Did Dr. Tom Shimabukuro, director of the Immunization Safety Office at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), admit COVID-19 vaccines are causing "debilitating illnesses"? No, that's not true: In the context of talking about unverified data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) on COVID vaccine side effects, Shimabukuro acknowledged "reports of people experiencing long-lasting health problems," but also said, "the clinical presentation of people suffering these health problems is variable and no specific medical cause for the symptoms have been found."
The claim appeared in a video on Rumble (archived here) published on January 26, 2023, and titled "JUST IN: CDC Dep. Dir. Tom Shimabukuro Admits COVID Vaccines Are Causing 'Debilitating Illnesses.'" The post includes a quote from Shimabukuro in the video:
We are aware of these reports of people experiencing long-lasting health problems following COVID vaccination.
This is what the post looked like on Rumble at the time of the writing of this fact check:
(Source: Rumble screenshot taken on Fri Feb 10 16:05:24 2023 UTC)
The video clip with Shimabukuro runs 64 seconds. Here's what it says in its entirety:
We take vaccine safety very seriously. With respect to reports of people experiencing debilitating illnesses ... I mean, we are aware of these reports of people experiencing long-lasting health problems following COVID vaccination. In some cases, the clinical presentation of people suffering these health problems is variable and no specific medical cause for the symptoms have been found. We understand that illness is disruptive and stressful, especially under those circumstances and we acknowledge these health problems have substantially impacted the quality of life for people and have also affected those around them and we hope for improvement and recovery. And we will continue to monitor the safety of these vaccines and work with partners to try to better understand these types of adverse events.
Shimabukuro was speaking at the 178th meeting of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, which was hosted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on January 26, 2023. Shimabukuro's comments came nearly seven hours into the session:
The reports to which Shimabukuro refers in the clip come from the VAERS database, a collection of unverified information from individuals who choose to report a certain health experience after vaccination. The CDC's Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) project can investigate these claims.
In a February 10, 2023, email in response to a Lead Stories query, the CDC's public affairs office provided this response to the video:
Adverse health events occurring after vaccination might be caused by vaccination. Examples include soreness at the injection site, fever, and muscle aches. Allergic reactions and rare cases of myocarditis associated with COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, mostly in adolescent and young adult males, have been associated with vaccination.
Other adverse health events occurring after vaccination might be coincidental and not related to vaccination.
VAERS accepts all reports of adverse events regardless of the plausibility of the vaccine causing the event or the clinical seriousness of the event. CDC is aware of reports of people experiencing debilitating and long-lasting health problems following COVID-19 vaccination. In some cases, the clinical presentation of people suffering these health problems is variable and no specific medical cause for symptoms has been found. Currently, there are no epidemiologic data from safety monitoring to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines are causing these types of health problems.
VAERS, which the CDC co-sponsors with the FDA, operates as a crude early warning system and not as a database for the quantification of specific outcomes following vaccination.
Anyone with internet access can add a report to the VAERS list of reports. The public access link to it expressly warns against unwarranted conclusions based on VAERS material because the list only provides a tally of unverified notes about any health event people experience after they are vaccinated.
The list itself cannot be used to prove or quantify, since all it shows is a chronological correlation, not the causal link that would be more difficult to establish. It's the equivalent of a police precinct's running "blotter" reports that may serve as a starting point for police work, not an endpoint.
Vaccine Safety Datalink
The CDC's Vaccine Safety Datalink started in 1990 and is used to monitor the safety of vaccines and conduct studies about rare and serious adverse events following immunization. A project overview on the VSD website says:
The VSD conducts vaccine safety studies based on questions or concerns raised from the medical literature and reports to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). When there are new vaccines that have been recommended for use in the United States or if there are changes in how a vaccine is recommended, the VSD will monitor the safety of these vaccines.
Additional Lead Stories fact checks of claims related to COVID vaccines can be found here.