Misleading: While infection tends to grant better immunity than vaccination most of the time, getting the disease is associated with a higher risk of death and health complications. Vaccines generate immunity in people while avoiding the risks associated with the disease itself. The amount of spike protein generated by COVID-19 vaccination is too low to cause damage.
FULL CLAIM: “In May we have over 4,000 vaccine-related deaths and over 10,000 hospitalizations”; “Every scientist in the world knows that natural immunity is way better than vaccine immunity”; COVID-19 survivors “can't get the virus”, so they don’t need to be vaccinated; “We know that the vaccine technology produces the dangerous spike protein [...] which damages blood vessels and causes blood clotting”; “two months of observational data [...] That has never been done before. We have never just thrown a vaccine at somebody without having any data.”
An interview featuring Peter McCullough, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Texas A & M University, conducted by writer John Leake on 19 May 2021, was published as a video on Rumble by Fleccas Talks, a channel run by political commentator Austen Fletcher. The video was later shared on social media platforms like Facebook. According to the social media analytics tool CrowdTangle, videos of the interview drew more than 14,000 interactions on Facebook, including more than 7,200 shares.
The video also received a boost from American actor Rob Schneider, who shared the video on Twitter. Schneider’s tweet was retweeted more than 400 times and received more than 1,100 likes.
McCullough was also previously interviewed by Fox News host Tucker Carlson on 7 May 2021, during which he claimed that hydroxychloroquine is effective for treating COVID-19. As previous reviews by Health Feedback showed, there’s no reliable evidence supporting this claim.
During the interview with Leake, McCullough made several claims about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines. This review explains below why his claims are inaccurate, misleading and/or unsupported by evidence.
Claim 1 (Inaccurate):
“In May we have over 4,000 vaccine-related deaths and over 10,000 hospitalizations. […] this is far and away the most lethal toxic biologic agent ever injected into a human body in American history.”
McCullough didn’t cite his sources when stating these figures, but the ballpark figure of 4,000 has been cited before in another claim about COVID-19 vaccines. It may correspond to the number of reports of death occurring after a COVID-19 vaccination in the U.S. Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database.
VAERS collects reports of adverse events that occur after vaccination. Its purpose is to serve as a surveillance system that allows public health authorities to detect signals that may indicate potential safety problems.
However, VAERS reports have provided fertile ground for COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. VAERS clearly states that reports cannot be used to determine if the vaccine was the cause of an adverse event. But this hasn’t stopped people from claiming that COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe on the basis of VAERS reports alone (see previous reviews here, here, and here). In fact, citing VAERS reports as evidence that vaccines are harmful is a common feature of vaccine misinformation in general.
Furthermore, it is important to consider that the U.S. vaccinated more than 147 million people by early May 2021. In such a large group of people, we need to remember that incidental deaths and illnesses take place. Even in an unvaccinated population, a certain number of deaths are expected. As illustrated in this commentary in Science Translational Medicine:
“We’re talking about treating very, very large populations, which means that you’re going to see the usual run of mortality and morbidity that you see across large samples. Specifically, 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. I mean, if you reach a large enough population, you are literally going to have cases where someone gets the vaccine and drops dead the next day (just as they would have if they *didn’t* get the vaccine). It could prove difficult to convince that person’s friends and relatives of that lack of connection, though. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is one of the most powerful fallacies of human logic, and we’re not going to get rid of it any time soon.”
Therefore, it is necessary to compare the rate of the adverse event between the unvaccinated (baseline) and vaccinated groups. Only when the rate is significantly higher in the vaccinated group do researchers have grounds to hypothesize that there is a causal relationship. Indeed, such comparisons are what health authorities and regulatory agencies do when adverse events are reported.
As explained in this Health Feedback review, scientists observed that deaths haven’t occurred at a higher rate in vaccinated people as compared to unvaccinated people. Such an observation doesn’t support McCullough’s claim that COVID-19 vaccines cause death.
Claim 2 (Misleading):
“Every scientist in the world knows that natural immunity is way better than vaccine immunity.”
This claim is misleading, as it fails to provide the reader with enough information that would enable them to accurately compare both the benefits and risks of natural immunity with those of vaccine-induced immunity.
The Vaccine Education Center of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explained:
“It is true that natural infection almost always causes better immunity than vaccines. Whereas immunity from disease often follows a single natural infection, immunity from vaccines usually occurs only after several doses.”
