The U.S. government maintains a database called VAERS, to which anybody can file a report if they think something bad happened to them after receiving a vaccine. It’s an important tool in keeping tabs on vaccine safety, but it’s also being mined by anti-vaccine activists to make vaccines seem scarier than they are.
VAERS is short for Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. “Adverse events” are literally things that happen (events) that are bad (adverse). Scientists and doctors tend to prefer this term over something like “side effects,” which implies a cause-and-effect relationship that often can’t be established. If you have a headache after getting a shot, for example, that’s an adverse event. Was it caused by the vaccine? Maybe, but that’s a separate question, and it can be a hard one to answer definitively.
How VAERS is actually used
As the CDC explains here, the VAERS database was established in 1990 as part of a package of vaccine safety reforms. (The same law established a no-fault vaccine court to compensate people for vaccine injuries without having to sue pharmaceutical companies.)
Anyone can submit a report to VAERS: you, your doctor, your family member, even your lawyer. (Doctors are required to report certain adverse events, but for the most part, submissions are voluntary.) It’s a bit like Wikipedia, in a sense: The things in it may not all be true, but probably a lot of them are, and you can still learn a lot from what it contains.
The idea is that if there is a problem with a vaccine, reports will start showing up in VAERS. Investigators will look into events that seem to be serious, common, or linked. Here’s how HHS describes the goals of the program:
- Detect new, unusual, or rare vaccine adverse events;
- Monitor increases in known adverse events;
- Identify potential patient risk factors for particular types of adverse events;
- Assess the safety of newly licensed vaccines;
- Determine and address possible reporting clusters (e.g., suspected localised [temporally or geographically] or product-/batch-/lot-specific adverse event reporting);
- Recognise persistent safe-use problems and administration errors;
- Provide a national safety monitoring system that extends to the entire general population for response to public health emergencies, such as a large-scale pandemic influenza vaccination program.
The reports in VAERS can be an early tip-off if there are problems associated with a vaccine, or even a particular batch of vaccine. It’s one of many ways that regulators said they would keep an eye on safety as the new COVID vaccines roll out.
How VAERS is misused
Anti-vaccine activists have been misusing and misrepresenting VAERS for as long as it’s been around. The reports are publicly accessible, so anybody can search the database, and they do.
Before searching the database, you have to click through a massive disclaimer screen explaining that the reports are not verified and listing other important limitations. (Vice recently reported an activist group has created a search portal for VAERS that allows you to view reports without seeing this screen.)
You can probably see the problem here. Pulling out a bunch of reports that say “death” and that mentioned a certain vaccine does not mean that the vaccine killed those people. It just means that the person died sometime after they received the vaccine. In fact, a recent analysis of COVID vaccine adverse events, both from VAERS reports and from another monitoring system called V-SAFE, found that most deaths after vaccination were in elderly residents of long-term care facilities and were not likely to be caused by the vaccines.
So if you see information being shared that claims to attribute deaths, miscarriages, or other scary reactions to the new COVID vaccines, apply your common sense critical thinking skills and find out where the data comes from. There could very possibly be safety issues with these or any vaccines, but if there are, any serious issues would be front page news — so be suspicious if you only hear about them from a viral Facebook post.