Inside the Warped World of COVID Vaccine Death-Hunters 1

As soon as the United States authorized the use of the first COVID-19 vaccine in mid-December, a small but vocal group of skeptics and conspiracy theorists, baselessly convinced that the jabs were lethal, started hunting for dead people. At first their efforts were relatively small-bore and haphazard—although far from innocuous. But as the scale and sophistication of America’s vaccine rollout have exponentially ramped up over the last three months, so have efforts to hunt down alleged vaccine fatalities.

Starting in mid-January, several social media channels and websites emerged as hubs for stories, generated by admins and users pulling together snippets from across the internet and crafting them into cohesive narratives and brief posts, linking reported deaths to COVID vaccinations. Several of these platforms have grown notably, and become more formalized, in recent weeks. Unsurprisingly, given the robust safety profile of the vaccines in use in the United States, they rarely detail how a vaccination supposedly caused a given death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not found a causal connection between COVID vaccines and virtually any post-vaccination deaths—although the agency recently announced it is investigating three deaths linked to a rare blood-clotting disorder a few individuals developed after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Medical authorities shelved that vaccine temporarily because sensitive monitoring systems picked up on this issue quickly. However, anti-vaxxers often take this less as a sign that safety systems are working and more as a sign that they were right all along and many more dangers must remain hidden.

But even if the narratives these hubs string together are weak and not supported by extant research on vaccine risks, some evidence suggests seeing these sorts of stories repeated ad nauseam may turn otherwise open people away from vaccines. This is a problem, as experts warn that skeptics, especially in far-right strongholds, are holding us back from herd immunity.

And death-hunting hubs are overflowing with dubious stories about vaccine death.

“People from all over the world send us the leads,” Brian A. Wilkins, a freelance writer who runs a site called The COVID Blog, which publishes pandemic misinformation and conspiracy theories, told The Daily Beast. (The blog has a “Vaccine Deaths” category, but Wilkins insists he only uses the term “for SEO purposes”; he, like many skeptics, falsely insists coronavirus vaccines are not real vaccines, and should properly be called experimental genetic therapies.) “I cannot even keep up,” he added. “I’m at least 70 stories behind.”

Some of these “leads” are local media reports that provocatively note someone got vaccinated and died days or weeks later—but never establish a firm causal link between the two. Others are social media posts describing people getting vaccinated, then dying suddenly or after an illness, either right after getting their shots or weeks later. Some are little more than loose digital chatter and speculation.

Wilkins says that he vets all leads with full journalistic rigor. He specifically noted that the blog didn’t act on a lead claiming rapper DMX actually died because he got a COVID jab because they “could not independently verify he received a shot.” But he still ran a “Vaccine Deaths” post connecting legal analyst Midwin Charles’ recent passing to her COVID vaccination, received 37 days prior. The post speculates amply over changes in her Twitter behavior in the days before her death was announced, and features the sub-heading, “Mainstream media censors cause of death.” (The Daily Beast was not able to reach Charles’ family or anyone representing them prior to publication.)

However, most other vaccine death-hunt hubs ran the DMX story, despite his death clearly being tied to heart issues with no conceivable connection to the vaccine. An admin on one of the most active platforms, a Telegram channel with almost 75,000 subscribers, which usually publishes one or more accounts of supposed vaccine deaths every day, explicitly stated in a post: “Any stories I find online or via other channels I will post.” They then urged people to spread their posts far and wide: “The more people who share these stories the better.” (The channel’s admins did not respond to a request for comment.)

Most of these outlets openly stress that they collect these stories to dissuade people from getting vaccinated. A recent post on The COVID Blog warned, falsely: “There are no safe COVID-19 shots. Take your chances catching COVID-19 and rely on the 99.99% survival rate for anyone under age 70.” This call to inaction wildly misrepresents the risks associated with the coronavirus, and the fact that while an extreme minority may have notable but typically manageable adverse reactions to the vaccines, they are, overall, safe and effective.

This sort of mass-sourcing and reporting has not been a key focus for most modern anti-vaxxer campaigns, experts on the subject told The Daily Beast. There are far easier, and arguably more effective, ways to spin narratives about the supposed lethality of vaccines. “Scraping the internet for every story that sounds like it meets your criteria takes a lot of time and energy,” noted Jennifer Reich, a University of Colorado-Denver sociologist who studies vaccine-hesitant populations.

But within the context of this late pandemic moment, scouring the internet for brief accounts that spuriously connect vaccines and deaths may seem like the only viable approach to sowing doubts about America’s thus-far wildly successful COVID vaccination drive.

