Fact check: No evidence COVID-19 vaccines cause neurodegenerative diseases in young people – USA TODAY

The majority of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 – including 55% of children ages 12-17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But online, skepticism persists about the safety of the shots for young people.
“MIT Scientist Warns Parents NOT TO GIVE CHILDREN Vaccine, Could Cause ‘Crippling’ Neurodegenerative Disease In Young People,” reads the headline of a Jan. 18 article from the Geller Report, a website run by Pamela Geller. The activist has previously shared false and misleading claims on social media. 
The article, which accumulated more than 300 shares within 10 days, cites a Fox News clip featuring Stephanie Seneff. The computer science researcher said during a Jan. 13 broadcast that parents “should do everything they can” to avoid getting their children vaccinated against COVID-19.
After someone receives the vaccine, many of the immune cells responding to the shot “end up in the spleen, which is where you want them to be to produce the antibodies,” Seneff, a senior research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, told host Laura Ingraham.
“But the problem is that those germinal centers in the spleen are really the center place where Parkinson’s disease develops and probably many other neurodegenerative diseases,” she said.
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But this claim is baseless.
“There is zero truth to this claim,” Dr. Sean O’Leary, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, said in an email. “The claim has several features common to anti-vaccine mis- and disinformation.” 
Similar claims have accumulated thousands of interactions on Facebook and Instagram, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. USA TODAY, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health experts, has previously debunked false claims that the COVID-19 vaccines aren’t safe for children or 20-somethings, as well as misinformation about the shots and neurodegenerative diseases.
USA TODAY reached out to Geller for comment.
Public health experts and agencies say COVID-19 vaccines are safe for young people, including children ages 5 and older. There is no evidence the shots cause neurodegenerative diseases.
“I am not aware of any evidence of this association, and no cases were noted in the publications by CDC on vaccine safety in children and adolescents,” Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a professor in the departments of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Florida, said in an email.
Neurodegenerative diseases, including conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, occur when nerve cells in the brain or nervous system slowly stop working and die, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. A combination of genetic and environmental factors is thought to contribute to the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Most of them have no cure.
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In its article, the Geller Report cites as evidence a paper on Seneff’s website. The post, titled “SARS-CoV-2 Vaccines and Neurodegenerative Disease,” has accumulated more than 1,400 shares on Facebook since it was published in June 2021, according to CrowdTangle.
The paper speculates – but does not offer proof – that the COVID-19 vaccines “may be a pathway to crippling disease sometime in the future.” It also promotes several false, misleading and unproven theories, including claims that spike proteins resulting from the vaccines are toxic and that the shots may be linked to prion disease and Bell’s palsy.
“The link … does not look like any sort of peer-reviewed paper,” Daniel Salmon, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University, said in an email. “The article … is full of conjecture and misinformation.” 
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Some data suggest “a possible association between COVID-19 vaccines and a slight increase in risk of certain neurodegenerative diseases,” according to experts on Meedan’s Health Desk. Specifically, an October 2021 study found a slight increase in conditions like Guillain-Barré syndrome and Bell’s Palsy after administration of the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca. (The latter shot is not authorized in the U.S.)
But the study “was not randomized in the way that the vaccine trials were, which is the type of study that can definitively determine causality,” according to Meedan.
“The current research also shows that the risk of these neurodegenerative complications is much greater following a COVID-19 infection, and that risks of the vaccines are outweighed by the benefits,” the research initiative says on its website.
In an email sent to USA TODAY, Seneff cited two additional pieces of evidence: another recent paper she co-authored and reports in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, commonly known as VAERS. Neither supports the claim that children shouldn’t be vaccinated due to the threat of neurodegenerative diseases.
“I have never seen this and 100% of my patient population has neurodegenerative diseases,” Dr. Maria Escolar, professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, said in an email. “You would think they would be the first to be affected if this statement was true.”
Seneff’s paper, published Jan. 21 on the collaborative research site Authorea, claims “potential profound disturbances” resulting from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines “have a potentially direct causal link” to a wide array of conditions, including neurodegenerative diseases.
But the paper – which is not peer-reviewed – does not include definitive proof that the vaccines cause such diseases. One of its co-authors, Dr. Peter McCollough, has previously promoted misinformation about COVID-19.
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“I got to the second sentence of the abstract which reads: ‘The utilization of mRNA vaccines in the context of infectious disease had no precedent, but desperate times seemed to call for desperate measures,'” Salmon said. “This is incorrect.”
Seneff also erroneously cited as evidence the VAERS database, which she said contains “many reports … that are indicative of inflammation of various major nerves in the head.”
Public health agencies, including the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, use VAERS to detect potential safety problems associated with authorized vaccines. Anyone – from doctors and nurses to patients and parents – can submit reports of adverse events following vaccination.
As USA TODAY has previously reported, reports in VAERS are not proof of side effects caused by the COVID-19 vaccines. Reports are not verified before they’re published, and the CDC says on its website that VAERS “is not designed to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event.”
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If public health agencies detect a pattern in VAERS reports, they conduct follow-up studies to determine whether the vaccine was to blame. They also use other surveillance systems to detect potential safety problems with vaccines.
None of those systems have indicated authorized COVID-19 vaccines are causing neurodegenerative diseases, according to Curt Gill, a CDC spokesperson.
“To date, CDC has detected no unusual or unexpected patterns of neurodegenerative diseases following immunization that would indicate COVID-19 vaccines are causing or contributing to these conditions,” he told USA TODAY in an email. “CDC continues to recommend that everyone who is eligible should get vaccinated.”
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that children shouldn’t receive the COVID-19 vaccine because it could cause neurodegenerative disease. Public health agencies and experts say the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective for people older than 5. The CDC says it hasn’t seen any evidence indicating the COVID-19 vaccines cause neurodegenerative diseases.
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