But what McCullough didn’t tell viewers is that acquiring immunity through infection comes with the risks associated with the illness. The relatively low mortality rate of COVID-19 is commonly cited as a reason not to worry about catching the virus. But this focus on mortality rate alone doesn’t account for the fact that the virus is highly contagious, and can therefore still cause many deaths when it spreads widely. To date, more than 590,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, while COVID-19 deaths worldwide have exceeded 3.6 million.
Furthermore, COVID-19 can lead to other outcomes besides complete recovery and death. For example, a proportion of COVID-19 survivors have persistent health problems even after recovering from the infection. Some of these problems include difficulty breathing, cognitive deficits, joint and muscle pain. This condition is termed long COVID.
There is still a lot that scientists don’t know about long COVID, although work is underway to understand the condition better, as explained in these articles by Nature and Science. Long COVID is unpredictable, as described by Stephanie LaVergne, an infectious diseases researcher at Colorado State University, in this piece for The Conversation. For instance, it can affect the young as well as the elderly. Even those with a mild case of COVID-19 can eventually develop long COVID. The physical and mental toll of this condition can be detrimental to a person’s quality of life.
By contrast, COVID-19 vaccines confer immunity to disease, but aren’t associated with a greater likelihood of death or persistent health problems like the disease is. While the vaccines commonly cause side effects like fever, headache, and muscle aches, these are comparatively mild and short-lived compared to health complications from COVID-19.
Viral vector vaccines, like the AstraZeneca-Oxford and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, are indeed associated with a higher incidence of a rare blood clotting disorder. However, results reported in this preprint (a study not yet peer-reviewed by other scientists) suggest that the risk of blood clots from COVID-19 is several times higher than that observed with the vaccines.
Overall, if we compare the risks and benefits of natural immunity with that of vaccine-induced immunity, vaccine-induced immunity is preferable, since it induces protective immunity in a much safer manner than getting the disease.
Claim 3 (Inaccurate and Misleading):
COVID-19 survivors “can’t get the virus”, so they don’t need to be vaccinated.
This claim is inaccurate. As explained above, natural infection does produce protective immunity in most cases, but reinfection can and does happen. This suggests that not all survivors develop protective immunity from infection alone. It’s unclear how many COVID-19 survivors experience reinfection, as there isn’t enough data to make conclusions, although reinfection is thought to be uncommon.
The emergence of variants is a source of uncertainty regarding the protection provided by natural immunity. A study estimated that as many as two-thirds of people in the city of Manaus, Brazil were infected during the first wave of COVID-19. Even though this might have been expected to provide some immunity in the majority of the population, the city suffered a second wave of COVID-19 cases worse than the first one. One potential contributing factor to the more severe second wave could be the Gamma variant, also called P.1 and first detected in Brazil, which may be more transmissible.
Vaccination can help enhance COVID-19 survivors’ protective immunity. Firstly, vaccine boosters designed to target variants can further improve the immune system’s ability to respond to an infection by a variant, as Cassandra Berry, a professor of immunology at Murdoch University, explained in this article published by The Conversation.
Secondly, reinfection is difficult to predict, but individual variability in immunity can arise due to factors such as genetic susceptibility, age, and the amount of virus a person was exposed to (also known as infectious dose). Since vaccines are designed to produce optimal immunity, as Berry explained, vaccination can help to bridge the immunity gap in a survivor that didn’t generate protective immunity from infection alone.
Finally, some research suggests that one dose of vaccine in survivors produces an enhanced immune response strong enough to fight off variants[5,6], reported the New York Times.
In summary, COVID-19 survivors can get COVID-19 again, despite McCullough’s claim, although reinfection is thought to be uncommon. There is evidence demonstrating that vaccination is beneficial even for people who already had COVID-19.
Claim 4 (Misleading and Unsupported):
“We know that the vaccine technology produces the dangerous spike protein […] which damages blood vessels and causes blood clotting”
Vaccines work by exposing a person to a dead or weakened pathogen (disease-causing microorganism), or a part of the pathogen, like one of its proteins. This trains the person’s immune system to be ready to recognize and fight off the actual microorganism in a future encounter.
The claim that the spike protein generated by the COVID-19 vaccines poses a danger to people may be based—incorrectly as we will see—on recently published studies, as documented here by David Gorski, a professor of surgery at Wayne State University and an editor at Science-Based Medicine.
In one study by the Salk Institute, scientists engineered a pseudovirus that carried the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein on its surface. Gorski described pseudoviruses as “a construct that has the external proteins of the virus of interest”. Pseudoviruses don’t contain the actual virus and cannot replicate. This allows scientists to produce models that carry the same external characteristics of the virus they wish to study, without having to run the safety risks associated with studying the virus itself. The study reported that hamsters infected with the pseudovirus had signs of inflammation in the lungs.
