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Pfizer, left, and Moderna bivalent COVID-19 vaccines are readied for use at a clinic, Nov. 17, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP) Pfizer, left, and Moderna bivalent COVID-19 vaccines are readied for use at a clinic, Nov. 17, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP)

Pfizer, left, and Moderna bivalent COVID-19 vaccines are readied for use at a clinic, Nov. 17, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP)

Sara Swann
By Sara Swann February 9, 2024

Experts say mRNA COVID-19 vaccines have saved millions of lives, not caused mass deaths

If Your Time is short

  • The research paper was based on COVID-19 vaccine claims that are false and misleading, experts told us. 

  • The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines have been rigorously tested and monitored for years, and public health experts worldwide have found them to be safe and effective. Adverse effects are rare.

  • The World Health Organization estimated that in 2021 alone the COVID-19 vaccines saved more than 14.4 million lives globally.

  • No spin, just facts you can trust. Here’s how we do it.

In the more than three years since COVID-19 vaccines first became available, billions of doses have been administered worldwide, protecting against severe disease and death. Still, social media posts claim the vaccines are causing more harm than good.

A Feb. 4 Instagram post shared a headline from conservative news outlet The Epoch Times that said, "mRNA COVID-19 vaccines caused more deaths than saved: study."

Another Instagram post shared a related headline that said, "Scientists call for global moratorium on mRNA vaccines, immediate removal from childhood schedule." The headline was from the Children’s Health Defense, a legal advocacy organization known for spreading vaccine misinformation. (The organization was created by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who earned PolitiFact’s 2023 Lie of the Year for his movement to legitimize conspiracy theories.)

These Instagram posts were flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

(Screengrab from Instagram)

The Epoch Times and Children’s Health Defense articles referred to a Jan. 24 research paper that said "for every life saved, there were nearly 14 times more deaths caused by" the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Two of the paper’s authors, Steve Kirsch and Peter McCullough, have often spread misinformation related to COVID-19 and the vaccine.

Experts on infectious diseases and vaccines told PolitiFact that the paper’s conclusion is based on misleading and false information about the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. The paper repeats multiple claims that PolitiFact and other fact-checkers have debunked.

The paper "stands in contrast" to the global public health community’s consensus that the mRNA vaccines are safe and effective, said Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious diseases professor.

"And so, you have to ask why (the paper) is such an outlier," said Schaffner, who is also a spokesperson for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. "The reason it’s an outlier is … it’s a deeply flawed study."

Paper’s claims about deaths

The peer-reviewed research paper was published on Cureus, which Schaffner called "an obscure journal" that he’d never heard of in his 40 years of public health research. A 2022 Emory University study described Cureus as a "predatory" and "controversial" journal.

The paper claimed the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine saved two lives and caused 27 deaths per 100,000 vaccinations. It said the Moderna vaccine saved 3.9 lives and caused 10.8 deaths per 100,000 vaccinations.

The paper’s authors based this conclusion on data from the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials in the United States and reports of adverse effects from the United Kingdom. Although the datasets came from two different countries, the paper said, "it is unlikely that the adverse event rates would be different between the two populations."

The adverse effects reports came from the U.K.’s Yellow Card system, which lets members of the public report suspected safety concerns related to vaccines, medicines and medical devices.

This system is similar to the U.S. government’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, which the paper also cites to suggest the COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe.

With VAERS, anyone can report health effects after a vaccination, whether or not those effects are caused by the vaccine, the CDC said. And unlike other government data sources, these reports aren’t screened before they’re made public, making VAERS fertile ground for vaccine misinformation.

Paper relies on several debunked claims

The paper claims the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines did not undergo adequate safety and efficacy testing.

This is inaccurate. We have rated multiple claims about this False or Pants on Fire, including  that mRNA technology was never tested in humans; that the vaccines were released after only two months of testing in healthy humans; and that a safe vaccine can’t be developed in eight to 10 months.

Featured Fact-check

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccines were thoroughly evaluated in clinical trials before receiving emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December 2020. Since then, public health authorities have continued to closely monitor the vaccines’ safety.

"These vaccines have met rigorous scientific standards for safety and effectiveness. The available data continue to demonstrate that the benefits of these vaccines outweigh their risks," said Cherie Duvall-Jones, an FDA spokesperson.

Another claim in the paper is mRNA vaccines contain "DNA contamination." We previously fact-checked a similar claim and rated it False.

Decades of research has shown that the "biologically insignificant amounts of DNA" in the vaccines pose no known safety risk, said Dan Wilson, senior associate scientist at Janssen, which also developed a COVID-19 vaccine. Wilson also hosts "Debunk the Funk with Dr. Wilson," a YouTube show that covers science misinformation.

It’s not unusual for vaccines to contain DNA fragments. The measles, mumps, rubella, varicella and rotavirus vaccines also have minuscule amounts of DNA, said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and infectious diseases physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The chance that these DNA fragments could integrate into a person’s DNA is "zero," Offit said. "So, it’s just all a lot of hand-waving."

The paper also claims the spike proteins produced by COVID-19 vaccination linger in the body and cause adverse effects. PolitiFact has fact-checked several false claims that the spike proteins are harmful or toxic.

All coronaviruses, including COVID-19, have spikes known as spike proteins on their surfaces, which the viruses use to bind to cells and cause infection, the CDC said.

