Anti-vaccine activists use federal database to spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines 

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Anti-vaccine activists have been using data from the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System to push COVID-19 vaccine misinformation online and on social media, according to a June 14 NPR report. 

The database system, known as VAERS, stores hundreds of thousands of reports of health events that occurred minutes, hours or days after vaccination. Many of the reported events are coincidental, but because the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has reached millions within a short period, the total number of reported events in VAERS may seem inflated.

"[VAERS is] a very valuable system for detecting adverse events, but it has to be used properly," said William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, according to the report. "And it's ripe for misuse."

Anti-vaccine advocates regularly use VAERS data, which is public and can be downloaded by anyone for any purpose, to claim falsely that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous. The most commonly cited statistic among anti-vaccine groups is death after vaccination. Many graphics shared by these groups list the number of deaths directly reported in VAERS without noting the reports have not been investigated or verified as causally linked to an immunization. 

The CDC is aware of the misuse of the VAERS data but does not have any immediate plans to change the system, the agency said in an emailed statement to NPR. It said that VAERS is one of its best sources for early warnings about real side effects, as the system helped identify allergic reactions and blood clotting disorders caused by the COVID-19 vaccines. Both side effects are very rare, and physicians have said the benefits of the vaccine "far outweigh the risks," according to the report. 

"While VAERS has limitations, keeping the system open to all reporters and users is essential for VAERS to serve its early detection function," the CDC said.

 

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