CLAIM: Two researchers found that more than 1,500 athletes have suffered cardiac arrest since COVID-19 vaccinations began, compared to a previous average of 29 athletes per year, suggesting the vaccines are causing a dramatic rise in such cardiac issues.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The researchers cited a number from a blog that lists news stories about recent deaths and medical emergencies among people of all ages, from all over the world — some of which were attributed to other causes, such as cancer. The previous figure, meanwhile, is from a 2006 study that specifically reviewed literature for reports of sudden cardiac deaths among athletes under age 35. Comparing the two sources, with different methodologies, is not scientifically sound, experts told The Associated Press.
THE FACTS: Following Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest during a game Monday, social media posts and Fox News gave air to a long-circulating and faulty narrative that COVID-19 vaccines are causing a dramatic increase in athlete deaths.
“Cardiologist Peter McCullough and researcher Panagis Polykretis looked into this trend in Europe, European sports leagues. They found that prior to COVID and the COVID-19 vaccines there were roughly 29 cardiac arrests in those European sports leagues per year,” Fox’s Tucker Carlson claimed in a segment Tuesday night. “Since the vax campaign began, there have been more than 1,500 total cardiac arrests in those leagues and two-thirds of those were fatal.”
Carlson was in fact referencing a letter, not a rigorous study, that McCullough and Polykretis published in a Scandinavian journal in late 2022.
That letter does claim that “1598 athletes suffered cardiac arrest, 1101 of which with deadly outcome” between January 2021 and late 2022 — but it simply cites a blog, goodsciencing.com, for that figure.
The blog’s list is a compilation of news reports about recent deaths and medical emergencies, and it includes cases not reported to be spurred by cardiac arrest: Some deaths, for example, were reportedly from cancer.
The list also includes incidents from around the world and among people of all ages — including some in their 70s and 80s — not just athletes in “European sports leagues,” as Carlson claimed.
For example, the list now includes a 71-year-old woman who died at home in Canada in December even while acknowledging her cause of death was not known and that her obituary suggested donations to a cancer charity. It also cites a news story about a 61-year-old Italian athletic trainer who reportedly died shortly after being diagnosed with leukemia.
“It’s not real research,” Dr. Matthew Martinez, director of sports cardiology at Atlantic Health System in Morristown Medical Center, told the AP. “Anybody can write a letter to the editor and then quote an article that has no academic rigor.”
Dr. Jonathan Kim, chief of sports cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine and team cardiologist for Atlanta’s NFL, NBA and MLB teams, similarly said of the blog post: “It’s just shocking to use that as a citation.”
“It’s scientific garbage, you can’t just pull a bunch of media reports,” he added, noting that in some cases a clinically determined cause of death or health issue isn’t released because it’s private medical information.
The letter by McCullough and Polykretis goes on to compare the blog’s questionable “1,598” figure of recent incidents to a 2006 study that found 1,101 reports of sudden cardiac death in athletes over a 38-year period, or an average of 29 per year. Some posts shared online also used numbers from the two sources to baselessly claim there has been a “1700% increase” in sudden cardiac deaths among athletes.
The 2006 analysis, however, reviewed literature specifically for reports of sudden cardiac death among athletes under the age of 35. The study also noted that its findings were limited because “SCD in young athletes as reported in the published and studied papers is certainly underestimated.”
Dr. Neel Chokshi, medical director of Penn Medicine’s Sports Cardiology and Fitness Program, said it would be “inaccurate” to make conclusions by comparing the 2006 study and the blog’s figures.
“Typically, research and scientific data are peer reviewed under a fairly rigorous process to evaluate the methods used to obtain the data and perform the analysis,” Chokshi said in an email. “This is important for several reasons including ensuring the data is accurate, free from unforeseen biases and potential confounders.”
Chokshi added that it’s important to verify the circumstances around a reported death or event to confirm that it was in fact heart-related — something the blog doesn’t do.
“The data presented here does not support the notion that vaccines have caused an increase in sudden death,” he said.
The COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna do carry a rare risk — most frequently for young men — of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, though experts and officials say the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks.
Cardiologists have told the AP there have been instances of athletes experiencing sudden cardiac death and cardiac arrest long before the COVID-19 pandemic and that they have not observed the dramatic increase alleged on social media.
Experts say it’s too soon to know what caused Hamlin’s heart to stop, though they’ve offered a rare type of trauma called commotio cordis as among the possible culprits. Physicians interviewed by the AP say there’s no indication Hamlin’s vaccine status played a role.
McCullough and Fox News did not immediately return requests for comment.
This story has been updated to include additional examples of the false claim.
Associated Press writers Ali Swenson and Sophia Tulp contributed to this report.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.