While people have argued that vaccines can be fatal since the 19th century, death is not usually the focus of anti-vaxxer rhetoric. But deaths all too often occur without clear antecedents or immediately discernible causes. In the space created by that shock or uncertainty, it’s easy to fuel suspicions that one notable and novel recent event, like receiving a new vaccine, could have played some role.

As Wilkins, the blogrunner and COVID vaccine skeptic, put it in a statement rooted in some truth that ultimately rings of sensationalist fear-mongering, “Otherwise healthy people are dying hours or days after receiving experimental mRNA and viral vector shots.” He insisted that many cases show similar specific symptoms before dying. (In the dozens of narratives The Daily Beast read for this story, claimed post-jab symptoms were rarely specific and often quite diverse.)

“Apply Occam’s razor and mute the mainstream media, government, and big tech narratives,” he added. “If you drink drain cleaner and die hours or days later, you died because you drank drain cleaner.” (This is, of course, a fallacious parallel—and even this is not necessarily always true.)

Bernice Hausman of Penn State University’s Vaccination Research Group noted that reporting on the effects of COVID-19 also tends to focus on death rates, even though death is hardly the disease’s only possible negative outcome. So, she suspects creating death narratives may feel like an especially useful counterbalance to anti-vaxxers, who are losing their bid to ward off mass vaccination. “They can say, ‘Hey, the vaccine isn’t innocent. There’s also a lot of death going on over here,’” she told The Daily Beast.

Of course, rather than go on convoluted death hunts for individual stories, anti-vaxxers could easily just misconstrue data in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a tool co-run by two federal agencies to help monitor the risks associated with vaccines in active use. After all, they’ve been cherry-picking figures from the system for over three decades—and for the last decade, citing a study arguing that only one percent of vaccine injuries get reported.

Many anti-vaxxer groups have cited data from the system over the past few weeks to advance dubious vaccine lethality narratives as the coronavirus pandemic blares on. The system registered 3,486 reported deaths following the receipt of a vaccine as COVID-19 vaccines rolled out from Dec. 14, 2020, to April 19, 2021; usually, over the course of a non-pandemic year, VAERS registers between 100 and 200 reports of deaths following vaccinations.

But Wilkins argues that such data is too abstract, and case entries are too light on details, to really reach people where they live. “The public needs to see faces on these deaths, not just a VAERS case number, for said deaths to have an impact on a very important public health issue,” he told The Daily Beast. “People relate when they see faces that look like their own and stories behind each of these deaths.”

It’s also incredibly easy to poke holes in this big, flashy figure. Anyone can file a report to the system, which opens it to secondhand or hearsay, repetitious, or even clearly spurious accounts of adverse reactions. (In the past, pro-vaccine advocates have successfully filed reports that a vaccine turned a man into The Hulk and another gave a baby Wonder Woman powers to prove this point.) Health-care providers are also required to report any death they are aware of that occurs soon after a patient receives a vaccine, which at times translates into reports of patently unrelated deaths.

We’ve vaccinated roughly a third of the population. That means about a third of all deaths in that period were temporally linked to the vaccination.

Daniel Salmon, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Vaccine Safety

The system specifically warns that it was not designed to collect or indicate causal relationships. Researchers just want as much data as possible; they worry about sorting signal from noise later.

And there is a lot of noise in the system, even at the best of times. One study found that only 3 percent of a sample of reactions reported to the system were definitively caused by vaccines, and over half were almost certainly unrelated. Although certain vaccines can in theory be lethal in specific contexts for specific people (e.g., if someone has an untreated anaphylactic reaction to a jab), past studies of death reports did not find causal connections to vaccinations.

With the rollout of COVID vaccines specifically, Daniel Salmon, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Vaccine Safety told The Daily Beast, “We’ve vaccinated roughly a third of the population. That means about a third of all deaths in that period were temporally linked to the vaccination.”

What’s more, the elderly and ill populations who received priority access to vaccines early on already had disproportionately high incidental mortality risks post-vaccination compared to the general population. So, many experts weren’t surprised or worried by the apparent spike in death reports in the system that anti-vaxxers have ginned up as proof of a clear and present danger. It is worth noting that COVID-19 deaths have plummeted in recent months in large part because older Americans, usually the majority of fatalities, have been vaccinated safely and effectively.

In other words, the vaccines are working.