But as one of the study’s senior authors Uri Manor pointed out on Twitter, the findings of the study can’t be extrapolated to the spike protein produced by COVID-19 vaccines. This is because the amount of spike protein produced by vaccines is far less than the spike protein present in the hamsters.
i’m going to give a full response asap. but quickly for the record:
1) the (relatively) small amount of spike protein produced by the mRNA vaccine would not be nearly enough to do any damage
2) i happily got the mRNA vaccine, FWIW
3) i encourage everyone to get it
— Uri Manor (@manorlaboratory) May 2, 2021
Furthermore, as Gorski pointed out, the study itself stated that the findings suggest vaccines would protect people from injury, not cause it:
“[The results suggest] that vaccination-generated antibody […] against [spike] protein not only protects the host from SARS-CoV-2 infectivity but also inhibits [spike] protein imposed endothelial injury.”
Endothelial cells are cells that line the inner walls of blood vessels. This contradicts McCullough’s claim that the spike protein from the vaccines would damage blood vessels.
Another study examined blood samples from people who received the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and detected spike protein in 11 out of 13 vaccinated people. However, this study also doesn’t provide evidence that the spike protein from vaccines causes damage, since the levels of spike protein detected were infinitesimal. Specifically, they were in the realm of picograms per milliliter. Gorski put this in perspective:
“That’s 10-12 grams/milliliter. What was the concentration used by Manor’s lab again? Oh, yes, 4 micrograms/milliliter. One microgram is 10-6 grams, or one million-fold more than one picogram!”
Overall, McCullough’s claim that vaccine-induced spike protein poses a danger to people isn’t substantiated by evidence. In fact, the available evidence contradicts his claim.
Claim 5 (Inaccurate):
“Two months for COVID, […] two months of observational data. This idea that we could vaccinate people that were not even tested in the trials. That has never been done before. We have never just thrown a vaccine at somebody without having any data.”
This is inaccurate. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines began Phase 3 trials. which assessed efficacy and safety, in July 2020 (see records in ClinicalTrials.gov here and here). Both received emergency use authorization (EUA) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December 2020 (see here and here), more than four months later.
Phase 3 clinical trials for the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine began in September 2020 and included more than 40,000 volunteers. The vaccine received EUA in February 2021.
Tens of thousands of volunteers were included in each vaccine’s Phase 3 clinical trial. In all cases, authorization was only given after the FDA evaluated the data on the vaccines’ efficacy and safety and concluded that the vaccines’ known and potential benefits outweigh their known and potential risks.
Claim 6 (Unsupported):
“This is what globalists have been waiting for, they’ve been waiting for a way of marking people, that you get in a vaccine, you’re marked in a database and this can be used for trade, for commerce, for behavior modification, all different purposes”
McCullough espoused the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 vaccination campaigns are being used for nefarious purposes to track people. This conspiracy theory gained traction in groups such as QAnon and vaccine-opposing organizations, as reported by BBC and Rolling Stone. The conspiracy theory commonly goes hand in hand with the false claim that the vaccines contain microchips (see fact-checks here and here). At any rate, McCullough didn’t provide any evidence for his claim.
- 1 – Taquet et al. (2021) Cerebral venous thrombosis and portal vein thrombosis: a retrospective cohort study of 537,913 COVID-19 cases. OSF. [Note: This is a preprint that has not yet been peer-reviewed or published.]
- 2 – Buss et al. (2021). Three-quarters attack rate of SARS-CoV-2 in the Brazilian Amazon during a largely unmitigated epidemic. Science.
- 3 – Faria et al. (2021) Genomics and epidemiology of the P.1 SARS-CoV-2 lineage in Manaus, Brazil. Science.
- 4 – Rouse and Sehrawat. (2010) Immunity and immunopathology to viruses: what decides the outcome? Nature Reviews Immunology.
- 5 – Turner et al. (2021) SARS-CoV-2 infection induces long-lived bone marrow plasma cells in humans. Nature.
- 6 – Wang et al. (2021) Vaccination boosts naturally enhanced neutralizing breadth to SARS-CoV-2 one year after infection. bioRxiv. [Note: This is a preprint that has not yet been peer-reviewed or published.]
- 7 – Lei et al. (2021) SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein Impairs Endothelial Function via Downregulation of ACE 2. Circulation Research.
- 8 – Ogata et al. (2021) Circulating SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine Antigen Detected in the Plasma of mRNA-1273 Vaccine Recipients. Clinical Infectious Diseases.