Comparisons between deaths reported after swine flu and Covid-19 vaccines are misleading

30 July 2021
What was claimed

Thirty-two deaths from the swine flu vaccine in 1976 halted the programme.

Our verdict

Full Fact could not find a confirmed number of deaths reported after a swine flu vaccine in 1976, but reports suggest that a number of the deaths could not be directly linked with the vaccine. The rollout was halted because of a number of reports of Guillain-Barré syndrome, and the fact the swine flu cases never reached pandemic levels.

What was claimed

More than 10,991 people have died from Covid-19 vaccines in the US so far.

Our verdict

False. According to the CDC there have been 6,207 reports of death among people who received a Covid-19 vaccine in the US, although this figure is much higher when including people based outside the US or in an unknown location. Deaths reported after a Covid-19 vaccine are not necessarily caused by the vaccine.

Several posts on Instagram have compared the rollout of a swine flu vaccine in the US in the 1970s with the Covid-19 vaccination programme.  

The posts claim that the rollout of the swine flu vaccine in 1976 was halted after it caused 32 deaths, while “more than 10,991 people have died from the Covid vaccines in the US alone”. 

Full Fact could find no official confirmation of 32 deaths caused by the vaccine, though this figure has been reported as one estimate, and reports state that the rollout was halted after concerns around the risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome. 

According to the CDC, there were 6,207 reports of death among people who received a Covid-19 vaccine up to 26 July, but there is no evidence these were directly caused by the vaccine. 

The posts also claim that “typically over 50 deaths will halt a vaccine in the US”. 

We could find no credible source confirming a threshold of 50 deaths before a vaccine roll out is paused. 

What happened with the 1976 swine flu vaccine? 

In February 1976, several soldiers at a US army post in New Jersey fell ill with an unrecognised form of swine flu, which was later found to have spread to more than 200 people. By March, President Gerald Ford had announced a vaccine programme intending to “immunise every man, woman and child in the US” in the autumn of the same year. 

Full Fact could find no definitive confirmation of 32 deaths after vaccination, with a range of estimates offered by different sources. A CNN article states: “the program was suspended after at least 25 people died from vaccine reactions. Other estimates put the death toll at 32 people,” while a Los Angeles Times article states: “More than 500 people are thought to have developed Guillain-Barré syndrome [GBS] after receiving the vaccine; 25 died.” 

GBS is a rare condition that affects the nerves, causing problems such as numbness in the limbs, and can in some cases be life-threatening. It is thought to be caused by an issue with the immune system where the body mistakenly attacks and damages the nerves—especially after an infection such as flu, or food poisoning. 

A different article, available on the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) site says that by 22 October 1976, 41 deaths amongst people who had been given the vaccine had been reported by the CDC, but there was “still no known connection to [the] vaccine”. 

Deaths without a proven link to the vaccine became the focus of intense media coverage. Another article on the NCBI site points to the intense media activity surrounding the death of three elderly people who received the vaccine at the same clinic. There was no evidence the deaths were caused by the vaccine.

The vaccination programme was halted in December 1976, days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a number of cases of GBS among individuals after receiving the jab. 

At the time, a consensus was reached that the number of GBS cases was in excess of what would normally be expected, but later research has since found that the chances of developing the condition after vaccination are extremely small (approximately one additional case of GBS for every 100,000 people who got the swine flu vaccine).

Health officials, weighing the threat of the virus against the reports of GBS, decided to halt the immunisation programme until the issue could be explored. 

In a reflection on the events of 1976, Pascal James Imperato, deputy health commissioner and the chair of the task force charged with rolling out the programme in New York at the time, writes: “The Guillain-Barré syndrome is known to occur after immunizations and a certain incidence was expected after swine influenza immunizations. 

“Because of intense surveillance of vaccines for all kinds of side reactions and the litigious atmosphere surrounding the swine flu program, these cases surfaced very quickly.”

The swine flu identified in 1976 did not lead to a pandemic. To date, Covid-19 has killed more than 600,000 people in the US, with more than 34.6 million infections. 

Have almost 11,000 people died from the Covid-19 vaccine in the US? 

According to the CDC, there were 6,207 reports of death among people who received a Covid-19 vaccine through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) up to 26 July. More than 339 million vaccines have been administered in the US. 

Healthcare providers, vaccine manufacturers, and the public can submit reports to VAERS, but reports are not confirmed side effects. 

The VAERS site includes a substantial caveat noting this, stating: “While very important in monitoring vaccine safety, VAERS reports alone cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event or illness. 

“The reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable. Most reports to VAERS are voluntary, which means they are subject to biases.”

One Instagram post attributes the total of 10,991 deaths to a site which presents VAERS data and appears to include in its count thousands of reported deaths with a “foreign” or “unknown” location. Again, even if these were to be included in the toll, there is no evidence that these deaths were caused by vaccines.

Would 50 deaths usually stop a vaccine rollout in the US? 

We could find no credible sources suggesting that there is a specific threshold of 50 deaths in order for a vaccine rollout in the US to be halted, and have contacted the CDC for more information. 

This article is part of our work fact checking potentially false pictures, videos and stories on Facebook. You can read more about this—and find out how to report Facebook content—here. For the purposes of that scheme, we’ve rated this claim as false because the swine flu threat and Covid-19 pandemic are not comparable, and the number of deaths claimed to be caused by the vaccine cannot be confirmed. There is no evidence that 50 deaths specifically would normally stop a vaccine rollout in the US.

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