RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System is an easy way for people receiving the COVID-19 vaccines to let federal medical experts know precisely what side effects they might be dealing with.
It’s also become a treasure trove of data for vaccine skeptics — and misinformation has become a major problem during the massive inoculation effort.
“Misrepresentation of the data reduces people’s trust in vaccines,” said Dr. Lavanya Vasudevan of the Duke Global Health Institute. “And we know that vaccines are an important public health tool. So we don’t want people to take the data and use it in a way that it’s not meant to be used.”
The VAERS system allows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration to track possible side effects from vaccines.
Anyone can submit a report to the open public database — more than 19,000 reports have been filed related to the COVID-19 vaccines from North Carolina alone.
“What it is is just that — a report — and a report on wellness is not a confirmation that the health problem was caused by the vaccine or by the vaccination,” Vasudevan said.
But it takes much more than a report to VAERS to determine whether a vaccine is the cause of any side effects. For example, the 10-day pause last month in administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine came after reports of rare blood clots forming in women who received the shot. During the stoppage, a thorough investigation found the clots appeared in 15 women out of nearly 8 million people who received the shot.
“We actually encourage people to report health problems that they think are associated with vaccinations to VAERS because it provides very important data to the CDC and FDA and policymakers,” Vasudevan said. “And it highlights things that the CDC should follow up on. (The blood clots) were first reported through the various database, which then caused the CDC to pause and do an additional in-depth review of the vaccine and then issue guidance in response to that pause.”
But those skeptical of the vaccines have misinterpreted some of the numbers in the database — most notably, the nearly 4,200 death reports received since December among the hundreds of millions who have been given the shots.
The VAERS website explicitly says in bold type that a review of information including death certificates, autopsy and medical records “has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines,” though it does say reports indicate a “plausible causal relationship” between the J&J vaccine and the blood clots with low platelets that has led to deaths.
But for the overwhelming majority, “some of these deaths are just coincidental, have no relationship to the vaccine,” Vasudevan said.
It raises a question: Why has the database become the source for so much misinformation in the first place?
“There is some self-fulfilling prophecy for people who are already predisposed to be opposed to vaccines and/or believe that the vaccine manufacturer and medical groups and the government are not providing them with truthful details,” said Dr. David Weber of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “And that by looking at the raw data, they may uncover things that were not in the more defined data by the FDA or CDC or public health.”
Vasudevan says it has to do with confirmation bias.
“As human beings, we have a tendency to confirm our biases,” she said. “So we tend to take information that supports our own beliefs, our own suspicions, and we weigh it more than information that contradicts our beliefs and suspicions.
“We have seen this again and again where anti-vaccine entities tend to quote the various data a lot as a confirmation that vaccines cause injury,” she added. “The VAERS database is not supposed to be used like that. It’s just a report of health problems that have happened, or not all of which are associated with vaccinations.”