Unlike the average person—or even the vast majority of my fellow physicians and scientists—I’ve been paying attention to antivaccine misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience for over two decades now and regularly blogging about it for 19 years. Moreover, I’ve been cataloguing the misuse of the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database since 2006, when I first noted how lawyers pursuing litigation for “vaccine-induced autism”—we know that vaccines do not cause autism—had gamed VAERS by encouraging their clients to enter reports of their children’s autism as being a result of a vaccine or of vaccines. It was my introduction into how antivaxxers have long loved to take advantage of the nature of VAERS, which allows anyone to to enter anything that happened after vaccination as a potential “adverse reaction” to a vaccine, to misattribute complications ranging from autism to autoimmune disease to death and then do “dumpster dives” into VAERS in order to “prove” that vaccines cause horrific complications that they don’t cause. Depressingly, it was entirely predictable that they would do the same thing after COVID-19 vaccines rolled out, but the CDC, FDA, medical profession, and health authorities seemed utterly oblivious to the potential of a massive misuse of VAERS worse than anything ever seen before. Of course, that’s exactly what happened in 2021; weaponization of VAERS went mainstream. and scientists who should know better followed the well-trod path of antivax “scientists’ who had traditionally dumpster dived into VAERS to publish crappy papers linking vaccines to all manner of complications that, as more rigorous studies have shown, they don’t actually cause.
This brings me to the topic of this post, which is what might be the single dumbest dumpster dive into VAERS that I’ve ever seen in my two decades of dealing with antivaccine propaganda. At least, it’s definitely up there. I’m referring to a Substack post by someone who goes by the ‘nym “2nd Smartest Guy in the World,” entitled Shocking Report: U.S. Government Data Reveals a Staggering 143,233% Surge in Fatal Cancer Cases Linked to COVID Vaccinations, which turns out to be merely a reposting of an article by the same title published to a website called The Exposé, making me wonder if SSGitW has something to do with that website also. (It’s gotten really hard to keep track of all the interrelationships between antivax cranks with Substacks and other websites.) It’s so bad that I had to wonder if there’d been a typo, and this anonymous blogger had really meant, “2nd Dumbest Guy in the World.” Before I get to what about SSGitW—I’m not going to type “2nd Smartest Guy in the World” over and over and over again in this post—first, rather than just linking to previous posts about VAERS (which I will do too), I think that, in this case at least, a brief recap of what VAERS is strikes me as mandatory.
VAERS is a bit of an odd beast when it comes to vaccine safety reporting systems. It was established jointly by the FDA and CDC in 1990 as an result of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA) of 1986 and was intended as an “early warning system” or, as I like to call it, a “canary in the coal mine.” To accomplish that function, the CDC and FDA designed VAERS as an open passive reporting system that allows anyone to enter any suspected adverse event (AE) after vaccination. It’s also an open system in that the data are freely available on the VAERS website to search for reports of AEs after vaccination. Anyone can do it. (I have.) Unfortunately, seemingly everyone has, whether they understand VAERS or not.
According to the CDC, the objectives of VAERS are to:
- Detect new, unusual, or rare vaccine adverse events;
- Monitor increases in known adverse events;
- Identify potential patient risk factors for particular types of adverse events;
- Assess the safety of newly licensed vaccines;
- Determine and address possible reporting clusters (e.g., suspected localized [temporally or geographically] or product-/batch-/lot-specific adverse event reporting);
- Recognize persistent safe-use problems and administration errors;
- Provide a national safety monitoring system that extends to the entire general population for response to public health emergencies, such as a large-scale pandemic influenza vaccination program.
However, there are a lot of caveats, as you can see from the CDC’s own description of VAERS:
Established in 1990, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is a national early warning system to detect possible safety problems in U.S.-licensed vaccines. VAERS is co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). VAERS accepts and analyzes reports of adverse events (possible side effects) after a person has received a vaccination. Anyone can report an adverse event to VAERS. Healthcare professionals are required to report certain adverse events and vaccine manufacturers are required to report all adverse events that come to their attention.
