Incorrect: The claim that COVID-19 vaccines can cause the disease is baseless as they don’t contain a fully functional SARS-CoV-2 virus. The four COVID-19 vaccines distributed in the U.S. only contain a fragment of it: the spike protein or the genetic information to produce it.
FULL CLAIM: “67% of the deaths are from the vaccinated”; “You continue to talk about vaccinating our children, yet 67% of your COVID deaths that you’re creating are from your virus that you’re putting within these people”
Large clinical trials conducted in several countries, as well as post-marketing surveillance showed that COVID-19 vaccines were effective at protecting against severe forms of the disease and that their benefits outweigh their possible risks.
Still, claims that COVID-19 vaccines were useless because COVID-19 mortality was higher among vaccinated than unvaccinated people have repeatedly circulated on social media. Health Feedback previously showed that such claims were inaccurate and usually stemmed from flawed analysis of mortality data.
A local San Diego news station relayed such a claim, made by a person identified as Shaun Frederickson on 17 August 2022. During a public hearing at the San Diego Public Board of Supervisors, Frederikson suggested that COVID-19 vaccines aren’t effective as “67% of the [COVID-19] deaths [in San Diego county] are from vaccinated [people]”. Frederikson then went further and attributed the responsibility of these deaths to the vaccine itself, by declaring “You continue to talk about vaccinating our children, yet 67% of your COVID deaths that you’re creating are from your virus that you’re putting within these people”. However, these claims are misleading and inaccurate, as we show below.
Comparing mortality rates among vaccinated and unvaccinated groups needs to account for population sizes
First, the proportion of fully vaccinated individuals among COVID-19 deaths isn’t evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are useless. This is because mortality data are subject to several biases that must be taken into account first.
The Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) of San Diego county indicated that 67% of COVID-19 deaths during the three months to 18 August 2022 are among vaccinated people—either fully vaccinated or fully vaccinated and boosted (Figure 1).
Figure 1. COVID-19 death counts in San Diego county by vaccination status, during the three months prior to 18 August 2022, as reported by HHSA. The percentages are relative to the total of deaths. Data aren’t adjusted for population size.
However, this must be analyzed in light of the vaccination coverage of the county. This is because the size of a population will influence the crude number of deaths observed within this population, as Health Feedback explained here.
Briefly, even though pre-clinical and clinical data demonstrated the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in reducing the risk of severe disease, they don’t offer 100% protection. So, COVID-19 deaths are still expected among a small proportion of vaccinated individuals. As the vaccine coverage increases, the number of COVID-19 deaths among vaccinated people naturally increases as well. Not because the virus is becoming deadlier or because the vaccine protection is waning, but simply because this population is larger.
Official data showed that the COVID-19 vaccination coverage in San Diego county is 83%, as of 17 August 2022. Therefore, the vaccinated population is much larger than the unvaccinated population. Not accounting for this size difference thus generates an important statistical bias. Interestingly, HHSA also provided population-adjusted mortality data. This corrected statistic and the crude death count that Frederikson cited all came from the same HHSA documents. Yet, Frederikson only used the biased figure.
Once the size difference between the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations is taken into account, it becomes clear that the COVID-19 death rate is consistently higher among unvaccinated individuals. Starting July 2022, it was more than twice as high among unvaccinated individuals than among vaccinated ones (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Counts of COVID-19 deaths in San Diego county by vaccination status, during the three months prior to 18 August 2022, as reported by HHSA. Deaths are reported as deaths per million individuals for each population, and are therefore adjusted for the population size.
In summary, the crude mortality count as reported by Frederikson isn’t very informative owing to the existence of a statistical bias. This could mislead people into believing that the COVID-19 vaccines are useless, whereas adjusted data show that unvaccinated individuals are more at risk of dying from COVID-19.
The COVID-19 vaccines do not contain SARS-CoV-2
The second claim by Frederikson that the vaccines themselves caused the COVID-19 deaths of vaccinated people is also baseless. First, Frederikson claims that the process of vaccination involves a “virus that [health authorities] are putting within [vaccinated] people”. However, only one out of the four COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the U.S. uses a virus. Indeed, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses an adenovirus that can’t replicate, whereas the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines use mRNA-containing nanoparticles, and the Novavax uses protein-containing nanoparticles. The Johnson & Johnson adenovirus only accounts for 7.6% of vaccinations across the U.S. as of 18 August 2022. Therefore, the large majority of vaccinated individuals didn’t receive any virus whatsoever.
Second, none of these vaccines contained the full genetic material to produce a functional SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. The Novavax vaccine only contains the spike protein, the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNtech vaccines contain the mRNA with the genetic information to produce that spike protein within the body’s cells, and the Johnson & Johnson also contains the genetic information of the spike inserted in an adenovirus genome.
While the spike protein is essential for SARS-CoV-2 to infect cells, the virus is more complex and contains other genes and proteins. Therefore, none of these vaccines can cause COVID-19. Besides, the spike protein produced from vaccination hasn’t been shown to be harmful.
In summary, 67% of deaths from COVID-19 in San Diego county indeed occurred among fully vaccinated people. However, this statistic doesn’t indicate that COVID-19 vaccines are useless or dangerous, as it doesn’t consider the larger size of the vaccinated population. In fact, the COVID-19 mortality rate is consistently higher among unvaccinated people. Furthermore, COVID-19 vaccines don’t cause COVID-19. None of the vaccines authorized in the U.S. contain the full SARS-CoV-2 virus necessary to cause the disease.