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A vial with the Johnson & Johnson's one-dose COVID-19 vaccine is seen at the Vaxmobile, at the Uniondale Hempstead Senior Center on March 31, 2021, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP/Altaffer) A vial with the Johnson & Johnson's one-dose COVID-19 vaccine is seen at the Vaxmobile, at the Uniondale Hempstead Senior Center on March 31, 2021, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP/Altaffer)

A vial with the Johnson & Johnson's one-dose COVID-19 vaccine is seen at the Vaxmobile, at the Uniondale Hempstead Senior Center on March 31, 2021, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP/Altaffer)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher July 8, 2021

A post challenging COVID-19 vaccine safety takes drug makers’ records out of context

If Your Time is short

  • The post focuses on some actions by the manufacturers that aren’t related to their COVID-19 vaccines.

  • One vaccine, which is not used in the U.S., was temporarily suspended in Europe as a safety precaution, but the suspension was lifted.

  • Public health authorities recommend all four vaccines, which have strong safety records.

An image on Instagram takes aim at four pharmaceutical companies’ records to imply that their COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe.

The headline on the post is "Choosing your COVID-19 vaccine — facts you need to know."

Below, in a table with the company logos, are claims that one manufacturer faced $4.7 billion in fines; one had never brought a vaccine to market; one was sued hundreds of thousands of times for dangerous products; and the fourth had its vaccine "suspended" by European countries for "lethal" adverse health effects.

The sarcastic ender: "Don’t worry, you’re in safe hands!"

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The individual statements about the manufacturers’ records are based on facts, according to news and research reports. But in trying to draw a connection between these statements and the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines, the post leaves out context about research that has shown the vaccines to be safe and effective.

The individual statements

"Pfizer: $4.7 billion in fines for false claims, drug and medical equipment safety violations, off-label promotion, corrupt practices, kickbacks and bribery."

From 1991 through 2017, Pfizer paid $4.7 billion in financial penalties in settlements with federal and state agencies, according to a 2018 report about the pharmaceutical industry from Public Citizen, a government watchdog. That included $2.3 billion in 2009 for unlawful promotion of several drugs and kickbacks to prescribing physicians.

"Moderna: Has never brought a vaccine to market since its founding."

Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine is the company’s first to be authorized. The company was founded in 2010 to develop medicines based on messenger RNA and has worked with other pharmaceutical companies and research bodies on personalized cancer vaccines and other types of vaccine programs.

"Johnson & Johnson: "Named in hundreds of thousands of lawsuits for toxic and/or dangerous products, including drugs."

Among the lawsuits: 25,000 over its blood thinner Xarelto; 25,000 over pelvic mesh; and 14,000 over its talc-based baby powder, according to a 2019 news article by The Guardian. A 2019 Bloomberg report said the company faced at least 100,000 cases over those products and others.

Featured Fact-check

"AstraZeneca: Suspended by two dozen European countries due to severe, lethal adverse reactions, like blood clots."

In March 2021, some two dozen countries suspended use of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine as a precaution over reports of  dangerous blood clots in some recipients. The suspensions were lifted within weeks.

The vaccines’ safety record

The Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have received federal emergency authorization for use in the U.S. and have produced strong safety records. (The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two doses for full vaccination, the Johnson & Johnson is a one-dose vaccine.)

More than 331 million doses of all three vaccines have been given in the United States, according to the CDC. More than 182 million Americans (55% of the population) have received at least one dose so far, with minimal complications reported despite the massive sample size.

The federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System has received 5,718 reports of death (0.0018%) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine. Those reports on their own do not establish whether a death was caused by the vaccine.

"A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines," the CDC said.

Two serious, but rare types of health problems have been found to occur in vaccinated people, the CDC says. They are anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction) and, after vaccination with Johnson & Johnson vaccine,thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (blood clots). 

The blood clot condition occurs in about seven per 1 million vaccinated women between 18 and 49 years old. The CDC in early May recommended resuming the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after a brief pause to study the blood-clot cases, and said it would continue monitoring the reports. The CDC is also monitoring reports of myocarditis and pericarditis (heart inflammation), primarily in adolescents and young adults who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is not authorized for use in the U.S. After the vaccine was suspended in many European countries pending an inquiry into blood-clot cases, European regulators declared March 18 that it is safe and effective. A month later, they reaffirmed their recommendation to use the vaccine, calling the clot cases "very rare." 

Meanwhile, reports continue to come in that many to most COVID-19 deaths in the United States are occurring among unvaccinated people.

Our ruling

An Instagram post makes statements about the records of four pharmaceutical companies to imply that the COVID-19 vaccines they make are unsafe.

The individual statements accurately reflect the companies’ track records, though in some cases, they don’t relate to the companies’ COVID-19 vaccines. 

In presenting these statements as a basis for judging the safety of their COVID-19 vaccines, the post leaves out important context about the companies' broader safety record and research studies and real-world experience that have shown the vaccines to be safe and effective.

The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details. Our rating is Half True.

Our Sources

Instagram, post, June 30, 2021

Snopes, "What the ‘Choosing Your COVID-19 Vaccine’ Meme Gets Wrong," May 21, 2021

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Safety of COVID-19 Vaccines," updated June 28, 2021

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Selected Adverse Events Reported after COVID-19 Vaccination," updated July 7, 2021

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States," July 7, 2021

European Medicines Agency, "Assessment report," April 23, 2021

Associated Press, "Major European nations suspend use of AstraZeneca vaccine," March 15, 2021

Bloomberg, "J&J’s Legal Losses May Get Worse With 100,000 More Damage Claims," Oct. 14, 2019

Public Citizen, "Twenty-Seven Years of Pharmaceutical Industry Criminal and Civil Penalties: 1991 Through 2017," March 14, 2018

Market Watch, "Moderna nears its first-ever FDA authorization, for its COVID-19 vaccine," Dec. 16, 2020

PolitiFact, "Should I get a COVID-19 vaccination? Answering questions for vaccine skeptics," May 27, 2021

PolitiFact, "Why Europe took a closer look at AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine," March 18, 2021

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More by Tom Kertscher

A post challenging COVID-19 vaccine safety takes drug makers’ records out of context

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