Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines safe for children, not linked to deaths

Daniel Funke
USA TODAY

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.

The article accumulated more than 3,500 shares within two days. Similar claims have also been shared in standalone posts on Facebook.

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."

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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.

Luke Quinlan, 8, receives a dose of the Pfizer pediatric COVID-19 vaccine from medical assistant Consuelo Valladolid on the first day of a clinic with the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics as his parents Sarah, left, and Jeff, comfort him

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.

For children, the risk of death from COVID-19 is low. But public health data shows they haven't been entirely spared from the virus.

"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.

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The benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine for children outweigh its known and potential risks, according to the CDC. The shot does not cause death.

"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.

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"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.

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"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.

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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." 

Nine-year-old Yyvian Hayashi receives her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5-11 during a mass vaccination clinic at Williams Elementary on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 in Springfield, Missouri.

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.

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