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Correcting this week’s misinformation: week of August 31, 2023

Do COVID vaccines make you susceptible to death?

The Claim:

While it is true that everyone who receives a COVID vaccine will eventually die, some claim that the vaccine makes you more likely to die from COVID. One prominent claim is that 95% of those who died from COVID were vaccinated.

The Facts:

The Office of National Statistics (ONS), where this data originated, shows that since COVID boosters became available in September 2021, monthly mortality rates for COVID-19 have consistently been lower for individuals who received a third dose or booster in the last 21 days compared to those who are unvaccinated or have only received one or two doses. Similar trends are seen for those who received a fourth dose or an extra booster in the spring 2022.

The claimant falls into the trap of the base-rate fallacy: when a person ignores the probability that someone is vaccinated in the first place. For example, by the end of August 2022, over 93.6% of all people 12 years and up have had at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. The vaccination rate was even higher among those who are both older and more likely to die from COVID infection.

Comparing the raw numbers of COVID cases rather than the rate of COVID infection by vaccine status, it seems that there are more cases in the vaccinated population than in the unvaccinated population. But that is one way to make the numbers lie. The rate of infection, or what proportion of people died from COVID,  shows that you are much more likely to catch (and die) from COVID if you are unvaccinated.

Do COVID vaccines cause cancer?

The Claim:

cardiologist claims that mRNA vaccines contain the SV40 virus, and can therefore cause cancer.

The Facts:

SV40 is a virus found in monkey kidneys that can potentially cause cancer in humans via tumor (T) antigens. Unfortunately, batches of the polio vaccine became contaminated with SV40, and the methods used to inactivate the poliovirus did not reliably inactivate SV40. Importantly, epidemiological studies have found no increased risk of cancer in those who received these vaccines.

Since then, a promoter gene (a DNA sequence that starts RNA transcription) of SV40 has been found to promote a high level of gene expression for producing proteins in mammalian cells and has been used in developing DNA vaccines. The process uses just the promoter gene and not the virus itself or any part of the DNA sequence that encodes for the T antigen of SV40.

Right now, no evidence exists that mRNA COVID vaccines contain SV40 genes, aside from a single paper that has claimed to sequence the SV40 promoter gene from the Pfizer vaccine.

Do I really need a flu vaccine?

The Claim:

Aunt Betsy had chickenpox as a child, and her doctor told her she doesn’t need the vaccine because she can assume she already has immunity. Since she had a case of the flu last year, she figures she doesn’t need a flu vaccine.

The Facts:

Aunt Betsy doesn’t need a chickenpox vaccine–it’s true. The chickenpox virus (varicella) is pretty stable–not changing significantly enough or fast enough for her body’s immune system to be unable to recognize it, even after all these years.

Influenza, though, is different. The virus mutates frequently, and those mutations affect how well our immune system will recognize the virus from year to year. It is very likely that in subsequent years, if you are exposed to an influenza virus, it would have changed substantially enough that your immune system won’t protect you well enough. Get your flu shot, Aunt Betsy. And maybe a Shingles vaccine, too.

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