Retracted COVID-19 Vaccine Study Was Funded by Anti-Vaxxer

A Michigan State University economist’s study — which was criticized for claiming that COVID-19 vaccines could be blamed nearly 300,000 deaths — was retracted after the revelation that it was funded by an anti-vaccine former federal official.

According to MLive Media, Mark Skidmore, who published the January 2023 report, revealed that his work was funded by Catherine Austin Fitts, who served as assistant secretary of housing and urban development durng George H.W. Bush’s presidential administration. The study has been retracted by the journal BMC Infectious Diseases, a peer-reviewed journal that is one of several publications published by Springer Nature.

Fact Check

Claim: COVID-19 vaccines cause 300,000 deaths

Description: A study by Mark Skidmore, an economist at Michigan State University, claimed that COVID-19 vaccines could have caused nearly 300,000 deaths. The controversial study has been retracted after it was revealed to be funded by Catherine Austin Fitts, an anti-vaccine former federal official. The paper was based on an anonymous survey, and its methodology was criticized by peers and health organisations, including the CDC. Despite this, the claim found its way into various anti-vaccine circles.

Rating: False

Rating Explanation: Considerable criticism from peers and health organizations contests the study’s methodology and conclusions. The CDC provided contrastive statistics, suggesting the vaccine’s fatality rate to be significantly lower. Also, the study’s source of funding and its retraction further undermine its credibility.

“We take our responsibility to maintain the accuracy of the scientific record very seriously, particularly when concerns are raised about findings that can influence health-related behaviors and attitudes,” managing editor Maria Hodges said in a statement.

As the Washington Post reported in February 2021, Fitts was featured in an anti-“lockdown” video that was widely disseminated on social media before platforms like YouTube and Facebook banned it:

In the video, Fitts spins an elaborate tale about a plot by a “committee that runs the world,” which she calls “Mr. Global,” that aims to enslave people through mind control. She also falsely claims the coronavirus vaccine is “full of these mystery ingredients” and will “modify your DNA and for all we know make you infertile.”

The journal said in its statement announcing the retraction that Skidmore’s methodology was found to be “inappropriate” and that “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.”

Skidmore’s paper was based on an anonymous survey of 2,840 people conducted in December 2021. According to the study, 612 respondents — 22 percent — said “they knew at least one person who had experienced a severe health problem following COVID-19 vaccination.”

But as MLive reported, the responses were based on anecdotes rather than vetted information:

Answers such as “cancer retu[r]ned in his body spread all over,” “death from a heart attack after vaccination by a few weeks,” and “the shot made it worse. The[y] lose energy and the end result was death” all made the cut.

By extrapolating data from the survey and submissions to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), Skidmore concluded that “the total number of fatalities due to COVID-19 inoculation may be as high as 278,000.” But this approach contradicts the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) advisory regarding use of VAERS data:

As an early warning system, VAERS cannot prove that a vaccine caused a problem. Specifically, a report to VAERS does not mean that a vaccine caused an adverse event. But VAERS can give CDC and FDA important information. If it looks as though a vaccine might be causing a problem, FDA and CDC will investigate further and take action if needed.

According to CDC data, there were 19,476 VAERS “preliminary reports of death” out of more than 672 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered between December 14 2020 and March 1 2023 — an estimated 0.0029 percent.

“Continued monitoring has identified nine deaths causally associated with [Johnson & Johnson]/Janssen COVID-19 vaccination,” the agency said.

Oncologist and medical blogger David Gorski, a longtime critic of scientific disinformation, slammed Skidmore’s survey-driven work as “antivaxx propaganda”:

Prof. Skidmore, for reasons known only to him, is testing a fantasy hypothesis that his estimate of how many deaths have resulted from COVID-19 vaccines based on a survey that that reflects perceptions of the respondents, not actual medical reality should match government statistics and declares the hypothesis falsified when the two numbers are very different from each other. Then he does the same thing with VAERS. Truly, this is fractal pseudoscience whose abuse of frequentist statistics is truly impressive.

Epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz voiced similar concerns about Skidmore basing his findings on a survey.

“Anonymous online surveys are very useful if you want to know about people’s beliefs and intentions, because people tend to report those things accurately,” Meyerowitz-Katz, a doctoral student at the University of Wollongong in Australia, told MLive. “They are almost entirely useless if you want to derive the rate of something occurring.”

Predictably, Skidmore’s work was taken as a victory by right-wing bloggers like Canadian pundit Jordan Peterson:

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the study was also disseminated by tech mogul Steve Kirsch, who has his own history of anti-vaccine rhetoric:

Kirsch has touted unproven Covid cures and founded the Vaccine Safety Research Foundation, which has disseminated ads about alleged vaccine injuries.

Skidmore, who stands by his work, cast the retraction as a political act.

“I think if it had been anything else, any other kind of event other than the vaccines, that it probably would have been left alone,” he told MLive.

But Gorski said the study was “at its heart” no different from other surveys pushing anti-vaccine views.

“MSU should be embarrassed that it has on its faculty such a conspiracy monger willing to use bogus research techniques to promote antivaccine disinformation,” he wrote.