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Correcting this week’s misinformation: week of May 18, 2023

The autism and vaccines myth resurfaces

The Claim:

Having overplayed his COVID vaccine scare cards, a computer scientist is returning to the old hits, returning to an environmental lawyer’s claims concerning thimerosal in vaccines and autism.

The Facts:

Vaccines do not cause autism, but misinformation falsely claiming a link between vaccines and autism persists. First, anti-vaccine activist Wakefield published a fraudulent study that falsely claimed a link between autism and MMR. Now, a well-known anti-vaccine lawyer is claiming that thimerosal in the Hep B vaccine caused a 1995 “explosion” in autism a few years after the vaccine became widely available. Let’s review the problems with this claim.

First, studies show that thimerosal does not increase the risk of autism. In addition, thimerosal has not even been used in childhood vaccines since 2001.

Second, autism diagnoses continued to rise following the 2001 removal of thimerosal from all childhood vaccines. The continued rise of autism diagnoses is, in fact, mostly due to growing awareness and changing diagnostic criteria.

Our anti-vaxxer does allude to a study that was approved by the CDC. This study used Vaccine Safety Datalink data to evaluate the effects of thimerosal in childhood vaccines. The study identified a signal of an increase in autism, but a signal does not necessarily indicate causation between vaccination and side effects. A signal suggests a need for further study. As a cautionary measure, however, the birth dose of the Hep B vaccination was suspended until the thimerosal-free vaccine was available in 1999.

Spike proteins and long-term damage

The Claim:

viral tweet claims that a new study proves the mRNA vaccines against COVID are sending spike proteins into people’s brains and causing long-term damage. The tweet cites this preprint.

The Facts:

This viral tweet is making a claim about the preprint’s conclusion that simply isn’t true. The author claims that the “study has concluded that COVID-19 vaccines are causing ‘Long-term brain damage’.”

The preprint is actually talking about long-term neurological damage after COVID infection, not vaccines. In fact, the word vaccine shows up exactly once in the entire paper and makes no claims about the results of vaccination. All results showing accumulation and damage from spike protein in the human brain were taken from people who had experienced COVID infection, not people who had been vaccinated. Vaccines were not studied at all in this paper.

Spike protein was injected into mice and found to accumulate in the brain as well, but again, those findings don’t necessarily translate to vaccines or humans. Previous bioaccumulation studies have shown that although mRNA did enter various tissues, including the brain, it was at very low levels for a very limited amount of time. Likewise, other studies have also documented the long-term neurological impact of COVID infection.

While over 70% of the world’s population has received at least one vaccine, we are not seeing what would be the obvious societal ills were it causing long-term brain damage.

Lies, darned lies, and statistics

The Claim:

A very, very, very long tweet citing a long video claims to reveal statistics about the harm from COVID vaccines in the U.S.: 26.6 million people injured, 300,000 people dead, and $150 billion in lost work time.

The Facts:

The tweet is based on a project staffed by a computer scientist and finance experts.

If vaccines were responsible for all these deaths during the pandemic, the communities with the highest vaccination rates would have a higher rate of deaths.  However, data shows that the opposite is true. The communities with the highest vaccination rates had lower death rates than the communities with low vaccination rates.

To come up with the injury statistic, the project incorrectly analyzes V-Safe data, which actually shows that over 90% of side effects were non-serious, short-acting, and self-resolving. It also relies on the infamous Florida paper, which also incorrectly analyzed data, this time from clinical trials.

It makes a number of other incorrect assumptions. For example, it claims “the emergence of milder and more contagious virus strains such as Omicron, it is difficult to argue if COVID-19 had a significant role in excess mortality.” Omicron, however, is far from benign and was associated with a large number of deaths.

COVID infection, however, has been responsible for over 1.1 million deaths and 6.1 million hospitalizations  up to 7.7 million cases of long COVID, with a cost of over $160 billion.

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