This article was published before the MHRA announced a possible link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and a very rare type of blood clot, which can be fatal. It was correct at the time of writing. Our latest fact checks about Covid-19 and the pandemic can be found here.
Facebook users have shared links to several websites which misreport government data on Covid-19 vaccines. These websites claim the data shows that 460 people have died in the UK because of the Covid-19 vaccine, and 243,612 have suffered “injuries”. This is not true.
These figures come from the UK’s Yellow Card scheme, which collects and monitors information on safety concerns involving medicines and medical devices, such as suspected side effects or “adverse incidents”, to provide an early warning of any previously unknown risks. To do this, it relies on voluntary reporting from medics and members of the public. These reports are known as suspected adverse reactions, or ADRs.
But it is important to note that just because an adverse incident occurs after a vaccination, this does not mean that it was caused by a vaccination.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has said: “The nature of Yellow Card reporting means that reported events are not always proven side effects. Some events may have happened anyway, regardless of vaccination.
“This is particularly the case when millions of people are vaccinated, and especially when most vaccines are being given to the most elderly people and people who have underlying illness.”
It asks for any suspicions about adverse effects to be reported, even if the person reporting it is not sure that it was caused by the vaccine. This means that many suspected ADRs reported “do not have any relation to the vaccine or medicine and it is often coincidental that they both occurred around the same time.”
The MHRA releases separate breakdowns of reports for the Pfizer vaccine and the AstraZeneca vaccine, as well as reports where the vaccine brand was not specified. The figures referred to by the websites shared on Facebook cover the period from 9 December 2020 to 21 February 2021, and were published on 4 March.
These show that a total of 29,715 reports were received about the Pfizer vaccine in this period, detailing 85,179 reactions and 212 fatalities. For the AstraZeneca vaccine there were 42,917 reports, detailing 157,637 reactions and 244 deaths, while for there were 228 reports that did not specify a vaccine brand, featuring 796 reactions and four deaths.
This means the websites are correct to mention 460 deaths and 243,612 reactions, but they are wrong to suggest these are definitely caused by the vaccine.
The MHRA’s summary of this data states that analysis of individual reports of deaths “does not suggest the vaccine played a role” and the majority of fatal reports were in “elderly people or people with underlying illness”.
For non-fatal serious suspected ADRs, it said they “all remain under continual review [...] There are currently no indications of specific patterns or rates of reporting that would suggest the vaccine has played a role”.
It adds: “A high proportion of people vaccinated in the vaccination campaign so far are very elderly, many of whom will also have pre-existing medical conditions. Older age and chronic underlying illnesses make it more likely that coincidental adverse events will occur, especially given the millions of people vaccinated.”
We took a stand for good information.
After we published this fact check, we contacted the MHRA to suggest that their warning, that a report of suspected adverse drug reaction does not necessarily mean the vaccine caused that effect, needed to be more prominent on their website.
In response, the MHRA took action by including a warning about what a Yellow Card report means at the top of each analysis print, as well as putting it higher up in their weekly report.
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