It is not true that the COVID-19 vaccine is 98 times more dangerous than the virus

Freepik/@ freepik

Original article (in Serbian) was published on 21/09/2022

The claim that COVID-19 vaccines are 98 times more dangerous than the underlying infection is spreading rapidly on Twitter. It came from a conservative American website that normally publishes disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. The site used a non-reviewed study that dealt with risk and benefit assessments in the vaccination of the student population and whether it is expedient to introduce a mandatory booster dose. The conclusions of this study, which has several limitations, were completely misinterpreted.

“Shocking. Scientists from Harvard and John Hopkins University found that what they call the “coronavirus vaccine” is 98 times more dangerous than the virus itself! Well, this is worse than we conspiracy theorists assumed”, a certain Maja Maric announced on Twitter yesterday.

This tweet has been retweeted more than 130 times so far, and has collected around 500 likes.

As proof, she attached a screenshot from the anti-vaxxer website “The Gateway Pundit”, which makes the same claims in the title. It is a conservative American website that normally publishes fake news and disinformation regarding the COVID-19 vaccine and promotes the antiparasitic drug ivermectin in the treatment of this disease.

This time, “The Gateway Prundit” states in the first paragraph of the text that “a new non-peer-reviewed study conducted by nine experts from the largest universities showed that COVID-19 vaccines are 98 times more harmful than the virus, and mandatory booster vaccination of students is ethically unjustified”.

In the text, a link leads to the mentioned study: “Booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for young people: assessment of risks and benefits and five ethical arguments against mandatory booster doses at universities”.

The study was written by nine co-authors from Harvard, John Hopkins University and Oxford, and it deals with statistical estimates of the benefits of vaccination based on available data.

As it is written in the introduction of the study, students at North American universities are threatened with expulsion if they do not get vaccinated with the mandatory booster (third) dose. The authors consider this problematic for several reasons, primarily because their data show that the risks of the third dose in this young population may be greater than the benefits.

“According to our estimates, in order to prevent one hospitalization, the third dose of the mRNA vaccine must be received by 22,000 to 30,000 previously uninfected people aged 18 to 29. (…) We find that the mandatory third dose can cause harm: for one hospitalization prevented (…) we predict 18 to 98 serious side effects”, the study states.

This does not mean that the vaccine is “98 times more dangerous than the virus”, as claimed on Twitter, but that the risks to a certain extent may outweigh the benefits of revaccination in this healthy and young population.

The co-author of this study, Allison Krug, explained to Lead Stories, a fact-checking web portal, that “The Gateway Pundit” “turned” possible harm into real.

“This study estimates how many serious adverse reactions COULD occur if all 30,000 students on a university campus received a booster dose. Our risk-benefit analysis considered a university cohort because the topic is whether mandatory booster vaccination is ethically justified. We used this population to show the potential for harm”, she stated.

Krug also pointed out that “The Gateway Pundit” omitted the two keywords “buster” and “youth” from its title, implying that COVID-19 vaccines are harmful to everyone, even though the research focused on the 18-29 age group, more precisely, on students who were not previously infected and who have no associated diseases.

“We do not want the misrepresentation of our work to imply that those who are at risk due to their health or age should avoid vaccination”, Krug told Lead Stories.

The authors pointed out that the study has a number of limitations – they state that the reports (for instance, from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) used as the basis for this statistical assessment have certain omissions, and they indicate that there are relatively few reports on booster vaccines as well as that it is possible that one person reported several side effects.

It is, by the way, a “pre-print” document, that is, a preliminary version that the scientific community has yet to analyze and approve before publication in a scientific journal. In other words, the study has not yet passed a scientific review, and its conclusions cannot be considered definitive.