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Australia Clive Palmer's debunked COVID-19 vaccine death claims circulate despite warning from regulator

00:41  10 june  2021
00:41  10 june  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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A claim falsely suggesting that 210 Australians have died due to COVID-19 vaccines continues to circulate on social media, despite efforts from the federal medicines regulator to stop its spread.

RMIT ABC Fact Check examines the claim, a version of which was promoted in radio advertisements by businessman and politician Clive Palmer, earning him a rebuke from the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Here are the facts.

The context

A radio commercial, authorised by Mr Palmer and played on Queensland stations owned by Grant Broadcasters, begins by noting that Australia has recorded one COVID-19 associated death in 2021.

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It then goes on: "But the TGA reports there have been 210 deaths and over 24,000 adverse reactions after COVID vaccinations."

According to the TGA, the ad provided "an incorrect picture of the safety of COVID-19 vaccines".

On Tuesday, the regulator said it was "seriously concerned" about the misinformation which, it argued, posed an "unacceptable threat to the health of Australians" during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, an infographic shared widely online made a stronger link between deaths and the vaccine.

In the image, a link to a TGA report accompanies text that puts "COVID-19 vaccine deaths" in Australia at 210 for the period between January 1 and May 23 this year.

The infographic put the number of adverse reactions at 22,031.

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So, where have those figures come from, and have they been accurately reported?

Correlation does not equal causation

In its weekly COVID-19 vaccine report published on May 27, the TGA did indeed say that to May 23, 210 deaths had been reported to have "occurred following immunisation".

But, as Fact Check reported last week, that does not mean COVID-19 vaccines were responsible for the deaths.

In fact, the same TGA report notes — in bold — that "apart from the single Australian case in which death was linked to TSS (thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome), COVID-19 vaccines have not been found to cause death".

According to the TGA, the vast majority of the reported deaths following vaccination — 93 per cent — were in people 65 or over, while three quarters occurred in those aged over 75.

In a media statement regarding the radio ads endorsed by Mr Palmer, the TGA further noted that around 3000 people died in Australia each year and, as such, "it is quite expected that there have been some deaths reported within days or a few weeks of vaccination".

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This sentiment was echoed by Kristine Macartney, the Director of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS).

"Yes, there have been a number of deaths reported to the TGA that have occurred after immunisation," Professor Macartney told Fact Check, "but that doesn't mean they've been caused by immunisation."

As for adverse reactions, the latest weekly TGA report, published on June 3, puts reported reactions at 24,402, in line with Mr Palmer's ad, while the May 27 report matches the figure cited in the infographic, 22,031.

The most commonly cited adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines are those observed with vaccines generally, including headache, muscle and joint pain, fever and injection-site reactions.

When it came to the AstraZeneca vaccine, the TGA said 31 cases of blood clotting had been conclusively linked to the jab, and there were a further 10 probable cases.

How are deaths and adverse reactions reported?

Professor Macartney detailed to Fact Check how Australia was using a multifaceted approach to track adverse reactions and deaths following COVID-19 vaccination.

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The first, she said, was known as "passive surveillance" or "spontaneous reporting".

It involved reports made to the TGA by any healthcare professional or other person who suspected an adverse event had occurred.

According to the TGA, all deaths reported as being possibly linked to vaccination were "reviewed by an expert team of medical staff", with some cases requiring advice from a panel of external medical experts and community representatives.

"Analysis includes comparing expected natural death rates to observed death rates following immunisation as well as in depth reviews of the patient histories," the TGA noted in their recent media statement.

As Professor Macartney explained, some deaths following vaccination would be unexpected and possibly even unexplained with an average of 430 fatalities in Australia per day.

"When you overlap on top of that a vaccine program, people will understandably wonder if a vaccine received a few days prior had any influence [on a death]," she said.

"It's in that context that deaths are being reported to the TGA."

The other aspect was an SMS survey administered by AusVaxSafety, an initiative of the NCIRS.

Originally launched in 2013, the AusVaxSafety program now works with both Commonwealth and state and territory governments to collect reports of adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines.

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The survey is sent automatically to many vaccine recipients via their place of vaccination, whether that be a GP clinic or elsewhere.

At other vaccination sites, such as brand new hubs, the survey operates on an opt-in basis via a QR code sign-up.

Either way, Professor Macartney said the survey was sent three days after vaccination.

"Over a million people have been sent the survey and three-quarters of a million have responded," she said.

Data collected via the survey shows that half of all respondents recorded an adverse reaction, with 1.1 per cent reporting they visited a doctor or emergency department.

Misinformation in radio advertising

The TGA's stern warning to Mr Palmer is not the first time it has raised concerns over misleading COVID-19 vaccine death claims.

As the Guardian reported recently, the administration was considering referring social media posts containing the claim to federal police on the grounds that it was a criminal offence to represent oneself as a commonwealth body or acting on behalf of one.

As for Mr Palmer's radio ad, however, multiple bodies responsible for regulating radio content told Fact Check the ad did not fall under their purview.

A spokesman for the Australian Communications and Media Authority (AMCA), for instance, said that while it had received four complaints about the ad, the "accuracy of advertisements" did not "fall under the ACMA's remit".

A spokeswoman for Ad Standards also said that while it had received a number of complaints, it would not be investigating the ad or Grant Broadcasters.

"Political advertisements and advertisements about social issues, statements of opinion and contributions to public discussion that do not advertise a product or service ... are not within Ad Standards' remit."

Meanwhile, in a statement to the ABC, Grant Broadcasters said that while there were "no regulations that restrict the contents of a political advertisement", the ads were no longer running on the network.

The network added that the TGA had "acknowledged the concerns" it had raised about the messaging in the ad.

It was grateful to "the TGA for stepping up to provide a clear statement of the federal government's position on this type of political advertising".

That statement came days after the network issued a "verification of facts" in regards to Mr Palmer's ad campaign in which it stood by the content of the commercial.

Ellen McCutchan is a senior researcher with the RMIT ABC Fact Check Team and editor of the weekly CoronaCheck newsletter

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