Covid-19 vaccines and “related” deaths: A journey through European disinformation narratives

Less than a year after the beginning of the Covid-19 global health crisis, several pharmaceutical companies succeeded in developing vaccines which have been deemed safe and effective by the most important health institutions in the world, such as the European medicine agency (Ema) and the U.S. Food and drugs administration (Fda).

The most widely available vaccines at the moment are the ones produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and, to a lesser extent, AstraZeneca. Other companies are also showing positive results in their testing phases or are currently filing for emergency use approval.

The incredible speed of the whole process, however, fueled no-vax groups and conspiracy theorists, giving them grounds to create an articulate set of disinformation narratives based on, for example, alleged lack of proper data during the trials, supposedly severe and frequent side effects, or their alleged ability to modify human Dna. We explained more about these narratives in this Soma article.

Since the vaccines distribution process began on a global scale – an operation which proved to be almost as complicated as the actual research and development stage – a specific false narrative started circulating in virtually all European countries: people who received the vaccine were dying.

Taken out of context, this narrative can alter public trust toward vaccines in general and thus jeopardize the enormous efforts that are being made to deliver them to as many people as possible, in order to finally put an end to the pandemic.

We will take a look at the truth behind the alleged deaths caused by Covid-19 vaccines in Europe, and which are the main elements of these overwhelmingly misleading allegations.

Reasons to doubt?

Even though – as we will see – Covid-19 vaccines are safe, their development was unusual enough to instill some doubts.

First of all, the pace with which these vaccines were developed is unprecedented: a process that used to take up to 10 years was squeezed into less than 12 months, as national governments were trying to balance the need to contain infections while simultaneously saving the global economy.

As we already explained in this article, however, the vaccines development process followed all the traditional steps and testing procedures, which were accelerated thanks to the unprecedented financial support researchers received from private donors and public entities, again worried about the unraveling consequences of a long-term pandemic.

Furthermore, after being developed and tested, vaccines have been approved by national and international regulatory agencies, which carefully reviewed all the available data before making any final decision. This process was also accelerated, but it still had to go through the same steps adopted for all other vaccines.

A second element that raised some initial uncertainties is related to the fact that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna (the first Covid-19 vaccines to be approved for large-scale use) use a technology based on the mRNA, a technique which researchers have been studying for years but hadn’t actually been approved for any other vaccine before Covid-19.

A third factor regards the vaccines’ collateral effects. It’s important to clarify that both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna said that their mRNA vaccines can cause mild side effects on patients, such as headaches, fatigue, or muscle soreness. These, however, generally disappear naturally after a couple of days.

There have also been a few instances of more severe complications, generally due to allergic reactions that followed the delivery of the first dose (as it happened last December to two healthcare workers in the United Kingdom), but in most cases patients recovered after receiving medical treatment.

All of these elements – the quick research process, the new technology and the common but minor side effects – were used by conspiracy theorists to sow doubts and build a number of false narratives which claim that vaccines led many patients to death and, therefore, their administration is not safe.

Let’s look at the main examples of misinformation and disinformation that circulated in Europe.

A misleading narrative

All the main European countries had to deal with a number of claims related to people who died shortly after getting the Covid-19 vaccine.

Many of them seem to follow the same misleading narrative: it is true that some people have actually died within a few days of receiving a Covid-19 vaccine, but they were generally very old individuals with a number of underlying conditions which made them particularly weak. Most of these deaths, in fact, cannot be causally linked to the administration of a Covid-19 vaccine.

France

In France, our colleagues from Les Surligneurs, a legal fact-checking project part of the Soma network, told us that on 21-22 January 2021  several newspapers reported that some people (five according to some news outlets, while others talk about nine) died after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Most of them were older than 75.

More updated data released on February 5 by the Agence nationale de sécurité du médicament (Ansm), the French agency in charge of managing drugs and other medical products, report (page 20) that since the beginning of the vaccination campaign, on December 27, 2020, and until February 1, a total of 59 people died shortly after receiving a Covid-19 vaccine.

However, the report clearly states, and repeats several times (page 22), that it is not possible to establish a causal connection between the vaccine and the demise of the patients.

Furthermore, the report adds (page 22) that between 2018 and 2019 – so before the Covid-19 pandemic hit – 400 to 500 people died every day in French nursing homes. The amount of deaths that followed the delivery of the vaccine, then, can’t be considered alarming or particularly remarkable from a purely statistical standpoint, also taking into account that all the people involved had pre-existing conditions or an overall frail health situation.

