False claim 20% of New Zealanders who received COVID-19 mRNA vaccines died | Fact check

A pharmacist administers a Moderna Spikevax COVID-19 vaccine at a drug store in Cypress, Texas.

The claim: More than 20% of vaccinated New Zealanders died after receiving COVID-19 mRNA vaccines

A Dec. 3 Instagram post (direct link, archive link) questions the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

“BREAKING: A New Zealand government whistleblower has come forward with explosive official data that shows more than 20% of the nation’s citizens that received COVID mRNA vaccines died,” reads a post from X, formerly Twitter, shared in the Instagram post. The words “COVID mRNA vaccines” are crossed out but remain legible.

The Instagram post was liked more than 2,000 times in four days. The original X post, from right-wing account Leading Report, was shared more than 1,000 times in four days.

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Our rating: False

Experts say basic math proves the claim false. The country's death total from all causes in three and a half years falls well short of the number of vaccine-linked deaths that would be necessary to verify the claim. Officials say four deaths have been potentially linked to COVID-19 vaccines in New Zealand. It originated on a website known to publish misinformation.

‘It’s just completely impossible’

The claim originated in a Dec. 2 Slay News article that cites leaked official data to assert that more than 20% of vaccinated New Zealanders have died.

COVID-19 became widespread in New Zealand for the first time in 2022 with the arrival of the highly infectious omicron variant, and 3,361 deaths in New Zealand have been directly attributed to COVID-19, Te Whatu Ora leader Margie Apa told New Zealand news website Stuff.

But just four deaths in New Zealand have been potentially linked to COVID-19 vaccines, Apa told Stuff.

Experts say simply math also disproves the claim.

Nearly 4 million people in New Zealand have received two doses of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine as of Dec. 1, according to public health agency Te Whatu Ora. For the claim to be true, at least 800,000 of those vaccinated people would have had to have died. But from the start of 2020 through June 2023, there were about 125,000 total deaths attributed to all causes, according to Statistics New Zealand, the country's government data agency.

Fact check: Post exaggerates global deaths, then blames them on the COVID vaccine

“For 20% of them to die is just completely outrageous and impossible if you look at the total deaths for the country,” Jeffrey Morris, the director of the biostatistics division at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, told USA TODAY. “It’s just completely impossible.”

There is no evidence the vaccines are behind any rise in deaths, Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in an email to USA TODAY. He pointed out that elderly people are more likely than younger people both to die and to be vaccinated.

Dr. David Weber, an infectious disease expert at the University of North Carolina, agreed that there is no evidence of a causal link.

“Almost everyone in New Zealand is now immunized, and so most of the deaths will occur in immunized people,” he told USA TODAY. “But that doesn’t mean that being immunized is not protective.”

Claim of 10 million vaccine deaths stems from ‘arbitrary assumptions’

A Te Whatu Ora employee is accused of stealing the data in question and leaking it to spread misinformation about the vaccines, according to Stuff and Radio New Zealand. The employee, Barry Young, was arrested Dec. 3 on a charge of dishonestly accessing a computer and entered no plea to the charge, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years, Stuff reported.

The data also was cited in a Substack article by Steve Kirsch, a tech millionaire and prominent skeptic of COVID-19 vaccine safety. He claimed the numbers from New Zealand show the vaccines have killed more than 10 million people worldwide.

Morris disputed the accuracy of that number, saying it is "from arbitrary assumptions he makes that are clearly flawed, and then he extrapolates that number."

In his article, Kirsch cites an estimate that the vaccines kill one person for every roughly 1,000 doses given. In an email, he told USA TODAY that he stands by his analysis, though the CDC debunked the claim about that rate in an August USA TODAY story.

Such an extrapolation is “wildly inappropriate,” Dr. David Gorski, a professor of surgery and oncology at Wayne State University, wrote in an analysis posted to Science-Based Medicine. Gorski regularly debunks claims from skeptics about COVID-19 vaccine safety.

Morris also pointed out in an X thread that Kirsch misinterprets excess deaths during a wave of COVID-19 infections and wrongly attributes them to the vaccines.

Each of the parties tied to this claim has a history of spreading false claims.

USA TODAY reached out to the social media users who shared the posts but did not immediately receive responses.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: False claim 20% of vaccinated New Zealanders have died | Fact check