Doherty Institute criticises eminent academic for misleading on COVID vaccine risks

Doherty Institute criticises eminent academic for misleading on COVID vaccine risks

What was claimed

The verdict

An article in The Australian newspaper by an eminent academic makes a number of claims suggesting the COVID vaccine has serious adverse side effects.

The article makes claims most of which are false or lack context by misrepresenting research and using unreliable sources, experts say.

By Renee Davidson

The world-renowned Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity says claims made by an eminent Australian academic about COVID vaccines are “tremendously dangerous”.

Doherty Institute director, Professor Sharon Lewin, says conclusions about COVID vaccination risks by Professor Ramesh Thakur, an emeritus professor at the Australian National University’s Crawford School, “make no sense”.

His claims have also been rebuked by the key author of a scientific paper that Professor Thakur cites in an article he wrote that was published in The Australian newspaper on October 7, 2022.

Professor Thakur, a former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, is a political scientist with expertise in arms control and disarmament and a contributor to

In his article in The Australian, Professor Thakur refers to a press release from the self-styled Australian Medical Network – which is linked to the Covid Medical Network (CMN) – that claims health bureaucrats will have more power than doctors under a new health regulatory bill in Queensland. Last year the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) investigated the CMN and issued it with a cease and desist letter after it was found to be endorsing the discredited hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID. 

Screenshots of Professor Thakur's article, which circulated widely on social media platforms, have been embraced by anti-vaxxers as proof the COVID vaccines do more harm than good. 

However, in his article, he misrepresents research and uses unreliable sources to make a number of claims, including that: 

  1. COVID vaccines are likely to damage immunity against reinfection among children.

  2. The risk of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) from COVID vaccines in those aged 12 to 15 is almost three times greater than the risk of dying from COVID itself.

  3. Pfizer’s vaccine trial showed more deaths in the vaccine group than the placebo group.

  4. Denmark has banned COVID vaccinations for healthy people under the age of 50, and Norway for those under 65.

  5. Reports of COVID originating in the Wuhan Institute of Virology have been systematically suppressed. 

The Doherty Institute’s Professor Lewin, is highly critical of Professor Thakur’s article.

“The spread of misinformation in this article is tremendously dangerous,” she told RMIT FactLab.

“The author has confused the issues and presented a ton of numbers that appear scientific but the interpretation is incorrect,” she said. “This is very worrying especially when published in a mainstream paper such as The Australian.

RMIT FactLab has debunked five of Professor Thakur’s claims using analysis from leading infectious disease experts and information made available by government health authorities and the World Health Organization (WHO).  


CLAIM ONE: COVID vaccines damage natural immunity against reinfection among children.

Professor Thakur refers to a recent peer-reviewed study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), which assessed the level of immunity conferred by COVID vaccination and previous infection in 887,193 children aged 5 to 11. 

He claimed the research “adds to concerns that vaccines don’t just rapidly lose effectiveness; they might also be destroying natural immunity against reinfection”.

He wrote that among unvaccinated children infected with the Delta variant, protection against reinfection fell from 95 per cent to 53 per cent between September 2021 and May 2022. But in vaccinated children infected with Delta, “effectiveness had fallen to zero by May”.

He concludes that “the likely, albeit not definitive, explanation is that the vaccines themselves are damaging natural immunity”.

But the lead author of the study, Danyu Lin, a biostatistics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told RMIT FactLab that Professor Thakur’s claims were a “misrepresentation” of the study’s findings. 

“Our study did not show that the vaccine destroyed natural immunity against reinfection,” he said. 

Professor Lin’s study states, “both the BNT162b2 [Pfizer] vaccine and previous infection were found to confer considerable immunity against Omicron infection and protection against hospitalisation and death.” 

Furthermore, Professor Thakur fails to mention that the study’s main focus was the more prevalent Omicron variant.

Professor Lin told RMIT FactLab it was “more important” to consider the study’s findings on the Omicron variant. “The protection from previous infection with Omicron against reinfection with Omicron was much higher among vaccinated children than among unvaccinated children,” he said.

His study included two charts illustrating the effectiveness of previous infection – from both the Delta and Omicron variants – against reinfection among vaccinated and unvaccinated children. 

For vaccinated children who had previously been infected with the Delta variant, one chart shows immunity declining from 95 per cent to zero within six months. 

Professor Lin said in the first three months, the effectiveness of previous infection from Delta was “higher among vaccinated children” than among unvaccinated children.

But after three months “there was insufficient data to accurately estimate” the effectiveness against reinfection among vaccinated children. 

Similar claims to those made by Professor Thakur about the NEJM study were fact checked by  AP News and Reuters and found to be false. 


CLAIM TWO: the risk of myocarditis in young people is almost three times greater than death from the disease itself.

Professor Thakur says in his article that experts “point to a worrying trend of rising excess mortality among under-14s in Europe”. He cites British cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra to mount the argument that the risk of myocarditis in 12 to 15-year-olds is almost three times greater than death from the disease itself.

“Malhotra estimates the risk of a Covid death in 12 to 15-year-olds is one in 76,000, against the risk of myocarditis of one in 27,000: nearly three times more,” he writes, arguing that there is a “net harm” from vaccination.

The Doherty Institute’s Professor Lewin told RMIT FactLab that Professor Thakur’s interpretation of the data was incorrect. 

“The issue here is that myocarditis doesn’t kill you,” she said. “Myocarditis from vaccination is generally transient and mild, so comparing this relatively rare and transient adverse effect from a COVID vaccine to death from COVID makes no sense.” 

She said weighing up the risk of death from the AstraZeneca vaccine and the risk of death from COVID “made sense”. 

“But this comparison for myocarditis makes no sense as it doesn’t actually kill,” she said.

