Outrage of the Month: COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation and Disinformation Causing Great Harm in the U.S.

Health Letter, March 2022

By Michael Carome, M.D.

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Early last month, the U.S. passed another grim milestone in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic when the total number of COVID-19 deaths surpassed 900,000. Moreover, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been more than 1 million excess deaths in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic, a number that includes deaths due to COVID-19 as well as conditions that may have resulted from delayed medical care and overwhelmed health systems.

Strikingly, the U.S. COVID-19 death rate for the pandemic overall and during the most recent wave due to the highly contagious Omicron variant has exceeded the rates of all other large wealthy nations. One obvious explanation for this ignoble distinction is that despite an abundance of COVID-19 vaccine doses, the proportions of people in the U.S. who are fully vaccinated or who received a booster dose lag far behind those of other high-income countries.

One of the factors that has undermined efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and thus contributed to America’s dismal mortality rate is the spread of COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation, particularly with respect to the safety and effectiveness of the widely available COVID-19 vaccines.

In an advisory issued in 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy defined health misinformation as health-related information that is “false, inaccurate, or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time” and health disinformation as health-related misinformation that is “spread intentionally to serve a malicious purpose, such as to trick people into believing something for financial gain or political advantage.” Murthy emphasized that “health misinformation has reached nearly every corner of our society—and it poses an increasing danger to us and to our loved ones” and warned that “False or misleading information about diseases, illnesses, potential treatments and cures, [and] vaccines…are causing people to make decisions that could have dangerous consequences for their health.”

The CDC has identified many of the common myths about COVID-19 vaccines that are often disseminated by purveyors of vaccine misinformation and disinformation, including the following:

  • The ingredients in COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous.
  • The immunity people get from being sick with COVID-19 is better than immunity people get from COVID-19 vaccination.
  • COVID-19 vaccines cause variants.
  • All events reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System are caused by vaccination.
  • The mRNA vaccines are not considered vaccines.
  • COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips.
  • Receiving a COVID-19 vaccine can make people magnetic.
  • COVID-19 vaccines can alter people’s DNA.
  • COVID-19 vaccines can make people sick with COVID-19.
  • COVID-19 vaccines will affect people’s fertility.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that as of October 2021, between two and 12 million adults in the U.S. were unvaccinated because of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation. They further calculated that since May 2021 — when COVID-19 vaccines were freely available to most adults — vaccine misinformation and disinformation had caused between $50 million and $300 million of harm per day, based on costs of hospitalizations, the valuation of lives lost and long-term health care costs related to COVID-19.

Perhaps most disturbingly, over the past year some physicians have engaged in the generation and spread of misinformation and disinformation related to COVID-19 vaccines. In July 2021, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) — a national nonprofit organization representing medical boards within the U.S. and its territories that license and discipline physicians — issued the following statement in response to a dramatic increase in the dissemination of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation by physicians and other health care professionals on social media platforms, online and in the media:

“Physicians who generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation are risking disciplinary action by state medical boards, including the suspension or revocation of their medical license. Due to their specialized knowledge and training, licensed physicians possess a high degree of public trust and therefore have a powerful platform in society, whether they recognize it or not. They also have an ethical and professional responsibility to practice medicine in the best interests of their patients and must share information that is factual, scientifically grounded and consensus-driven for the betterment of public health. Spreading inaccurate COVID-19 vaccine information contradicts that responsibility, threatens to further erode public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk.”

In December 2021, the FSMB reported that in its 2021 annual survey of state medical boards, two-thirds of boards reported experiencing an increase in complaints about licensed physicians disseminating false or misleading information, and about one-fifth reported taking disciplinary action against a licensee because of such unprofessional conduct.

To save lives and protect public health, public health agencies and officials throughout the U.S. must aggressively engage in thoughtful and broadly targeted public education campaigns to counter the misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines that is permeating the country. Moreover, state medical boards must take harsh disciplinary action against physicians who endanger their patients and the broader community by disseminating false or misleading information about COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.