The mRNA vaccines contain neither the COVID-19 virus nor the spike protein. The vaccines’ mRNA technology gives the body genetic instructions for producing copies of the spike protein, which are harmless. Then, the body breaks down the mRNA and it leaves the body as waste.

The spike proteins trigger the body’s immune response, sparking antibody production. This helps the body recognize and fight off the real COVID-19 virus in future infections.

Schaffner said the spike protein claim is "far-fetched" because there’s no evidence the spike protein produced from the vaccines has caused adverse effects.

COVID-19 vaccines have saved millions of lives

Public health authorities in the U.S. and worldwide have repeatedly found COVID-19 vaccines to be safe and effective.

The World Health Organization reported that as of November, more than 13 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered worldwide. In the U.S. alone, more than 676 million doses of the vaccine had been administered as of May. 

In 2021, the first full year the vaccines were widely available, the WHO estimated that COVID-19 vaccinations saved more than 14.4 million lives worldwide.

In rare instances, adverse effects, including myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, have been linked to mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, the CDC said. Myocarditis cases were more common among adolescent and young men within a week of receiving a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Most patients had mild cases and recovered quickly.

Our ruling

An Instagram post claimed a research paper shows that "mRNA COVID-19 vaccines caused more deaths" than lives saved.

Experts said the paper’s conclusion is based on false and misleading claims. These claims have been repeatedly fact-checked and rated False by PolitiFact and other news outlets.

The COVID-19 vaccines have been rigorously tested and monitored for years and public health authorities worldwide continue to find them safe and effective. Billions of doses have been administered worldwide. The vaccines have saved millions of lives, and adverse effects are rare.

We rate this claim Pants on Fire!

Our Sources

Instagram post (archived), Feb. 4, 2024

Instagram post (archived), Feb. 5, 2024

Interview with Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases professor at Vanderbilt University and spokesperson for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, Feb. 7, 2024

Interview with Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Feb. 7, 2024

Email interview with Dan Wilson, a senior associate scientist at Janssen and host of the YouTube show "Debunk the Funk with Dr. Wilson," Feb. 7, 2024

Email interview with Cherie Duvall-Jones, spokesperson for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Feb. 7, 2024

The Epoch Times, "mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines Caused More Deaths Than Saved: Study," Feb. 6, 2024

Children’s Health Defense, "Scientists Call for Global Moratorium on mRNA Vaccines, Immediate Removal From Childhood Schedule," Jan. 29, 2024

Cureus, "COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines: Lessons Learned from the Registrational Trials and Global Vaccination Campaign," Jan. 24, 2024

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "CDC COVID Data Tracker," May 11, 2023

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "End of the Federal COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) Declaration," Sept. 12, 2023

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Clinical Considerations: Myocarditis after COVID-19 Vaccines," Oct. 10, 2023

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Myocarditis and Pericarditis After mRNA COVID-19 Vaccination," Nov. 3, 2023

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Reporting Adverse Events to VAERS | Vaccine Safety," March 13, 2023

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "How Protein Subunit COVID-19 Vaccines Work," accessed Feb. 8, 2024 

Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System website, accessed Feb. 8, 2024

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccines Explained," Nov. 20, 2020 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine," June 2, 2023

The World Health Organization, "COVID-19 vaccines | WHO COVID-19 dashboard," Nov. 26, 2023

The World Health Organization, "COVID-19 Vaccines Advice," Dec. 5, 2023

U.K. Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, "Yellow Card system," accessed Feb. 8, 2024

Emory University, "Assessing Predatory Journal Publishing Within Health Sciences Authors," August 2022

PolitiFact, "Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign of conspiracy theories: PolitiFact’s 2023 Lie of the Year," Dec. 21, 2023

PolitiFact, "No, the COVID-19 vaccine is not the deadliest vaccine ever made," Dec. 10, 2021

PolitiFact, "No evidence of COVID-19 vaccines causing deaths," Sept. 20, 2021

PolitiFact, "Activist misuses federal data to make Pants on Fire claim that COVID-19 vaccines killed 676,000," Aug. 14, 2023

PolitiFact, "mRNA COVID-19 vaccines were tested in humans, have proven to be safe, effective," June 25, 2021

PolitiFact, "COVID-19 vaccine testing included people with underlying health conditions," Aug. 31, 2021

PolitiFact, "Yes, data shows COVID-19 vaccines are safe despite quick timeline," March 26, 2021

PolitiFact, "Experts rebut claims that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are ‘adulterated’," Oct. 27, 2023

PolitiFact, "Ditch the detox. The spike proteins produced from COVID-19 vaccination aren’t toxins.," Aug. 2, 2023

PolitiFact, "Claim that children will be harmed by spike proteins from COVID-19 vaccines is false," Jan. 7, 2022

PolitiFact, "Claim that spike proteins will cause illness to spread like wildfires in kids is False," Nov. 2, 2021

PolitiFact, "No sign that the COVID-19 vaccines’ spike protein is toxic or ‘cytotoxic’," June 16, 2021

PolitiFact, "Snarky posts about Travis Kelce’s heart-hand gesture mislead about COVID-19 vaccine effects," Jan. 29, 2024

NPR, "As the pandemic winds down, anti-vaccine activists are building a legal network," May 4, 2023

Agence France-Presse, "US cardiologist makes sweeping false claims about effects of Covid-19 vaccinations," Nov. 8, 2023

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Experts say mRNA COVID-19 vaccines have saved millions of lives, not caused mass deaths

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