Spain

Through the collaborative platform Truly Media we were able to locate a similar narrative in Spain. Seven people died in a nursing home in Toledo at the beginning of February, after receiving the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. They all had tested positive to Covid-19: actually, that nursing home turned out to be the epicentre of a major coronavirus outbreak, with most of the residents and the employees infected with the virus.

However, it’s important to remember that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (and the Moderna one as well) requires two doses to immunize a patient, and the administration of a single shot is only 52% effective. Therefore, it’s possible to fall ill with the virus even after receiving the first injection.

Germany

In Germany, Soma members from eVAI Intelligence pointed us to an article published by Der Spiegel which dealt with some allegations, shared on Twitter by a Chinese Tv presenter, according to which 10 people have died in the country after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.

The information is again correct, but experts from the Paul Ehrlich Institute, the Federal institute for vaccines and biomedicines, explained that all the patients were old and with severe pre-existing conditions which have likely been the main cause of death.

There have also been more isolated cases: in Bavaria, for instance, circulated a false news according to which a fireman died a few days after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine. Fact-checkers at Br24 found that the facts are correct, but the vaccine had nothing to do with the demise of the man, which was instead caused primarily by a heart attack.

Italy

In mid-December fact-checkers at Facta verified a widespread claim according to which six people died during the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine testing phases. The news circulated in several European countries.

The information is correct, but it was often framed in a misleading and alarming way.

Out of the six people who died, four of them were part of the placebo group, so they never actually received the vaccine. Regarding the two people who got vaccinated, one had a heart attack 62 days after receiving the second dose, while the second individual had a pre-existing form of arteriosclerosis.

After the beginning of the mass vaccination campaign, Italian newspapers also reported about a number of people who passed away after receiving a Covid-19 vaccine (for example an old lady in Genoa who had a cerebral hemorrhage, or a doctor in Mantua who had an heart attack), but in all cases the two events seemed to be not directly related.

Other countries

News about Covid-19 vaccines (falsely) related deaths became particularly popular in Norway. During the second half of January, media outlets all around Europe – in Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, Poland, and France, among others – reported about 23 people who died in Norwegian nursing homes after the administration of the vaccine.

As of February 2, 2021, the Norwegian institute of public health reported that 56 people have died within 12 days of receiving a Covid-19 vaccine (more in detail, 55 got the Pfizer-BioNtech one, while 1 got Moderna’s). All of the deaths «occurred amongst elderly nursing home residents over the age of 70.»

The Institute claims that «many of these reports state that no link to vaccination is suspected. The fact that some nursing home residents die soon after being vaccinated does not mean that there is a causal relationship.»

However, it admits that «in the case of some patients, there is always a possibility that relatively mild adverse reactions following the vaccination of frail elderly people contributed to a deterioration in their general condition or underlying illness, leading to death of the patient».

Furthermore, the report also states that everyday about 45 people die in Norvegian nursing homes, and «it is therefore to be expected that deaths will occur soon after vaccination, without there necessarily being any causal link to the vaccine.»

In Ireland, TheJournal.ie verified a social media post which linked the death of a doctor at Wexford General Hospital with the fact that he had received the vaccine a few days before.

Fact-checkers stated that «Health Products Regulatory Authority (Hpra), the regulatory body for medicines in Ireland, confirmed there have been no reports of deaths for which there were concerns about the Covid-19 vaccine.» However, our colleagues from the Institute for future media and communications at Dublin City University informed us that similar cases of disinformation were also circulating on Twitter.

German Soma members at eVAI Intelligence highlighted similar news circulating in Switzerland, where a 91-years-old woman in a nursing home died five days after receiving the vaccine. Swissmedic, the Swiss surveillance authority for medicines and medical devices, stated that any link between the two events is «highly unlikely.»

Along with this set of misleading causal connections between actual deaths and Covid-19 vaccines, another popular but invented narrative quickly spread in a number of European countries.

Invented deaths

A second, popular example of disinformation claims that specific people – generally the first ones to receive the vaccine in different European countries – are now dead. All of these claims proved to be unfounded, since the individuals they mention are alive and in good health.

France

Les Surligneurs pointed us to an article published by Checknews – the fact-checking section of the newspaper Liberation – that debunked a report that a 78-years-old commonly identified only as “Mauricette”, the first person to receive the vaccine in France on December 27, was dead.

