Did the CDC Apologize for an Ineffective Flu Vaccine?

A YouTube channel with a reputation for pushing conspiracy theories seized on a statement from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in March 2015 as a means to gin up more anti-vaccination content.

The agency had said in a December 2014 statement that based on early data, the flu season at the time “could be severe.” The CDC further encouraged Americans to seek vaccinations as well as immediate treatment for anyone of high risk of developing complications based on the flu. The statement read:

So far this year, seasonal influenza A H3N2 viruses have been most common. There often are more severe flu illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths during seasons when these viruses predominate. For example, H3N2 viruses were predominant during the 2012-2013, 2007-2008, and 2003-2004 seasons, the three seasons with the highest mortality levels in the past decade. All were characterized as “moderately severe.”

Increasing the risk of a severe flu season is the finding that roughly half of the H3N2 viruses analyzed are drift variants: viruses with antigenic or genetic changes that make them different from that season’s vaccine virus. This means the vaccine’s ability to protect against those viruses may be reduced, although vaccinated people may have a milder illness if they do become infected. During the 2007-2008 flu season, the predominant H3N2 virus was a drift variant yet the vaccine had an overall efficacy of 37 percent and 42 percent against H3N2 viruses.

“It’s too early to say for sure that this will be a severe flu season, but Americans should be prepared,” CDC director Tom Frieden added.

But the CDC’s advisory was later twisted by “Next News Network,” a blog that shifted in 2017 to delivering its disinformation through YouTube, in a video saying:

For the first time we can remember, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are going on the record, saying the flu vaccine won’t work this year. The warning comes just before the busiest part of flu season, in January and February. Unfortunately, there won’t be any refund for any of the patients or insurance companies who spent money on flu shots earlier this fall.

The analysis site Media Bias/Fact Check has rated Next News Network as “Extreme Right Biased and Questionable” for promoting disinformation:

Next News Network publishes newsdesk-style videos throughout the day, with Gary Franchi serving as the primary host. Other hosts also broadcast news as well. Headlines and video content is often strongly worded to favor the right and denigrate the left, such as this: OH BOY! Joe Biden Looks Like Death at Campaign Stop — Something Is Wrong with Old Joe!. This conspiratorial propaganda piece resembles similar claims made about Hilary Clinton in 2016 when NNN speculated that she had Parkinson’s disease.

Finally, NNN has also promoted that Michelle Obama is transgender, another conspiracy of the far-right LOOK!!! WHEN YOU LEARN WHAT OBAMA WAS WILLING TO PAY FOR TRANSGENDER SURGERIES, YOU WILL FREAK OUT!. In general, this Youtube channel is designed to look and feel like a credible news broadcast; however, it is not. The reporting consists almost exclusively of far-right conspiracies and propaganda that most times is not true. Next News Network is not a credible source for news.

In this case, the CDC warned that 2014 could bring a “potentially severe” flu season, but it never apologized for developing an ineffective flu vaccine.

Each year, flu vaccines are designed to protect against four different flu viruses, and H3N2 is among them. Early on in the 2014 flu season, the CDC said it had discovered that roughly half of the H3N2 strains it analyzed were “drift variants”:

This means the vaccine’s ability to protect against those viruses may be reduced, although vaccinated people may have a milder illness if they do become infected. During the 2007-2008 flu season, the predominant H3N2 virus was a drift variant, yet the vaccine had an overall efficacy of 37 percent and 42 percent against H3N2 viruses.

In an average year, vaccines successfully ward off the flu about 60 percent of the time. However, the benefits of vaccination have an even larger impact on local communities, the website Science Based Medicine reports:

It is important to remember that with infectious diseases you are vaccinating not only individuals, but populations. When you get a vaccine you may also be protecting others from disease, and the effects of herd immunity are evident when you look at the effects of vaccination on the health of populations.

And NextNews Network’s claim that the CDC “apologized” for the vaccine doesn’t check out in light of the CDC’s role in developing the vaccine. More than 140 influenza centers in 111 countries monitor influenza trends at all times. Those centers forward their findings to the five World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centers for Reference and Research on Influenza, which includes the CDC, according to the agency:

The influenza viruses in the seasonal flu vaccine are selected each year based on surveillance-based forecasts about what viruses are most likely to cause illness in the coming season. WHO recommends specific vaccine viruses for inclusion in influenza vaccines, but then each individual country makes their own decision for which strains should be included in influenza vaccines licensed in their country. In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines which vaccine viruses will be used in U.S.-licensed vaccines.

While Next News Network’s video on the CDC “apology” — and several others — have been taken down, the channel itself remains active on YouTube despite its history of disinformation.

Update 5/7/21, 3:30 p.m.: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here.