VAERS is a passive reporting system, meaning it relies on individuals to send in reports of their experiences to CDC and FDA. VAERS is not designed to determine if a vaccine caused a health problem, but is especially useful for detecting unusual or unexpected patterns of adverse event reporting that might indicate a possible safety problem with a vaccine. This way, VAERS can provide CDC and FDA with valuable information that additional work and evaluation is necessary to further assess a possible safety concern.
Then there’s this disclaimer:
VAERS accepts reports of adverse events and reactions that occur following vaccination. Healthcare providers, vaccine manufacturers, and the public can submit reports to the system. While very important in monitoring vaccine safety, VAERS reports alone cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event or illness. The reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable. In large part, reports to VAERS are voluntary, which means they are subject to biases. This creates specific limitations on how the data can be used scientifically. Data from VAERS reports should always be interpreted with these limitations in mind.
The strengths of VAERS are that it is national in scope and can quickly provide an early warning of a safety problem with a vaccine. As part of CDC and FDA’s multi-system approach to post-licensure vaccine safety monitoring, VAERS is designed to rapidly detect unusual or unexpected patterns of adverse events, also known as “safety signals.” If a safety signal is found in VAERS, further studies can be done in safety systems such as the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) or the Clinical Immunization Safety Assessment (CISA) project. These systems do not have the same scientific limitations as VAERS, and can better assess health risks and possible connections between adverse events and a vaccine.
In brief, the key strength of the VAERS database is its open nature, which allows instantaneous reports from anyone, health provider or lay person, which in turn provides the data for rapid hypothesis generation. However, the key weakness of the VAERS database is also its open nature, which can lead to bias and the inclusion of incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, and unverified information.
This open nature is why the main problem with using VAERS to estimate the frequency—or changes in the frequency—of AEs after vaccination (as SSGitW did to claim such a massive increase in “turbo cancers) is that anyone with access to the Internet, mail, or the telephone can report anything to VAERS, as was demonstrated by bloggers years and years ago when one autism advocate filed a report claiming that the flu vaccine had turned him into The Incredible Hulk and another claimed a vaccine had turned his daughter into Wonder Woman. Both reports were accepted. In fairness, ultimately someone from VAERS did contact these people to ask about the reports, and the reports were removed. However, had they refused, reports that vaccines might turn one into the Hulk or Wonder Woman might still be in the database.
Which brings us to “SSGitW” and his claims:
Cancer begins when genetic changes interfere with the normal replication and replacement of cells in the body. Cells start to grow uncontrollably and may form a tumour. It is the No. 2 leading cause of death in the United States.
Unfortunately, it appears the disease may be on the rise thanks to the experimental Covid-19 injections. Because official U.S. Government data confirms the risk of developing cancer following Covid-19 vaccination increases by a shocking 143,233%.
There’s a little rule of thumb that I like to point out whenever evaluating a claim, even before I look into the “reasoning”—such as it might be—behind that claim, and that is to ask a simple question: How plausible is the claim? In this case, how plausible is the claim that the risk of developing cancer increases by over 1,400-fold? To do this, it’s useful to compare claims versus known numbers. For example, when Marty Makary claimed that medical errors were the “third leading cause of death,” estimating 250K to 400K deaths per year in the US due to medical errors, I pointed out that there were only 715K hospital deaths per year and around 2.6 million total deaths per year in the US during the years covered by Makary’s crappy study, which would mean that what Dr. Makary was proposing was that medical errors were causing the equivalent of 35-56% of all hospital deaths. (His was a hospital-based study.) Looking at it another way, Makary was claiming that 10-15% of all deaths in the US are caused by medical error. The claim was just not plausible.
So it is with this claim, as you will see, even absent the crappy analysis. But first, lets see what the SSGitW claims:
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) hosts a Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) which contains historical data on adverse reactions reported against every vaccine that has been administered in the United States of America.
A quick search of the CDC VAERS database on the number of cancer cases reported as adverse reactions to the Covid-19 injections since they were first rolled out in the USA, reveals that from December 2020 up to 5th August 2022, a total of 2,579 adverse events related to cancer were made in just 1 year and 8 months.
But performing a similar search of the VAERS database on the number of cancer cases reported as adverse events to all other available vaccines between 2008 and 2020, a period of 13 years, reveals there were just 791 adverse events related to cancer.
