Did COVID-19 vaccines kill 17 million people around the world during the pandemic? No, that's not true: Infectious disease experts told Lead Stories that the surge in deaths correlates with surges in coronavirus infections, not vaccination campaigns. The overwhelming majority of adverse events reported after vaccination are mild and temporary, and the benefits of vaccination in preventing severe illness and death from COVID far outweigh any potential risks.
The claim appeared in a post and video (archived here) published on X (formerly Twitter) by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on January 5, 2024, under the title "The Tucker Carlson Encounter." The post's caption said:
Ep. 60 Is the lesson of the Covid disaster that we should give its architects more power? Bret Weinstein on the WHO's plans for you.
This is what the post looked like on X at the time of writing:
(Source: X screenshot taken on Tue Jan 9 16:03:38 2024 UTC)
The video in the post comes from the online show "The Tucker Carlson Encounter" (archived here), also published on January 5, 2024. During the nearly hourlong show, Carlson interviewed evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein. At about the 21:25 mark, during a section about mRNA COVID vaccines, Weinstein offered the unsupported claim that the shots killed 17 million people. Here's the transcript:
Weinstein: I was recently at a conference in Romania on the COVID crisis and so there was a lot of work trying to unpack what we actually understand. And I saw a credible estimate of something like 17 million deaths globally from this technology, so ...
Carlson: Seventeen million deaths from the COVID vax?
Weinstein: Well, when, you know, when you scale up to billions, it's not hard to reach a number like that with a technology that's dangerous. ...
Carlson: Just for perspective, I mean, that's like the death toll of a global war.
Weinstein: Yes. Absolutely. This is a great tragedy of history. ... Amazingly, there is no way in which it's over.
I mean, we are still apparently recommending these things for healthy children ever stood any chance of getting any benefit from, every chance of suffering harms that are not only serious but tragic on the basis that children have long lives ahead of them.
If you ruin a child's immune system in youth, they have to spend the rest of their presumably shortened life in that state. So, it never made any sense that we were giving this to kids in the first place.
The fact that we're still doing it, when the emergency to the extent there even was one is clearly over, and when there's never been any proper justification of administering it to healthy kids. It just, healthy kids don't die of COVID. And the shot doesn't prevent you from catching or transmitting it. So, there was just literally no justification.
Weinstein cited no evidence to back his claim, only saying he had seen a "credible estimate" of the deaths he attributed to the COVID vaccines.
Research by Lead Stories produced two likely sources.
First, a September 17, 2023, paper published by the not-for-profit organization Correlation Research in the Public Interest called "COVID-19 vaccine-associated mortality in the Southern Hemisphere." The non-peer-reviewed report (archived here) came to this conclusion (emphasis ours):
We quantify the overall all-ages vDFR [vaccine-dose fatality rate] for the 17 countries to be (0.126 ± 0.004) %, which would imply 17.0 ± 0.5 million COVID-19 vaccine deaths worldwide, from 13.50 billion injections up to 2 September 2023. This would correspond to a mass iatrogenic event that killed (0.213 ± 0.006) % of the world population (1 death per 470 living persons, in less than 3 years), and did not measurably prevent any deaths.
A second potential source is a September 28, 2023, article in The Epoch Times (archived here) based on the same paper, titled "COVID Vaccines Causally Linked to Increased Mortality, Resulting in 17 Million Deaths: Scientific Report." At the end of the article, the author notes "Potential Limitations" in the original paper:
It's important to note the scientific report has not yet been peer-reviewed. Articles that are ultimately accepted by peer review are often revised prior to publication, indicating potential for improvement. Peer review is a process of evaluating submissions to an academic journal where an expert panel applies rigorous criteria to validate results prior to acceptance for publication.
The Epoch Times updated its story multiple times, softening the headline's claim each time before dropping the 17 million deaths number altogether:
- Original headline: "COVID Vaccines Causally Linked to Increased Mortality, Resulting in 17 Million Deaths: Scientific Report."
- Archived on September 3, 2023, the headline said: "Researchers Find COVID Vaccines Causally Linked to Increased Mortality, Estimate 17 Million Deaths."
- Archived on December 8, 2023, the headline said: "Researchers Find COVID Vaccines Linked to Increased Mortality."
