VERA FILES FACT CHECK: No direct link found between Pfizer vaccine and deaths in Norway

(UPDATED) At least 33 deaths among the elderly who were inoculated with Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE’s COVID-19 vaccine have been reported in Norway.

The news, which quickly reached several parts of the globe including the Philippines, has caused concern over the safety of the vaccine, with many taking this information to mean that the vaccine itself caused the deaths.

On Jan. 18, the Norwegian Medicines Agency (NMA), which has assessed 13 of the 33 deaths so far, said it has found no evidence of a direct link between the Pfizer vaccine and the deaths.

"Clearly, COVID-19 is far more dangerous to most patients than vaccination," NMA medical director Steinar Madsen told Bloomberg in a phone interview.

"All of these patients had serious underlying illnesses," Madsen said. "We can't say that people die from the vaccine. We can say that it may be coincidental. It is difficult to prove that it's the vaccine which is the direct cause."

Misinformation causes concern

One post that caused a scare among Filipino netizens is a social media card that bore this misleading headline: “23 tao, patay sa bakuna (23 people dead from vaccine)” in a big red and white font.

Its subtext, published in a smaller, grey font, carried more accurate information. Translated from Filipino, it read: “Around 23 nursing home patients are reportedly dead after getting vaccinated with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Norway. Those who died were old in age and had underlying illnesses.”

The social media card was created by media organization Brigada News, whose Batangas and Daet, Camarines Norte branches posted it on their Facebook (FB) pages on Jan. 16. The copy of the former so far has 74,000 shares while the latter, 3,200.

The post provoked reactions such as "That's scary" and "How can we trust a vaccine like that?" One netizen said: "Why do we even need to be vaccinated? There are a lot of COVID patients who have recovered."

Edsel Salvana, member of the government’s Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases technical advisory group, has reminded the public to be more careful when sharing information about deaths and vaccines.

“Media really has to be careful with sensationalizing deaths that may or may not be related to vaccines. If you read past the headlines, Norwegian health authorities are investigating deaths in elderly people who got the Pfizer vaccine, but they do not think the vaccines killed them,” he said in a Jan. 16 FB post.

Hours after the Brigada News pages published its posts, its card was screen grabbed by several FB accounts including two private users who removed all identifying information of the organization (name, social media handle, logo), as well as the page CAVITE CONNECT, which did the same but went on to affix its own logo on the graphic.

“I'm imploring the media and readers to be more careful with vaccine communication because harming vaccine confidence will cost lives,” Salvana added.

‘400 deaths a week’ in Norwegian nursing homes

According to NRK, a state-owned public broadcaster of Norway, all 13 deaths assessed by the NMA occurred in frail patients in nursing homes aged 80 and above.

NMA’s Madsen was quoted as saying that he was not “alarmed” by the reported deaths among the elderly.

In a statement, the Scandinavian medicine regulatory body explained that some deaths among those vaccinated in nursing homes were expected, even with the vaccine out of the equation, as the country regularly records hundreds of deaths in that age group per week.

“In Norway we are now vaccinating the elderly and people in nursing homes with serious underlying diseases, therefore it is expected that deaths close to the time [of] vaccination may occur. In Norway, an average of 400 people die each week in nursing homes and long-term care facilities,” the NMA wrote in its Jan. 15 news release.

In a Jan. 14 report on the adverse reactions of Norwegians to the vaccine, the agency also said that deaths among this population can go up to 45 a day.

Pfizer vaxx side effects ‘not ruled out’ in deaths of the sick elderly

Among the common adverse reactions to Pfizer’s vaccine are fever, nausea, and diarrhea. While these may not be dangerous in “fitter, younger patients,” Madsen told the medical journal The BMJ, they may aggravate underlying health conditions in the elderly.

The NMA said in its statement: “We cannot rule out that adverse reactions to the vaccine occurring within the first days following vaccination (such as fever and nausea) may contribute to more serious course and fatal outcome in patients with severe underlying disease.”

As a course of action, the Norwegian Institute of Public health has advised vaccine administrators to carefully evaluate whether individuals who are frail or terminally ill will be given the Pfizer vaccine.

“An evaluation should be carried for each individual patient as to whether the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks of eventual side effects,” the NMA said in their statement.

Norwegian fact checking organization Faktisk has also written a fact sheet on the matter.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has a 95% success rate, was the first to be given an emergency use authorization by the Philippines’ Food and Drug Administration. The national vaccination program, however, is yet to be rolled out.

(Editor's Note: We updated this story a few hours after publishing to include comments from Dr. Edsel Salvana, an infectious disease expert and a member of a technical advisory group to the government's IATF-EID.)

(Editor's Note: VERA Files has partnered with Facebook to fight the spread of disinformation. Find out more about this partnership and our methodology.)

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The document has not been peer-reviewed and is currently being assessed.

About Vera Files

Founded in March 2008, VERA Files is published by veteran Filipino journalists taking a deeper look into current Philippine issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

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