Jonathan Berman, a New York Institute of Technology researcher who has studied anti-vaxxer communities, also noted that, when he analyzed a sample of death reports, he saw a fairly recent jump in short and apparently amateur death claims, including: “shoulder injury death,” “Constipation Shortness of Breath Death,” and “DizzineS.” This run of “terse, non-medical descriptions of few mild symptoms, then death,” as well as the inconsistency of effects reported prior to claimed deaths, he said, “suggests to me that people may be deliberately entering misleading records.”

Salmon stressed that he and other doctors still encourage widespread reporting to the federal database. It is a powerful tool for generating hypotheses about and informing the evolution of guidances on vaccine safety—when used with caution. But he pointed out that flooding it with repeated, secondhand, or dubious reports can “cause more harm than good.” The CDC says it investigates every case of death reported, for example. If it has to siphon off limited manpower to chasing down misinformation and noise over and over, the overall pace of investigations may suffer.

Rather than draw exclusively on reports to the government, anti-vaxxers have also solicited direct accounts from their ranks for years to build up curated collections of injury and death narratives.

These death stories are very effective because they are so difficult to counter without appearing to be attacking a grieving parent, or even saying that they are lying.

David Gorski, a doctor who has been monitoring anti-vaxxer communities

Take the group Circle of Mamas, which opposes mandatory vaccinations. One member, who identified herself to The Daily Beast only by the name Courtney, noted that they’ve just been adding COVID vaccine death stories to a pre-existing “Vaccine Injury Stories” page on their site that collects accounts “posted on people’s own [social media] pages, or shared to a vaccine injury group.”

Before the pandemic, David Gorski, a doctor who has been monitoring anti-vaxxer communities and their activities for around two decades, said groups often ultimately focused on a handful of evocative injury or death claims, especially those in which victims or their families are willing to step up and become strong anti-vax advocates.

“These death stories are very effective,” he explained, “because they are so difficult to counter without appearing to be attacking a grieving parent, or even saying that they are lying.”

No such vocal focal figure has emerged for the COVID vaccine death narrative, though some death-hunting groups appear to be intent on finding one. Admins on the large Telegram channel have said they are trying to form a group of loved ones of supposed vaccine victims to discuss advocacy, and to make a video of direct, personal accounts of deaths. Hausman suspects that this may mean COVID vaccine skeptics and opponents are struggling to find people with strong and cogent narratives of loss willing to speak out. In the absence of these figures, time-consuming hunts for and compilations of uneven and often sparse accounts of people dying hours-to-weeks after getting COVID shots are the best skeptics and denialists can do.

As lame as the effort it is, it may be having an impact.

Some research suggests that encountering a barrage of brief and loose narratives about death and injury following vaccination, like those on death-hunting hubs, can decrease people’s confidence in vaccines—even when they don’t fully buy the accounts. Reich told The Daily Beast that when she researches vaccine injury narratives, sometimes the repetition of claims of heartbreak and tragedy wears on her to the point that even she starts to feel doubt and concern. She has to stop and reconsider “whether what I know is real about vaccines is really real.”

Some death narrative compilers have expressly noted that they believe or hope repeatedly listing these narratives may lead readers to see a pattern between COVID vaccinations and instances of illness and death.

“All I do is present the direct words, photos, and stories of the victims—or foreign media accounts,” Wilkins told The Daily Beast when asked about his assertion that connecting COVID vaccines and deaths is common sense, “and let people draw their own conclusions. Most of our readers / subscribers put together these repeated incidents.”

One thing is for sure: There is a substantial and important potential audience for this persuasion push.

“There are a lot of fence-sitters right now,” Salmon, the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, added. “Research shows that 30 to 40 percent of the population is unsure about COVID vaccines.” The type of arguments or detail that move fence-sitters one way or the other vary highly from group to group, he added, so it’s hard to say how many can or would be swayed by the stories on death-hunting hubs.

But in general, we know news stories temporally linking vaccination and death often go viral—which is likely why so many outlets irresponsibly report them. Reich suspects that the isolation of the pandemic makes it easier for people to fall into silos filled with death narratives, as well, and to accept them more easily without more diverse voices and sources of information in their lives to challenge or balance them. A couple of local news reports also suggest these hubs have played a role in some people’s decisions to protest vaccination policies.

That is a worrying sign, as America’s quest to vaccinate a critical mass of citizens against COVID-19 slows into a grind against a wall of vaccine hesitancy and outright opposition.

“I get emails daily,” Wilkins claimed in a message to The Daily Beast, “from people thanking me for showing and telling them the truth, with many telling me I ‘saved them’ from getting the shots.”