VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Online posts on adverse reactions in WHO’s VigiBase NEED CONTEXT

With the emergence of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant, a graphic showing over two million “reported potential side effects” of the COVID-19 vaccine worldwide is circulating in private messaging platforms in the Philippines.

A reader asked VERA Files Fact Check to look into the image. It needs context. While the figures are accurate, the data is insufficient to establish a causal link between the vaccine and the reported adverse reactions.

Citing VigiBase — the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global database of safety reports for medicines and vaccines — the graphic compared several vaccines using the years each have been in use and the number of reported adverse events following immunization (AEFI).

The figures appear to be accurate based on a comparison with current data from VigiAccess, WHO’s online tool used to navigate VigiBase. In the graphic, a copy of which was posted by a local FB page on Nov. 29, there were over 2.5 million reported AEFIs for COVID-19 vaccines. As of Dec. 7, the figure is at 2.8 million.

However, VigiAccess clarifies in its home page that data on the website only shows potential side effects and “cannot be used to infer any confirmed link between a suspected side effect and any specific medicine.”

“[AEFI] does not necessarily have a causal relationship with the usage of the vaccine,” WHO Philippines wrote in an email to VERA Files Fact Check.

“Not all reports in VigiBase reflect confirmed linkage between the product and the side effect. Each report will need to undergo analysis, investigation, and causality assessment,” it emphasized.

Moreover, properly interpreting the numbers should consider the total number of those who were vaccinated and the frequency and sensitivity of reporting by the member countries.

WHO Philippines also said the majority of AEFIs are not serious, citing the usual soreness at the injection site, tiredness or malaise, headache, and fever, which resolve within a few days.

Although there are risks of complications from the COVID-19 vaccine, “severe or life-threatening reactions are extremely rare,” according to the Department of Health’s Frequently Answered Questions page.

The graphic also showed that the number of reported AEFIs for the COVID-19 vaccine vastly outnumbered other vaccines.

“More AEFIs are expectedly reported because billions of COVID-19 vaccine doses have been deployed in (a) short period,” WHO Philippines said.

Further, the target scope of the vaccines against the novel coronavirus was larger than those of the other vaccines listed in the graphic, and that because among the target population for COVID-19 vaccines are people with comorbidities, the likelihood of reporting adverse reactions may have increased.

Fact-checking organizations abroad have also flagged similar versions of the graphic, reporting that it is missing crucial context and falsely assumes the vaccine is deadly.

The online posts needing context surfaced just as the Department of Health held a mass vaccination drive from Nov. 29 to Dec. 1, intending to inoculate nine million Filipinos against COVID-19.

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