Fact Check


SciCheck Digest

American sportswriter Grant Wahl died unexpectedly while covering the soccer World Cup in Qatar, and purveyors of vaccine misinformation have suggested that his death was caused by COVID-19 vaccination. He actually died from the rupture of an aortic aneurysm that he didn’t know he had.

Grant Wahl, an American sports journalist, died of an aneurysm while covering the soccer World Cup in Qatar. He was 49.

Wahl collapsed during the quarterfinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands on Dec. 9, but his cause of death wasn’t reported until five days later, after the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office had performed an autopsy.

In the meantime, social media accounts that spread vaccine misinformation shared posts suggesting that his death was caused by the COVID-19 vaccine, despite having no evidence to support the claim.

Many of the posts referred to a long-standing, but unfounded, claim that the COVID-19 vaccines have been causing individuals — primarily young people and athletes — to die suddenly. We recently wrote about a viral video called “Died Suddenly” that relied on the same rumor to spin a wide-ranging conspiracy theory about world depopulation.

But there’s no evidence that Wahl died from a vaccine. Rather, he died from “the rupture of a slowly growing, undetected ascending aortic aneurysm with hemopericardium,” his wife, Dr. Céline Gounder, wrote in a post on his Substack on Dec. 14.

“The chest pressure he experienced shortly before his death may have represented the initial symptoms,” she wrote. “No amount of CPR or shocks would have saved him. His death was unrelated to COVID. His death was unrelated to vaccination status. There was nothing nefarious about his death.”

Gounder, who is a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation and a medical contributor for CBS Newsexplained on CBS Mornings what it means to have an aortic aneurysm. The aorta, she said, is “the big blood vessel that comes out of your heart — sort of the trunk of all the blood vessels” and an aneurysm happens when a blood vessel balloons. If the wall of the vessel is particularly weakened, it can rupture, which is what happened to Wahl.

“It’s just one of these things that had likely been brewing for years, and, for whatever reason, it happened at this point in time,” Gounder said.

Borrowed Headlines, But No Evidence

Despite Gounder’s explanation, claims attempting to tie Wahl’s death to vaccination persisted on social media, with Alex Berenson — a former New York Times reporter who has spread dubious claims about vaccines during the pandemic — joining the fray.

Shortly after Gounder posted on Substack, Berenson tweeted, in part, “It is awful to talk about this, but giant cell arteritis is both a risk factor for the aneurysm that killed him and a side effect of mRNA jabs.”

He included screenshots of various headlines apparently meant to support his claim.

First was a screengrab from Gounder’s post reporting that the cause of death was an ascending aortic aneurysm.

Second was a screenshot from a page on Medical News Today giving an overview of ascending aortic aneurysms. The section describing what can cause such an episode said, “Aneurysms may be caused by anything that weakens the aortic walls. Several factors can contribute to the development of an ascending aortic aneurysm and other types of aneurysms.”

The page went on to list some of those contributing factors. They included: atherosclerosis, which happens when plaque builds up on the artery walls and counts high cholesterol and high blood pressure as risk factors; problems with the aortic valve, such as when a person is born with fewer flaps to regulate the flow of blood than is normal; genetic conditions such as Marfan syndromeEhlers-Danlos disorders, and Loeys-Dietz syndrome; and inflammatory conditions, including giant cell arteritis and Takayasu arteritis.

The only part Berenson included in the screenshot, though, was this: “Inflammatory conditions that may increase the risk of thoracic aortic aneurysms include giant cell arteritis and Takayasu arteritis.”

According to the New York Times, doctors are looking into whether Wahl may have had Marfan syndrome, which can result in being tall and thin with long arms, like Wahl.

The last two screenshots are the titles of two short articles in the medical literature that raise the possibility of a connection between COVID-19 vaccination and giant cell arteritis, or GCA. GCA is a treatable condition in older people that involves inflammation of the blood vessels.

One is a letter to the editor published in Clinical Rheumatology by six Spanish doctors in February, which describes an 83-year-old woman who developed GCA after her first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. With treatment, the woman successfully received her second vaccine dose and was in remission.

The letter calls for more study and concludes, “We think that while the overall incidence of vaccine-triggered autoimmunity is low, vaccinations should continue as planned. However, rheumatologists worldwide should be aware of autoimmune diseases as a new potential adverse event of mRNA vaccines.”

The other is a two-paragraph case report published in the medical journal QJM about a 74-year-old man who developed a prolonged cough and was diagnosed with GCA after his third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. His symptoms improved with treatment.

While there are a few case reports of GCA being diagnosed after COVID-19 vaccination, it’s premature for Berenson to say that GCA is a side effect of COVID-19 vaccination, let alone link the condition to what killed Wahl.

One larger pharmacovigilance study did find a potential safety signal for an increased risk of GCA following vaccination, although the risk was lower than what was observed with influenza vaccines. But even that study cautioned that its findings were preliminary.

“Further data are needed to confirm this signal,” it concluded. “Nevertheless, COVID-19 vaccine benefits dramatically outweigh this potential risk, which appears very rare relative to the billions of doses administered so far.”

All Berenson has done is cherry-pick parts of pages on the internet to create what looks like a relationship between vaccination and the ailment that killed Wahl. But none of the references he cited shows a causal relationship and, as the first one says, aneurysms can be caused by many different factors.

It’s worth noting that the average age for those who get GCA is 72, according to the Johns Hopkins Vasculitis Center. Almost everyone who gets it is over the age of 50 and it’s two to three times more common in women than men.

Like the similar claims that have tried to tie the deaths of various people to COVID-19 vaccination, there’s no evidence connecting Wahl’s death to vaccination.

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