Infectious diseases experts
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Lead Stories in a January 8, 2023, phone interview that there is "no evidence" that COVID vaccines killed 17 million people. He referred to the paper by Correlation Research in the Public Interest, saying :
What this paper does and what people have been doing with these types of figures is looking at the number of deaths that occur and then looking at the number of vaccines that have been given and saying that A causes B, rather than understanding that vaccine doses are likely to go up when there is a surge of COVID-19 infections, and that those excess mortality figures are the result of COVID-19 infection from which the vaccines are being deployed. ...
Places where COVID-19 is surging, you're going to see an increase in vaccines and you're going to see encouragement of vaccine doses, and the vaccine numbers are going to go up and people are going to die because they're getting COVID.
In a January 9, 2024, email to Lead Stories, Dr. James Lawler with the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center raised a similar complaint with the paper by Correlation Research in the Public Interest:
The fundamental flaw in their analysis is that they look at overall yearly trends in all-cause mortality and the timing association between mortality (deaths) and COVID-19 vaccinations, but they do not account for the timing of surges in COVID-19 cases and deaths that are very closely correlated (and causally related) to surges in all-cause mortality in the countries in question (and in every country in the world over the previous 4 years). The reason that there is a temporal association between the timing of vaccine doses and deaths is because countries were rolling out their most aggressive vaccination campaigns in 2021-2022 when the pandemic had the greatest death toll in those countries - due to infections with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. ...
In addition, an overwhelming amount of legitimate scientific research published in peer-reviewed journals supports the link between excess mortality and COVID deaths while confirming that there is very low risk of death or other harms from the vaccines.
The report has another problem: The authors didn't check if the people who died had received the vaccine because their data only showed overall population numbers, not individual details. It's crucial to confirm whether those who died were vaccinated first. Without this information, we can't confidently link vaccination to deaths. Checking vaccination status should have been the initial step in the analysis.
Additionally, correlation doesn't imply causation. Just because two things happen in the same timeframe doesn't prove they are connected. The causes could be independent and have nothing to do with each other. For example, the sun could be shining, and someone could stub their toe. That doesn't mean the sunshine caused them to trip.
And, perhaps, the organization that published the paper tips its hand a bit in its name: Correlation Research in the Public Interest.
Correlation Research in the Public Interest
In his email, Lawler said the group that wrote the paper shouldn't be taken seriously. He continued:
First of all, the CORRELATION center in Canada, which describes itself as 'a registered not-for-profit organization conducting independent scientific research on topics of public interest' is not a legitimate source of information nor is it hardly a paragon of scientific investigation.
It is a propaganda machine established to specifically spout anti-vaccine and anti-science misinformation. It is not coincidental that it was founded during the COVID pandemic and has written papers on no other issues than deliberately misleading treatises on COVID vaccines and non-pharmaceutical interventions.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
In another January 9, 2024, email, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told Lead Stories that there are ample studies that demonstrate that vaccination with COVID-19 vaccines doesn't increase a person's risk of death. A CDC spokesperson said:
Two important studies looked at the possible association between COVID-19 vaccination and death. One study of 6.4 million COVID-19 vaccinees and 4.6 million unvaccinated persons with similar characteristics in nine healthcare organizations found that there is no increased risk of death among COVID-19 vaccine recipients. This finding reinforces the safety profile of currently approved COVID-19 vaccines in the United States. A second study found that reporting rates for death after COVID-19 vaccination were lower than the expected all-cause mortality rates. Trends in reporting rates reflected known trends in background mortality rates. These findings do not suggest a causal association between COVID-19 vaccination and overall increased mortality.
People receiving COVID-19 vaccines are at no greater risk of death from non-COVID causes than unvaccinated people and are less likely to die from COVID-19 disease.
A list of CDC studies on the safety of COVID-19 vaccination can be found here.
Based on our model fit to officially reported COVID-19 deaths, we estimated that 18·1 million (95% credible interval [CrI] 17·4-19·7) deaths due to COVID-19 would have occurred without vaccinations worldwide during the first year of the COVID-19 vaccination programme (Dec 8, 2020, to Dec 8, 2021). Of these, we estimated that vaccination prevented 14·4 million (95% CrI 13·7-15·9) deaths due to COVID-19, representing a global reduction of 79% of deaths (14·4 million of 18·1 million) during the first year of COVID-19 vaccination (table 1). These estimates of vaccine impact do not account for the potential under-ascertainment of deaths related to COVID-19.
Additional Lead Stories fact checks of claims about COVID-19 vaccines can be found here.