ANGELO FICHERA and SOPHIA TULP - Associated Press
Jake West was a seemingly healthy 17-year-old when he collapsed during high school football practice in Indiana and died of sudden cardiac arrest. A video widely shared online falsely suggests COVID-19 vaccination is to blame, weaving headlines about him into a rapid-fire compilation of news coverage about athletes collapsing.
The vaccine played no role in West’s death — he died from an undiagnosed heart condition in 2013, seven years before the pandemic began.
The video is just one example of many similar compilations circulating on the internet that use deceptive tactics to link vaccines to a supposed wave of deaths and illness among the healthiest people, often athletes, a claim for which medical experts say there is no supporting evidence.
The clips inundate viewers with a barrage of stories and headlines delivered without context, some translated from other languages and offering few details people can check on their own.
They are highly effective at spreading misinformation using a strategy that sows doubt and bypasses critical analysis, capitalizing on emotion, according to Norbert Schwarz, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Southern California.
“It’s designed to foster that feeling that the vaccines may be risky,” Schwarz said. “You’re doing that with material that seems real, because it is real. All of these events actually happened, they just have nothing to do with the vaccines.”
The nearly four-minute montage that included West’s story originated on “The HighWire,” an online talk show hosted by Del Bigtree that is popular among the anti-vaccine community, and gradually became magnified via social media.
It takes the viewer through more than 50 cases of medical emergencies in rapid succession while eerie music plays and a beating heart pulses in the background, ending with somber images of medics and teammates rushing to fallen athletes.
After airing the video, Bigtree noted on his show that there is “no proof” vaccines were responsible for the cases — even while suggesting they might be.
“All of these sports are mandating this vaccine on everybody in order to play, and I can only ask the very simple question, do you ever remember hearing a story of an athlete having a heart attack on the field?” Bigtree said.
Yet cases of sudden cardiac arrest — an abrupt malfunction of the heart, different from a heart attack — have long been documented among young athletes.
One analysis based on 2016 emergency medical services data estimated that there are more than 23,000 pediatric, out-of-hospital cardiac arrest cases in the U.S. annually — 4,000 of which were caused by primarily cardiac issues.
Dr. Jonathan Drezner, director of the University of Washington's Center for Sports Cardiology, said there is “no scientific evidence” that either COVID-19 or the mRNA vaccines have increased sudden cardiac arrest, often referred to as SCA, among athletes.
“SCA has been the leading cause of sudden death in athletes during sports and exercise well before the pandemic ever began,” Drezner said. “There is no evidence that the cases shown in that video were caused by a vaccine.”
A rare risk of myocarditis, a condition that causes inflammation of the heart and tends to occur mostly in young men and teen boys, has been associated with the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. Those affected usually recover quickly, however, and health officials have concluded that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks.
Experts point out that COVID-19 itself carries the risk of myocarditis, too.
Dr. Jonathan Kim, chief of sports cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine and team cardiologist for Atlanta’s NFL, NBA and MLB teams, also disputed the claim that such cardiac issues among athletes are increasing.
“One of the key points that all of us in the sports cardiology community are really trying to emphasize is there have been tragic cases of athletes dying before COVID, and after COVID ends there are going to be tragic cases of sudden cardiac death,” Kim said.
Still, the claims circulate widely online and gain traction in anti-vaccine circles.
Dr. Robert Malone, a self-identified inventor, and now skeptic, of the technology used in some COVID-19 vaccines, shared the “HighWire” video with his more than 440,000 Twitter followers, saying: “Safe and effective?”
Malone deleted it in late November, around the same time a lawyer sent a cease-and-desist order on behalf of the West family. He did not respond to an AP request for comment, but tweeted that he took the video down after learning it had been “doctored.”
While a lack of details makes it impossible to check every case mentioned in the “HighWire” video, many the AP was able to examine had no connection with COVID-19 vaccines. Some local reporting showed environmental factors such as heat exhaustion or different underlying conditions could have played a role.
An early version of the video showed clips of the University of Florida's Keyontae Johnson collapsing during a basketball game, as did other compilations. But Johnson’s collapse was in December 2020, before vaccines were widely available. University officials confirmed to AP that he was not vaccinated at the time.
Others featured in the video were Florida teen Ryne Jacobs, who collapsed during tennis practice in January 2021, and Danish soccer player Christian Eriksen, who suffered cardiac arrest on the field this June during a match vs. Finland. Neither were vaccinated, according to Jacobs' family and Eriksen's club.
The video was updated weeks later after issues were raised with some of the stories it included. Johnson's and Jacobs’ cases were removed after they were found to be “no longer relevant due to timing or newly disclosed medical records or statements,” Bigtree said in an emailed statement.
West’s story remains in the latest iteration, as do other disputed cases, such as that of Jack Alkhatib, a 17-year-old South Carolina student who died during football practice in August. His mother, Kelly Hewins Alkhatib, said an autopsy revealed he had a rare heart disease unrelated to vaccines.
Some of the other athletes had reportedly received the vaccine, though the status of many others isn’t clear. At least one, Dutch speed skater Kjeld Nuis, reportedly experienced pericarditis after being vaccinated, but he posted on Instagram soon after that he had recovered.
For West’s family members, who have worked to raise awareness about sudden cardiac arrest through their Play for Jake Foundation, seeing his story co-opted in the service of spreading anti-vaccine misinformation has been distressing. His mother, Julie West, questioned whether those behind the videos ever considered the feelings of parents.
“My tragedy of losing my son is always upsetting, and to think that somebody would use that for their gain is very upsetting,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling to me that there are people out there like that that want to spread or have their own agenda.”
Associated Press writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., contributed to this report.