South Korean Covid vaccine 'side effects' statistics misrepresented

Scientists warned that self-reported cases of adverse events following Covid-19 vaccination in South Korea were not evidence of the jabs causing serious side effects or death, contrary to false claims circulating online that the inoculation drive killed thousands in the country. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) confirmed a causal link between the vaccine and death in 23 cases, as of December 31, 2023. 

"At a press conference in South Korea's National Assembly, Covid-19 vaccine victims were revealed," reads a Korean-language post on Naver Blog from March 6, 2024.

"Official statistics show that approximately 2,700 people have died and around 19,000 have been severely injured due to Covid-19 vaccines. It is estimated that actual deaths are 10 times higher."

The post linked to a video of a press conference held on February 26, 2024 by a South Korean group called the Covid-19 Vaccination Victims Council in which they demanded the government apologise and give compensation for alleged deaths and injuries caused by Covid-19 jabs (archived link). 

The group's chairman Kim Doo-gyeom claimed "official statistics" showed the jabs had killed around 2,700 people and injured 19,000.

Screenshot of the false post, taken on March 26, 2024

Despite global data showing coronavirus vaccines have saved millions of lives and health authorities saying severe side effects are rare, misinformation about side effects from the jabs remains widespread.

Footage of the press conference quickly spread on social media, with posts on X in languages including English and Turkish shared hundreds of times.

Misrepresented figures

Figures cited in social media posts and at the Covid-19 Vaccination Victims Council's press conference appear to originate from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

According to the KDCA's latest report from February 29, 2024, 17,753 serious adverse events and 2,137 deaths were reported after Covid-19 vaccination (archived link).

That was from a total of more than 140 million Covid-19 vaccine doses administered across the country.

Both doctors and patients can report adverse events following vaccination to the KDCA, which warns that reports "do not necessarily have a causal relationship with the vaccine" (archived links here and here). 

Adverse events reported to the KDCA "do not prove diagnostic suitability or causality with the vaccine," it says.

A causal link to Covid-19 vaccination was confirmed in 23 deaths, as of December 31, 2023, according to data that the KDCA shared with AFP.

'Weaponised grief'

Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said self-reported adverse events from vaccination should not be used to draw any "causal inference regarding the role of a vaccine" (archived link). 

The figures cited at the press conference had been shared out of context "in order to make false claims about the vaccines safety," he told AFP.

Siddharth Sridhar, a clinical virologist at the University of Hong Kong, explained it was inevitable to see reports of adverse events in a mass vaccination campaign (archived link).

"When you roll out a mass vaccination campaign for the entire population, you're going to observe some adverse events in healthy individuals by default because there is a background rate," he told AFP -- referring to the expected number of cases of illness in the absence of the vaccine or another intervention.

"I also believe that we would have seen much higher death rates overall were it not for the vaccination campaign, especially in the elderly," he added.

"Of course, all of these facts are little solace for people whose family members passed shortly after vaccination. Unfortunate that antivax groups have weaponised this grief."

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