Misinformation swirls around unpublished paper on Covid-19 vaccine risks

  • This article is more than one year old.
  • Published on July 14, 2023 at 20:59
  • 6 min read
  • By Gwen ROLEY, AFP Canada
Social media posts claim a paper attributing a high number of deaths to Covid-19 vaccines was suppressed from a major scientific journal. This is false; the preprint document was never accepted for publication by The Lancet, and the journal and independent experts said the research was flawed.

"74% OF COVID VACCINE AUTOPSY DEATHS WERE CAUSED BY THE VACCINE," claims text over a video shared on Instagram on July 9, 2023 by The Wellness Company, a "medical freedom" organization that sells supplements said to protect patients from "toxic spike proteins."

The same clip can be found on TikTok featuring one of the study's authors, Peter McCullough, -- an American cardiologist whom AFP has previously fact-checked for spreading misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines -- speaking to author Naomi Wolf, who has also shared inaccurate information about the shots.

Many posts claimed the research was published by The Lancet -- an established medical journal -- only to be removed after 24 hours, constituting "censorship."

"The Lancet is removing science that shows the COVID-19 'vaccines' are causing excess deaths," claims a July 10, 2023 tweet.

"They are erasing the truth from medical journals," a July 9 TikTok with more than 15,000 views claims.

Screenshot of an Instagram post taken July 13, 2023
Screenshot of a tweet taken July 13, 2023



The paper in question, "A Systematic Review of Autopsy Findings in Deaths after COVID-19 Vaccination" (archived here), was not published in The Lancet, but instead appeared on a preprint server associated with the journal where researchers can upload their work before it has received peer review.

According to its website, The Lancet collaborates with the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) to offer authors a dedicated preprint area called "Preprints with The Lancet" (archived here), but a study appearing on this server does not necessarily mean the journal is reviewing the paper.

The Lancet Group told AFP the paper was removed from the server because its conclusion was not supported by the methodology.

"Preprints with The Lancet on SSRN reserves the right to remove a paper that has been posted if it is determined that it has violated screening criteria," The Lancet Group said in a July 11 email.

The Lancet also says on its website that preprints are not meant to be used for clinical decision-making.

Sarah Everts, a professor of science journalism at Carleton University, said that while preprints are a common way of disseminating early scientific findings, the social media posts and articles claiming a paper proved Covid-19 vaccines have a high mortality rate are incorrectly describing the publication as thoroughly established science.

"They are conflating peer-reviewed research, which is about rigorously evaluated science, with a preprint server, which is something where scientists post their work while it is going through the peer review process," Everts said in an interview on July 11.

Everts said preprints are an important way for researchers to quickly release their work, but a paper needs to be evaluated by other experts to ensure the study's conclusions are well-founded and without error.

"Most science goes through peer review, which is getting people with very specific expertise to fine-pick through the paper or the study to make sure that everything parses," she said.

Elements of the preprint manuscript

The full paper, which AFP reviewed, is no longer available to download.

The manuscript's methodology section says the researchers searched available databases for autopsy and necropsy reports relating to Covid-19 vaccines and the results claimed to find 73.9 percent of these cases were caused by the jabs.

"Three physicians (Roger Hodkinson, William Makis, Peter A McCullough) with experience in death adjudication and anatomical/clinical pathology independently reviewed the available information of each case and determined whether or not Covid-19 vaccination was the direct cause or contributed significantly to the mechanism of death described," the paper's "Methods" section reads.

Zhou Xing, an immunology professor at McMaster University, found the methodology to be flawed as it did not seem to factor in medical conditions and age as possible reasons that death could have occurred after vaccination.

"It seems an astoundingly ridiculous analysis and conclusion and I believe one does not have to be a scientific or medical expert to find the major flaws," Xing said in a July 12 email.

Xing noted that because a large majority of people have received Covid-19 shots, mortality rates will inevitably be higher for vaccinated individuals regardless of the cause of death.

Screenshot of an Instagram post taken July 13, 2023

McCullough's unproven claims about vaccines' dangers have led to disciplinary action by the American Board of Internal Medicine. Hodkinson, who was trained as a pathologist, had purported the pandemic itself was a hoax during an Edmonton City Council meeting, in claims that went viral on social media in 2020. Makis previously spread unsubstantiated claims that doctors were dying from Covid-19 vaccination and was involved in a long legal battle with Alberta Health Services over his termination.

Brian Ward, a professor of experimental medicine who studies the adverse effects of vaccines at McGill University, said he questioned the study's claims of independent researchers, given the physicians' histories of spreading Covid-19 misinformation could lead them to be invested in reaching a conclusion that supports their previous statements.

"The way they use the word 'independently' here simply means that each of the biased individuals sat in a separate room to reach a personal conclusion before sharing their (largely pre-determined) classifications with each other," Ward said in an email on July 12, 2023.

Ward said he believed it was unlikely the paper would ever be published in a medical journal.

Doctors and researchers have previously told AFP that while rare serious side effects to Covid-19 vaccination, including myocarditis or inflammation of the heart muscle, remain under investigation, the benefits of being immunized against the disease outweigh the risks.

Other research has concluded that Covid-19 vaccines saved millions of lives and averted many hospitalizations.

'Zombie papers'

Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health law and policy at the University of Alberta, said once a preprint is published, even if its conclusions are found to be faulty and the publication is retracted, the unsupported claims can still spread.

"They enter the public discourse and even if they are retracted or if the failings of the journal are highlighted, it doesn't matter because they've now become part of the discussion," Caulfield said in an interview on July 12.

Caulfield calls these retracted studies "zombie papers" and said they often carry claims of censorship once the paper has been removed.

Screenshot of a TikTok video taken July 13, 2023

"Not passing peer review and having an article retracted -- that's not censorship," he said. "That is the marketplace of ideas playing out, having your peers evaluate your work."

Read more of AFP's reporting on misinformation surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic here.

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