FACT CHECK: Did the flu vaccine cause more people to die from COVID-19 in Italy?
FALSE. There is no evidence that the flu vaccine contributed to a higher number of COVID-19-related deaths in Italy.
Plandemic, a viral video released online in May, purported to reveal a conspiracy by global elites to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the video, biochemist Judy Mikovits makes a number of unsupported claims, including that a flu vaccine was the reason Italy had such high numbers of COVID-19 deaths. (As of August 12, more than 35,000 people have died from the virus in the country.) The video received around 8 million views on social media before it was taken down, according to The Verge. It continued to be posted online, however, after its creators encouraged users to repost their own copies of the video.
Mikovits’s ideas have been circulating on social media along with similar claims that getting the flu vaccine increases the chance of being infected by COVID-19. (To be clear: it does not.)
In the Plandemic video, an interviewer asks Mikovits why Italy has had so many deaths. “Italy has a very old population,” Mikovits responds. “They're very sick with inflammatory disorders. They got it at the beginning of 2019, an untested, new form of influenza vaccine that had four different strains of influenza, including the highly pathogenic H1N1.”
Mikovits implies that coronaviruses present in dog kidney cells—where the viruses for the flu vaccine were developed—were somehow transmitted to humans. “That vaccine was grown in a cell line, a dog cell line. Dogs have lots of coronaviruses,” she says.
It is true that Italy has the second-oldest median age in the world after Japan, and that elderly people are the most at risk of dying from a COVID-19 infection. It is also true that there is a flu vaccine containing four strains of inactivated influenza, including H1N1, in use in the European Union, and that a new version of the vaccine with viruses grown in the kidney cells of dogs was introduced in Europe for the 2019–2020 flu season.
However, every other one of Mikovits’s claims are misleading or false. The vaccine Mikovits seems to be describing is Flucelvax Tetra, but her characterization of the vaccine is not accurate. The four virus strains are grown in Madin-Darby canine kidney cells, because it has some advantages over the usual method of growing viruses in chicken eggs. It is not true that the vaccine is untested; it was approved for use in Europe after two clinical trials found that it was effective and as safe as other flu vaccines.
There’s also no evidence that taking a flu shot composed of viruses grown in dog cells would give you COVID-19. Firstly, the mechanics of how that could work are murky. While there is a type of coronavirus that is common in dogs, it is not the same virus as SARS-CoV-2 and does not affect humans. Madin-Darby canine kidney cells were originally derived from a cocker spaniel in 1958 and have been grown in vitro ever since, so it’s also highly unlikely that they would be infected with a coronavirus. Secondly, a study in Italy found that regions with higher rates of flu vaccination also had fewer deaths from COVID-19. This doesn’t mean that the flu shot is protecting people from COVID-19—it could be a statistical fluke or it may have happened for unrelated reasons—but it demonstrates that the flu shot is not increasing the death toll in Italy.
Overall, the claim that the flu shot is responsible for the high rate of COVID-19 deaths in Italy is false. For more fact-checking on the many unsupported claims in the Plandemic video, readers can also find a comprehensive breakdown by Science magazine here.
Image: A screenshot from a clip of Plandemic shared on Twitter.