Again, remember the open nature of VAERS, in which anyone can report anything to the database as an AE. Also remember that claims that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines “permanently alter your DNA” and cause cancer began very early after the vaccines rolled out. Within a couple of months of the vaccine rolling out, antivaxxers were claiming that the mRNA vaccines were not really vaccines at all but rather “gene therapy,” and within three months of the vaccine rollout, that these vaccines caused cancer by targeting tumor suppressor genes, based on a very willful misinterpretation of a study that at the time was over two years old. Even before that, antivaxxers were fear mongering about observations that COVID-19 vaccine injections into the deltoid muscle could cause enlarged axillary lymph nodes on the same side (lymph nodes under the arm), which showed up on mammography and could falsely raise the suspicion of breast cancer on that side. By the time 2021 was drawing to a close, they were claiming that spike protein from COVID-19 vaccines was interfering with DNA repair to cause cancer, and within year of the first vaccine-cancer claims, they were misrepresenting a Department of Defense database numbers to claim that the vaccines were causing a huge uptick in cancer. Misleading and false claims that COVID-19 vaccines caused cancer soon proliferated on social media, thanks to a crank pathologist in Idaho named Ryan Cole and other antivax quacks and “scientists,” ultimately evolving by the end of last year into a claim that these vaccines could cause “turbo cancer,” the false claim that COVID-19 vaccines were causing horrifically nasty cancers that are so much nastier and rapidly fatal than run-of-the-mill cancers before the days of the vaccine or reviving cancers that had previously been in remission. (Hint: “Turbo cancer” was a term made up by antivaxxers last year.)
Remember what I said about VAERS. It’s a passive reporting database. Anyone can report anything to it. Moreover, reporting is very much affected by a number of factors, not the least of which are claims going around about various things that vaccines cause. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the most common claim was that vaccines cause autism, a time when antivaxxers were promoting the claim on websites and discussion forums—remember, this was before Facebook, Twitter, and other social media besides Usenet, blogs, and MySpace—and lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers were encouraging their clients to report their children’s autism as having been due to vaccines, of course VAERS was full of reports of autism after vaccines. That’s why, after the COVID-19 vaccines had rolled out and antivaxxers had resurrected new “variants” of the antivax claim that the vaccines caused cancer, of course there were a lot more reports to VAERS of cancer diagnoses after vaccination against COVID-19 than there had ever been before for any other vaccine, particularly given how the government for the first time was really publicized VAERS in a way that it had never been publicized before and was also actively soliciting AE reports through its new system V-Safe (which, of course, antivaxxers quickly misused and weaponized too).
Again, remember that VAERS was never intended as a reliable means of estimating the true prevalence of specific AEs to vaccines. Rather, it was always intended as an early warning system, a system that could generate hypotheses regarding potential AEs that might be the result of specific vaccines. In brief, raw VAERS reports are investigated and adjudicated before the CDC uses them in analyses. Then the hypotheses generated by the analysis of VAERS reports are tested using much more rigorous methodology and reliable databases, such as the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD), to test whether the safety signals identified in VAERS are reproducible using an active surveillance system. As I like to say, antivaxxers love to portray VAERS as the be-all and end-all of vaccine safety monitoring because of its many problems as a passive reporting system to estimate the true prevalence of AEs due to vaccines and because it can be so easily “gamed” by misinformation and encouragement by antivaxxers to report anything they want to blame on vaccines to the database.
Of course, antivaxxers know this (sort of) and always try desperately to deny that that’s the reason for their “results” (if you can call them that). The same thing happens here, with this article serving up a bit of a straw man to try to deflect this criticism:
Many would simply argue without backing their claim up with any evidence, that this is just because of the volume of Covid-19 injections administered compared to all other vaccines. But unfortunately, anyone who argues this is wrong.
Yes, that’s part of the reason why this analysis is BS, but only part, but let’s see how this counterargument goes:
We can see this by looking at the number of doses administered.
The following chart shows the total number of flu vaccine doses administered in 13 full flu seasons all the way from the 2008/2009 flu season to the 2019-2020 flu season. The data has been extracted from the CDC info found here.