Dr Malhotra, who is cited by Professor Thakur several times, has been repeatedly fact checked and found to be wrong by Health Feedback, FullFact, AFP Fact Check and Reuters for making unsupported claims about adverse effects of COVID vaccines. 

For instance, on November 24, 2021, the American Heart Association (AHA) issued an “expression of concern” about an abstract of a non-peer-reviewed paper that linked COVID vaccines with heart attacks. The paper was not eventually published. 

The AHA noted the abstract contained “potential errors” and “may not be reliable”. It added, “There are several typographical errors, there is no data in the abstract regarding myocardial T-cell infiltration, there are no statistical analyses for significance provided, and the author is not clear that only anecdotal data was used.”

Two days later, Dr Malhotra appeared on British television and commented on the unpublished paper without mentioning the AHA concerns. His comments were picked up by anti-vaxxers and the clip of his media appearance went viral on social media. 

The abstract and Dr Malhotra’s comments were then fact checked by Reuters and FullFact and found to be wrong. 

More recently, Dr Malhotra called for a “complete and immediate suspension of the COVID vaccine” while presenting his research paper at a press conference with the World Council for Health – a group known for spreading misinformation about COVID vaccines. 

Dr Malhotra’s study, which was published in the Journal of Insulin Resistance where he sits on the editorial board, was amplified on social media by anti-vaxxers.   

To support his claims of COVID vaccine harms, Dr Malhotra cited in his paper an “unprecedented” number of adverse event reports from the United Kingdom’s Yellow Card Scheme and the United States’ Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). These two databases contain reports made by individuals, healthcare providers and vaccine manufacturers that detail adverse incidents after vaccination, regardless of whether the vaccine was thought to be the cause. 

The UK Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explain on their websites that any member of the public can submit suspected adverse health events and that the data alone cannot determine whether the vaccine caused the reported adverse event. 

According to First Draft, a leading not-for-profit group that investigates online misinformation and disinformation, VAERS data is frequently misrepresented: “The unvetted and open nature of the system means it is prone to exploitation by vaccine sceptics, with the reports on the database misleadingly cited to stoke fears around COVID-19 vaccines.” 

Claims made by Dr Malhotra in his paper, which were cited by Professor Thakur, have been debunked by AFP Fact Check and Health Feedback, who note the study cherrypicked evidence, relied on flawed studies and failed to acknowledge the wider body of research that shows vaccines are safe and effective. 


CLAIM THREE: Pfizer’s vaccine trial showed more deaths in the vaccine group than the placebo group.

According to Professor Thakur, Dr Malhotra “notes that Pfizer’s own trial showed slightly more deaths” in the vaccine group than the placebo group.

Pfizer’s report on its vaccine trial shows there were slightly more deaths in the vaccine group – 15 died in the vaccine group and 14 died in the placebo group. 

But in his article Professor Thakur fails to mention that these figures reflect deaths from all causes, not specifically from the COVID vaccine. 

The Pfizer report states that none of the deaths in the trial were considered to be related to the vaccine by investigators. Causes of death included cancer, dementia, and a stroke.

Similar claims about Pfizer’s trial resulting in a higher number of deaths in the vaccine group have been fact checked by the AP News and found to be false. 


CLAIM FOUR: Denmark and Norway banned COVID vaccines. 

Professor Thakur claims that Denmark and Norway have banned COVID vaccines for healthy people under the age of 50 and 65 respectively. 

But this is incorrect, with neither country imposing such a ban. 

The Danish Health Authority website recommends a booster vaccination for people over 50 from October 1, 2022. This recommendation comes after Denmark relaxed its mass vaccination program in April 2022 when it achieved full vaccination among 80 per cent of its population. 

For people under 50, a booster vaccination is currently recommended for some target groups, including those at high risk of becoming severely ill and for staff who work in health and education sectors. It did not introduce a complete ban for anyone.  

In Norway, the country’s Ministry of Health and Care Services’ most recent press release states that children aged 5 to 11 can receive the vaccine if requested by their parents or guardian. 

While the press release states there is “no general recommendation” to vaccinate children, it does not introduce a ban on COVID vaccines. 

Similar claims about Denmark banning COVID vaccines have been debunked by CheckMateReuters and Heath Feedback


CLAIM FIVE: suppression of the “lab leak” theory. 

Professor Thakur opens the article with the claim that “efforts to control the pandemic narrative began with a systematic suppression of any suggestion that it might have originated in a research lab of the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.

But narratives of the “lab leak” theory have not been “systematically suppressed”, with WHO establishing several international teams to investigate the origins of COVID. 

A joint international investigation led by WHO and China in January 2021 concluded it was “extremely unlikely” that COVID first emerged through a laboratory incident. However, in June 2022, another WHO-established expert group recommended further investigation into whether COVID was introduced into humans through a laboratory incident. 

Examples of mainstream media’s coverage of the “lab leak” theory can be found here and here.


The verdict

Claim 1: False. The study found that COVID vaccines boosts, not destroy, immunity against reinfection among children. 

Claim 2: Missing context. Myocarditis is a mild and rare side effect of some COVID vaccines. It is therefore not valid to compare its incidence with deaths from COVID, according to experts. 

Claim 3. False. The number of deaths in the Pfizer trial reflects deaths from all causes. None of the deaths in the trial were considered related to the vaccine. 

Claim 4. False. Denmark and Norway have recommended booster vaccines for some target groups under the age of 50 and 65. They have not banned anyone from having booster shots. 

Claim 5. False. The World Health Organization has led a number of international investigations into the origins of COVID, including whether it first emerged from a laboratory incident in the Wuhan Institute of Virology or whether it was zoonotic.


31 October 2022


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