named individuals may be false or misleading. In a viral video, a woman who alleged she was nurse Khalilah Mitchell from Tennessee claimed she received the COVID-19 vaccine and it gave her Bell’s Palsy. But there is no such nurse anywhere in the United States, and the only woman in Tennessee named Khalilah Mitchell works at a bakery, and was not, at the time, in any of the priority groups receiving the vaccine.

At the other side of the spectrum are traditionally reliable sources. The World Health Organization has a list of sites on vaccines from around the world that have been evaluated and shown to meet “good information practices criteria.”

Second, fast debunking or prebunking of anti-vaccine misinformation will continue to be important. Mainstream media increased their efforts there, which helps, but much of this is still done by the people who have been debunking anti-vaccine misinformation for over a decade.

Third, promoting accurate information about vaccine risks – and benefits – as they appear will continue to be important, too. If reliable sources directly address issues that do come up – like allergic reactions – the claim of harms being hidden will be less plausible.

Fourth, the efforts of social media to reduce the spread of misinformation are helpful, albeit imperfect. Social media uses blunt instruments, and is often slow to respond.

Combatting anti-vaccine misinformation is a constant effort, and will need to stay front and center as a priority. Anti-vaccine misinformation is not just spurious and wrong; it also may contribute to vaccine hesitancy among the broader public, which in turn will hinder national and global public health efforts.

Dorit Reiss

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss is a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Increasingly, her research and activities are focused on legal issues related to vaccines, including exemption laws and tort liability related to non-vaccination. She published law review and peer reviewed articles and many blog posts on legal issues related to vaccines. She received an undergraduate degree in Law and Political Science (1999, Magna cum Laude) from the Faculty of Law in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She received her Ph.D. from the Jurisprudence and Social Policy program in UC Berkeley. She is a member of the Parents Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, and active in vaccine advocacy in other ways. She is also a Member of the Vaccine Working Group on Ethics and Policy (http://vaccineworkinggroupethics.org/).

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