In all between the 08/09 flu season and the 19/20 flu season, there were a total of 1,720,400,000 (1.7204 billion) doses of the flu jab administered in the USA.
The CDC also confirms that between 2008 and 2020, a period of 13 years, there were just 64 events related to cancer reported as adverse reactions to the influenza vaccines.
Based on the number of adverse events related to cancer alone, we can see that there have been 40.3x as many cancer cases related to Covid-19 vaccination than there have been related to flu vaccination.
To make it all seem very science-like, the antivaxxers generate four graphs:
Hmmm. What could possibly be the difference between influenza vaccines and COVID-19 vaccines that might generate graphs like this (actually, that would be guaranteed to generate graphs like this)? It couldn’t possibly be the difference between a vaccine that’s been administered many decades, year-in, year-out, without a concerted effort to claim that the vaccine causes cancer, and COVID-19 vaccines, whose rollout was soon greeted with a massive propaganda machine that claimed that they caused all manner of horrible AEs, including cancer, could it? (Of course it could.)
Of course, antivaxxers being antivaxxers, they could then make this incredibly innumerate claim:
This means Covid-19 vaccination is 1433.33x / 143,233.33% more likely to cause cancer than flu vaccination. It can be argued that because the numbers are so extraordinarily low for the flu vaccine, that flu vaccination does not cause cancer. Therefore, it can be argued that the risk of developing cancer following Covid-19 vaccination is 1433x greater than the background risk.
I kid you not. That’s where the claim that COVID-19 vaccines increase the risk of cancer by more than 1,400-fold came from. It’s a simple (and stupid) as that. Truly, it is a doozy of statistical ignorance or lies, take your pick. (I pick a little bit of both.)
I won’t go through the rest of the post (much) other than to say that it’s a typical Gish gallop of antivax misinformation claiming that the vaccines cause cancer, several of which I’ve debunked before. That’s why I’m going to close by revisiting what I said about plausibility. There are two types of plausibility that this “analysis” violates. The first is biological. Again, as I’ve pointed out time and time and time again, cancers that manifest themselves as a result of exposure to the most powerful carcinogen known, ionizing radiation, generally do not manifest themselves for at least a decade; the very quickest such cancers can arise is within a couple of years, but this is only for hematological malignancies like leukemias. Solid malignancies, like ovarian cancer (featured in the article as one example) take many years longer. (We know this from studies carried out observing survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in the 1980s.) Even if COVID-19 vaccines were as carcinogenic as ionizing radiation, we would not be seeing it yet, other than maybe a hint of signal in the hematologic malignancies (which we’re not seeing).
The second point of implausibility is just numbers. There’s almost nothing in medicine that will increase the risk of an outcome by 1,433-f0ld. Even decades of cigarette smoking only increases your risk of lung cancer by around 10-fold. Think of it this way. If you’re a man, there is about a 40% risk of being diagnosed with some form of cancer in your lifetime. Another way of looking at it is that, according to the National Cancer Institute, an average American’s risk of being diagnosed with cancer is around 442.4 per 100,000 men and women per year and the risk of death from cancer is around 158.3 per 100,000 men and women per year. So in the time period covered by this antivaxxer, from December 2020 to August 5, 2022 (about one year and seven months, or about 1.58 years, the average expected risk of being diagnosed with cancer would be around 700.5 per 100,000, with an attendant risk of death of around 250.5 per 100,000.
So what would a 1,433-fold increase in those rates look like? If you do the math, you’ll see that it would result in a risk of being diagnosed with cancer in that roughly 19 month time period would be 1,433 x 700.5 = 1,004,067 per 100,000, which would be not just a risk of 100% but a risk of 1,000% in absolute terms. It’s impossible. Basically, the math is claiming that there is a risk of cancer that is 10-fold greater than is even theoretically possible if the risk attributable to the vaccine were 100%.
The antivaxxers who do analyses like this are either too stupid to “reality check” their numbers or sufficiently dishonest that they know that their readers won’t bother to reality check their numbers. There is no other explanation, other than a combination of the two. That’s why, whenever you see a claim like this in which a widely implausibly high relative risk is attributed to anything, do the math. You’ll almost certainly find out that it truly is not just implausible but impossible.