Checknews traced the development of the hoax: the information was initially shared by a Twitter account on December 28, the day after the vaccination, but it went largely ignored.  The post resurfaced about two weeks later, when people started talking about the 23 deaths in Norway that we mentioned earlier. In the end, though, the user who initially posted the information about Mauricette’s death admitted it was fake, and the Paris’ hospital trust confirmed it.

Spain

Our colleagues from Globograma informed us that a very similar false news circulated in Spain, claiming that Araceli Hidalgo – the first Spanish person to get vaccinated against Covid-19 – died shortly after the injection.

However, fact-checkers at Rtve debunked this, and the nursing home where she resides confirmed that she was doing well after the hoax started to circulate.

United Kingdom

As soon as AstraZeneca started testing its Covid-19 vaccine, developed in partnership with Oxford University, conspiracy theories followed along. A popular narrative, which spread in several European countries, claimed that Elisa Granato, the first volunteer to be injected with the vaccine, died a few days after receiving it.

The information has been debunked by many fact-checkers, and the UK’s Department of health and social care confirmed that «news circulating on social media that the first volunteer in a UK #coronavirus vaccine trial has died is completely untrue.»

Darker conspiracies

False news about Covid-19 vaccines and related deaths also took darker forms.

Our colleagues and Soma members from DebunkEU informed us about a number of concerning articles and social media posts that are circulating in Poland, which support the general idea that vaccines are being used by governments to somehow control or kill on large scale human beings, and that collateral effects are actually extremely common.

As we mentioned, these theories seem to fit into the bigger frame of general conspiracies that see the pandemic as a plan of the elites to change the world order, as outlined in documentaries such as the American Plandemic or the French Hold-Up, which we analyzed in this article.

Vaccines in Europe: what the actual situation looks like

Misleading information about people who died shortly after receiving the vaccine, plainly invented news and even more alarming conspiracy theories all contribute to fuel diffidence among the general public, and can thus decrease the levels of trust in the procedures.

Let’s look at what official sources say about vaccines’ safety.

Vaccines are safe

On January 29, the European medicine agency published the first Covid-19 vaccine safety update report, which assesses the side effects caused by the Pfizer-BioNTech (Comirnaty) vaccine. The document clearly states that «no specific safety concern has been identified for vaccine use in frail elderly individuals. The benefits of Comirnaty in preventing COVID-19 continue to outweigh any risks.»

The European database of suspected adverse drug reaction reports (EudraVigilance) is currently gathering information about side effects caused by the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, but it doesn’t include the demises.

However, on January 27, the United States Center for disease control and prevention (Cdc) published a report with data about the safety of Covid-19 vaccines gathered during the first phases of mass use. The document states that, as of January 24, almost 22 million people received at least one dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccine. The number of people who died following Covid-19 vaccinations was 196 (0.0009% of the total). It’s important to note that the report includes deaths «due to any cause,» which «should not be assumed to be causally related to vaccination».

Conclusion

Since vaccination campaigns began in Europe, false or misleading information started spreading to claim that people who received a Covid-19 vaccine died shortly afterwards.

In this article, we identified two main examples of disinformation around this topic. The first one exploits real, verified instances of people who died after getting vaccinated, but it links the two events in a misleading and forced way.

While it is true that several individuals, in different countries, passed away within a few days of getting the vaccine, the great majority of cases involved elderly people whose health conditions were already very frail and compromised. Official reports therefore deny any kind of causal connection between the two events, and claim that the vaccine cannot be considered as a cause of death.

On the other hand, the second popular narrative, which we found in Spain, France and, in a slightly different form, the United Kingdom, claimed that the first person to receive the vaccine in a specific country is now dead. In all cases, this information proved to be false.

In addition, some darker conspiracy theories also circulated on the internet. Soma members from DebunkEU pointed us at a number of alarming contents from Poland, which link vaccines to a greater scheme that considers Covid-19 just as an invention of the elites to control humanity. Needless to say, all of this is completely unfounded.

As we saw, the vaccines that are currently available against Covid-19 have been properly tested and they have been deemed safe and efficient by the most important regulatory agencies in the world.

Even though in some sporadic instances they led to actual health complications, the overall incidence of severe side effects is minimal compared to the amount of doses that have been administered so far.

Pagella Politica, Facta, Globograma, eVAI Intelligence, DebunkEU, the Institute for future media and communications at Dublin City University, and Les Surligneurs contributed to this collaborative investigation.