In early 2023, an article was published in a respected medical journal that estimated 278,000 COVID-19 vaccine deaths since the introduction of them. Of course, anti-vaxxers jumped on this number as if it were accurate and claimed that the vaccines were killing people left and right.
But there’s a catch. The medical journal that published it retracted the article on 11 April 2023 for a long list of reasons.
Despite some people asking me to review it when it was first published, I didn’t because I thought it would eventually be retracted since it was filled with nonsense and some really bad study design and analysis. Smarter people than I like this person on PubPeer and Orac tore up the study into little pieces.
The author of the COVID-19 vaccine deaths article, Mark Skidmore, is an anti-vaccine economist. Not an epidemiologist, public health expert, or vaccinologist. He has absolutely zero credentials in vaccine science, yet this article got published. I guess anyone can invent some junk science and get it published these days. And that’s bad.
Anyway, like I usually do, let’s take a look at the article and why it got retracted. This isn’t going to be pretty, at least from Mark Skidmore’s point of view.
The COVID-19 vaccine deaths article
In a paper published originally on 24 January 2023 in BMC Infectious Diseases, Mark Skidmore, Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, Department of Economics, Michigan State University (note that he has nothing to do with vaccines or public health) surveyed 2840 participants between December 18 and 23, 2021.
In that online survey, he asked about the health and deaths from the COVID-19 vaccine. No, he wasn’t asking about whether the survey participants had health issues or deaths from the vaccines, he asked if they knew anyone who had. This isn’t science, this is some sort of magical thinking that hearsay and anecdotes are somehow science. They are not, they are logical fallacies.
Furthermore, this is not the kind of survey that can provide an accurate reflection of reality, unlike political polls which try to be randomized and weigh the results demographically. Skidmore just used the numbers as if they were all that he needed.
Orac put it clearly when critiquing Skidmore’s study design and analysis:
Prof. Skidmore’s survey reminded me, more than anything else, of a Steve Kirsch “study” in which a fundamentally bad research design is tarted up with (some) seemingly legitimate social science research methodology and then.dishonestly spun to produce a fake estimate of 278,000 fatalities due to COVID-19 vaccines, which is then “validated” by an incompetent dumpster dive into the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database.
Now we have to discuss the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database. VAERS is a passive database of vaccine adverse events to which anyone can report a problem they claim happened after vaccines. VAERS is an important part of our vaccine safety monitoring system (though it’s certainly not all of it) because it is very good at detecting signals – things that might be problems with vaccines – early on.
However, by its nature, VAERS is vulnerable to abuse – and has been abused – by anti-vaccine activists and those sympathetic to the goal of deterring and misleading parents, for example, not to vaccinate.
So, Skidmore employs a terrible study design with terrible analysis, then combines it with a terrible database, and voila, he’s convincing anti-vaccine activists that COVID-19 vaccine deaths in the USA are around 278,000.
But let’s get back to Skidmore’s “analysis,” such as it is.
He claims that “those who knew someone who experienced a health problem from COVID-19 were more likely to be vaccinated.” Of course, he did because most people are vaccinated. If we looked at broken arms, I’m sure more people with broken arms are vaccinated, but that’s not a correlation, it’s just that more people are vaccinated than not.
I am not an epidemiologist, nor do I play one on the internet, but he’s making a fundamental statistical error that would get him fired from any epidemiology department in the world.
Skidmore also reported that “22% (612 of 2840) of respondents indicated that they knew at least one person who had experienced a severe health problem following COVID-19 vaccination.” But we have no context on how to interpret that number. Did they have a disease, like cancer, that had absolutely nothing to do with the vaccine? Again, he can’t even show correlation, let alone causation.
I could go on, but I want to get to the retraction part below which pretty much covers everything we need to know about this bogus article.
Skidmore then concludes:
Knowing someone who reported serious health issues either from COVID-19 or from COVID-19 vaccination are important factors for the decision to get vaccinated. The large difference in the possible number of fatalities due to COVID-19 vaccination that emerges from this survey and the available governmental data should be further investigated.
Yeah, that pretty much starts the anti-vaccine conspiracy theory that somehow the government is hiding the number of COVID-19 vaccine deaths. They aren’t.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited only 19,476 reports of deaths after COVID vaccination in a national database of unverified adverse reactions to the shots. And that number is severely inflated because most have not been linked to vaccines.
That being said, even using that inflated number from the CDC, it only amounts to less than 0.003% of the 672 million doses of COVID vaccines administered in the USA. The CDC appropriately judged the shots “safe and effective” and severe post-vaccine reactions “rare.”
The retraction of the COVID-19 vaccine deaths paper
On 11 April 2023, the editors at BMC Infectious Diseases retracted the Skidmore lump of nonsense with this note:
The editors have retracted this article as concerns were raised regarding the validity of the conclusions drawn after publication. Post-publication peer review concluded that the methodology was inappropriate as it does not prove causal inference of mortality, and limitations of the study were not adequately described. Furthermore, there was no attempt to validate reported fatalities, and there are critical issues in the representativeness of the study population and the accuracy of data collection. Lastly, contrary to the statement in the article, the documentation provided by the author confirms that the study was exempt from ethics approval and therefore was not approved by the IRB of the Michigan State University Human Research Protection Program.
I know that reads like a lot of scientific jargon, but let me try to make it readable.
- The conclusions weren’t supported by the data.
- The methodology of getting the data was flawed.
- The study could not show that COVID-19 vaccines were causally related to the deaths.
- The study population may not have been representative.
- The accuracy of the data collection was in question.
- Finally, he claimed that the study received ethics approval from Michigan State University, which didn’t happen.
There is nothing good here — every one of these points indicates some serious unintentional, or worse, intentional errors. I wonder what Skidmore’s colleagues at Michigan State think of him. I can’t imagine it’s very nice.
Orac, also known as David Gorski, MD, Ph.D., has been fighting anti-vaccine nonsense for two decades. Of course, he identified the problems with the article a day after the paper was published. He concluded that the paper was “anti-vax propaganda disguised as a survey.” Skidmore has a long record of anti-vaccine commentary
Then Dr. Gorski asked an important question, “how on earth did BMC Infectious Diseases publish such dreck?”
I have to ask the same thing, and it is frustrating. I keep pushing that the only valid evidence in a scientific discussion is one that has been peer-reviewed and published in a respected medical journal. Then I get this “dreck” shoved in my face with anti-vaxxers claiming that the COVID-19 vaccine is responsible for 278,000 deaths. The peer reviewers and editors really must not have read this paper, because it was obvious that it was total “dreck.”
I’ve yet to see solid evidence that even one person has died from the COVID-19 vaccines. Not one. Almost every claim is from dumpster diving into the VAERS database, anecdotes, and made-up data from a retracted article.
So, let me close on this point. There is no evidence that there were 278,000 deaths from the COVID-19 vaccine. And this retracted paper is not evidence. Period.
- Skidmore M. The role of social circle COVID-19 illness and vaccination experiences in COVID-19 vaccination decisions: an online survey of the United States population. BMC Infect Dis. 2023 Jan 24;23(1):51. doi: 10.1186/s12879-023-07998-3. Retraction in: BMC Infect Dis. 2023 Apr 11;23(1):223. PMID: 36694131; PMCID: PMC9872073.
- Skidmore M. Retraction Note: The role of social circle COVID-19 illness and vaccination experiences in COVID-19 vaccination decisions: an online survey of the United States population. BMC Infect Dis. 2023 Apr 11;23(1):223. doi: 10.1186/s12879-023-08234-8. PMID: 37041482; PMCID: PMC10088578.