A healthcare worker holds a Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at Memorial Healthcare System in Miramar, Florida on December 14, 2020 ( AFP / CHANDAN KHANNA)

Anti-vaccine website falsely claims Covid jabs behind cancer uptick

Studies show that Covid-19 shots save lives, but anti-vaccine advocates claim they have caused a huge spike in US cancer cases since the pandemic. This is false; the social media users and websites erroneously cite unverified reports of adverse events following inoculation, and public health authorities have found no evidence linking the jabs to cancer.

"COVID Vaccines have caused at least 14,000% increase in Cancer Cases in the USA according to CDC," says the headline of an April 14, 2024 article from The Exposé, a British website that AFP has repeatedly fact-checked for spreading health misinformation.

The same claim has circulated on other websites and platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and X -- including in Canada and in Portuguese-language posts.

"CDC: Covid Shots Caused 14,000% Increase in Cancers," says an April 14 post on X. "Go figure, NOW... the CDC is coming clean with the VAXX shots, I wonder why?

Screenshot from The Exposé taken April 25, 2024
Screenshot from X taken April 25, 2024

The narrative is the latest in a wave of misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines, which researchers estimate have saved millions of people

The World Health Organization, meanwhile, says cancer is rising worldwide -- in part due to an aging and growing population and "changes to people’s exposure to risk factors, several of which are associated with socioeconomic development" (archived here). The American Cancer Society estimates the United States alone will see more than two million new cases for the first time this year (archived here).

Covid-19 vaccines are not contributing to the uptick.

"The linked 'article' -- which is not scientific, not peer-reviewed, and published from a source that appears to be wholly devoted to conspiracy theories -- is not accurate," said Wilbur Chen, an infectious disease physician-scientist at the University of Maryland, in an April 25 email (archived here).

AFP has repeatedly debunked claims that Covid-19 vaccines cause cancer. Aside from a few rare serious side effects, public health agencies around the world say the shots are safe and effective at preventing severe illness and death (archived here, here and here).

"There is no evidence to date indicating that Covid-19 vaccines cause cancer of any sort," said Nick Spinelli, a spokesperson for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in an April 25 email.

Posts distort VAERS data

Chen said The Exposé's story relies on a "completely unscientific" interpretation of data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).

The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration use the US government database to unearth potential safety issues with authorized shots (archived here). Anti-vaccine advocates have long exploited the system to promote disinformation.

Anyone, from doctors and nurses to patients and parents, can submit reports of adverse events following vaccination to VAERS. Health care providers are required to report serious events -- even if a vaccine link is not suspected (archived here).

The Exposé's claim relies on a comparison of cancer reports following influenza and Covid-19 inoculation.

"People in their 30s reported just 1 cancer case due to influenza vaccination between 1st Jan 21 and 29 March 24, whereas 141 cancer cases were reported among people in their 30's due to COVID-19 vaccination," the website says in its article.

"This equates to a shocking 14,000% increase in cancer cases due to COVID-19 vaccination."

An AFP analysis of VAERS data did find more cancer reports following vaccination against Covid-19 than the flu. But Daniel Salmon, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University (archived here), said The Exposé's interpretation is "absolutely incorrect."

"VAERS accepts reports from anyone about anything," he said in an April 26 email. "I could receive a Covid vaccine and my dog gets hit with a car and I could report that to VAERS. It doesn't mean the vaccine caused my dog to get hit by a car."

VAERS warns on its website that not all reports are verified (archived here).

"It is generally not possible to find out from VAERS data if a vaccine caused the adverse event," the system says, adding that "serious adverse events are more likely to be reported than non-serious events."

Researchers use the database to detect potential vaccine side effects, according to the CDC (archived here). If they notice a pattern, they conduct follow-up investigations to determine whether vaccination was to blame.

"The authorized and approved Covid-19 vaccines are being administered under the most comprehensive and intensive vaccine safety monitoring effort in US history," said Spinelli of the CDC. 

"After more than 676 million doses administered, safety monitoring has not established an association between Covid-19 vaccination and an increased risk for any cancers. There are no data that suggest that Covid-19 vaccines cause cancer, lead to recurrence, or to disease progression."

The American Cancer Society recommends patients stay up-to-date with the latest Covid-19 vaccines (archived here).

AFP has fact-checked other misinformation about vaccination here.

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