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Fact check: Former Pfizer VP spreads false claim about COVID-19 vaccines and child deaths

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The claim: Children are 50 times more likely to die from the COVID-19 vaccine than the virus

After months of waiting for Food and Drug Administration authorization, children are next in line to receive COVID-19 vaccines. But some on social media claim they may be better off unvaccinated.

“Children are 50 times more likely to be killed by the COVID vaccines than the virus itself,” reads a Nov. 5 Instagram post, which acquired more than 3,000 likes in one week. The post attributes the quote to “Dr. Michael Yeadon, former Pfizer VP.”

Yeadon was a chief scientific officer and vice president at Pfizer before he left in 2011 after more than 16 years at the company. Since then, he has become a source of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines, Reuters reported.

The claim in the Instagram post stems from something Yeadon said during a June interview with Steve Bannon, once a strategist for former President Donald Trump.

“It’s a crazy thing to vaccinate (children) with something that is actually 50 times more likely to kill them than the virus itself,” Yeadon said.

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That’s false.

Clinical trial data shows the COVID-19 vaccines do not pose a risk of death to children. Public health officials say the shots can prevent serious illness, and experts say their benefits outweigh their risks.

USA TODAY reached out to Yeadon and the person who shared the Instagram post for comment.

Vaccine not linked to death

For children, the overall risk of death from COVID-19 is low. But they have not been entirely spared from the virus.

Provisional data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows 700 kids under the age of 18 have died from the virus. More than 200 of them were younger than 4 years old.

Eric Aviles, 6,  leans on his mother, Catherine, while waiting in line to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a pediatric vaccine clinic for children ages 5 to 11 set up at Willard Intermediate School in Santa Ana, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Eric Aviles, 6, leans on his mother, Catherine, while waiting in line to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a pediatric vaccine clinic for children ages 5 to 11 set up at Willard Intermediate School in Santa Ana, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The same can’t be said of the vaccine.

“In the U.S., no child has died from the vaccine, but over 600 have died from COVID,” Dr. Leana Wen, a professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, said in an email. “(Yeadon’s) claim is completely untrue.”

In Pfizer's clinical trials for children 5 to 11 years old, no deaths from the COVID-19 vaccine were recorded. Additionally, no deaths were reported among Pfizer vaccine recipients during trials for those between 12 and 25 years old. The Moderna vaccine trials had a similar result.

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Between December and July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received 14 reports of death among 12- to 17-year-olds after receiving the vaccine. But the vaccine was not determined to be the cause of death in any of those cases, according to Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a professor in the University of Florida’s departments of pediatrics and epidemiology.

“The benefits of the vaccine in preventing severe illness and death in children far outweigh the potential risks,” Rasmussen said in an email.

Shots will prevent infections, deaths

Getting children vaccinated against COVID-19 could prevent thousands of infections and hospitalizations, according to the CDC.

During a late-August discussion, the CDC estimated that, for children between 16 and 17 years old, one million COVID-19 vaccinations over 120 days would prevent about 135,000 cases, 1,000 hospitalizations and eight deaths.

That analysis also predicted about 81 children would experience myocarditis, a rare inflammation of the heart muscle.

But the CDC determined the hospitalization of adolescents with COVID-19 would, on average, last longer and be more serious than that of children with myocarditis. And people are six to 34 times more likely to experience the condition after a COVID-19 infection than they are following vaccination, according to the agency.

When Bannon asked him to back up his assertions, Yeadon pointed to the CDC's Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System as evidence.

But as USA TODAY has reported, the database cannot be used to determine the cause of adverse side effects from vaccines. Anti-vaccine advocates have misconstrued VAERS reports for decades.

More: Want enhanced clarity on the news? Join text chat with USA TODAY's expert fact-checkers.

The database includes all adverse events reported after vaccination against COVID-19, whether they were related to the vaccine or not. Anyone can report adverse events to VAERS, and they are not verified before publication, according to the CDC.

“This is a common misuse of VAERS data,” Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric diseases at the University of California-Davis Medical Center, said in an email. “It’s important to understand that VAERS data cannot be used to prove causation, it is used to look for safety signals.”

USA TODAY reached out to the CDC and Pfizer for comment.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that children are 50 times more likely to die from the COVID-19 vaccine than the virus. No child deaths have been linked to the vaccines. And experts and public health officials say children are more at risk from COVID-19 than the vaccines, which do not cause death.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines not linked to deaths in children

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