The Journal Vaccine Publishes Study Finding Serious Side Effects of COVID-19 Vaccines, Despite Three Dodgy Fact Checks and Facebook Censoring
Do fact check outlets serve as bodyguards for biomedical companies and those in power?
5 minute read
A new study published in Vaccine—the premier journal for vaccine research—found the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccines were associated with a 16 % higher risk of serious adverse events. The study was limited to analyzing trial data the companies submitted to the FDA and did not evaluate the vaccines’ overall harm-benefit. However, the authors followed up in The BMJ with a public call for the CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna to release the original COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial data for independent analysis.
When first published as a preprint, the study spurred not 1, not 2, but 3 different fact checks—all of which threw cold water on the study. As I first reported in July, Facebook’s fact-check website called LeadStories accused the authors of analyzing a data set that they never even accessed and sent a harassing email to the lead researcher’s university. Since that reporting, LeadStories has added an awkward update, backpedaling from their initial fact check. Nonetheless, the preprint still has a “false news” label by Facebook.
Two other fact check sites deserve further scrutiny for their attempts at analysis and apparent peer review. The fact checking outlet called Health Feedback published an analysis of the preprint that reads like a dog’s breakfast of complaints. Health Feedback is run by Emmanuel Vincent, who has been running about Paris to evade legal complaints.
Health Feedback’s fact check was written by Flora Teoh who has no relevant experience or publishing record in clinical trials and starts off by accusing the study authors of “cherry picking.”
The list of serious adverse events assessed included hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), but excluded hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). It included gastrointestinal hemorrhage, but excluded duodenal ulcer hemorrhage (a subtype of gastrointestinal hemorrhage). No explanation was given for why these exclusions were made.
As researchers explained in the study, they matched the serious adverse events that Pfizer and Moderna reported in their own clinical trials, against the Brighton Collaboration standards. Any questions that Ms. Teoh had about data that she felt Pfizer or Moderna should have included, could have been dealt with by asking the companies or the Brighton collaboration why they excluded it.
Ms. Teoh then writes several paragraphs that cite a YouTube video criticizing the preprint that was posted by Susan Oliver, a researcher at the University of New South Wales. A quick look at Ms. Oliver’s published record finds that she is a materials scientist, who like Ms. Teoh has no apparent experience in clinical trial research.
Nonetheless, Health Feedback’s “fact check” reads like a regurgitation of the Oliver’s YouTube video.
The website Full Fact provided a decent analysis written by Sarah Turnnidge that quoted from various experts in biostatics, all disparaging the preprint of course. But if all fact checkers are going to do is pass a preprint around for comment and criticism, shouldn’t they just wait for the experts at the journals to do that instead?
Isn’t that the actual point of peer review?
Unfortunately, Ms. Turnnidge also linked to a rant by Science Based Medicine, a skeptic website run by David Gorski who spends inordinate amounts of energy harassing researchers and reporters, downplaying side effects, and labeling pretty much anyone and everyone “antivaxx.” Neither David Gorski, nor the author of the piece at Science Based Medicine appear to publish anything in the peer-reviewed literature on vaccines, opting instead to throw bombs at actual experts from the safety of their website.
Since the preprint has now been peer-reviewed and published in the top journal in vaccine research, I sent several questions to Full Fact editor Steve Nowottny:
Now that the preprint has been published in the top journal in vaccine research, do you plan to update the piece you wrote?
When you referenced the website "Science Based Medicine" did you check to see if the author has any relevant expertise in vaccine research or clinical trial research?
Your fact check looked at a preprint that found potential harms from vaccines, in this case increased risk of side effects. Can you send an example where you fact checked a preprint/study that found potential benefit from a vaccine? I think this could help readers understand which types of vaccine studies are chosen for fact checking.
Mr. Nowottny explained that the fact check was less about the study itself than online claims being made about the study. “Although our fact checks are dated and written as correct at the time of publication, and we don’t always have the resource to update them subsequently, we do intend to update this check, noting the study has now been peer-reviewed and published,” emailed Mr. Nowottny.
The referenced passage from Science Based Medicine relied on an author who did not have expertise in vaccine research, but was a neurologist, he added. And while Mr. Nowottny did not provide an example of a fact check on overstated claims of vaccines, he pointed out, “We have for instance fact checked this article in the British Journal of General Practice which overstated the number of Covid-19 deaths in children, and this Washington Post article which overstated the prevalence of long Covid.”
What role does fact checking play?
The problematic role of social media fact checking continues to plague public discourse. Recent documents uncovered in a lawsuit found federal employees coercing social media companies to censor free speech.
That lawsuit also pointed out that the federal government is failing to produce communications by the NIH’s Anthony Fauci, noting that Zuckerberg gave Fauci his personal cell phone number back in March of 2020, shortly after the pandemic began and people started complaining about censorship.
What would Zuckerberg and Fauci need to discuss by private cell phone?
In the case of the new study that was published in Vaccine, that original preprint was given a warning when anyone posted it on Facebook.
However, no warning appears if you post the same information found in the peer reviewed paper that Vaccine just published.
In their BMJ commentary, the study authors put out a call for data transparency and more accountability from manufacturers to maintain the public trust:
Covid-19 vaccines are now among the most widely disseminated medicines in the history of the world. Yet, results from the pivotal clinical trials cannot be verified by independent analysts. The public has a legitimate right to an impartial analysis of these data. COVID vaccinations have cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, perhaps even rivaling the annual NIH budget for all aspects of biomedical and behavioral research.
Transparency, reproducibility, and replication are cornerstones of high-quality science. The time is overdue for Pfizer and Moderna to allow independent scientists and physicians to see the original data and to replicate the analyses. These small datasets can help answer very important questions and lay to rest widespread concerns over lack of transparency.
This is a pretty vanilla-flavored request. Which raises an obvious question, “Why did it spur not 1, not 2, but 3 different fact checks?” What do these companies and their online advocates fear about data transparency?
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