Talking Points

The coronavirus vaccines are safer than aspirin or Tylenol

Since the release of the coronavirus vaccines, there has been a lot of overheated coverage of their potential side effects (most recently from podcaster Joe Rogan).

In truth, the risk of the coronavirus vaccines is microscopic. A good way to understand this is by comparing them to common over-the-counter painkillers.

Take aspirin. As Dr. Nathan Grills from the University of Melbourne points out, this drug has all kinds of rare but bad side effects — certain kinds of heart failure, strokes, intestinal bleeding, and on and on. One study estimated that for 50-year-old men, 325 milligrams of aspirin daily ran a fatality risk of 10.4 per 100,000 person-years.

Acetaminophen (commonly known as Tylenol) is even worse. This drug is both less helpful than aspirin and much easier to overdose on than people tend to think. Take just a bit more than the maximum recommended dose, and severe complications follow. It's also a brutal overdose mechanism — if it isn't caught in time, then there is basically no way to prevent a slow and excruciating death from liver failure. A 2006 study estimated that acetaminophen overdoses over one year were responsible for 56,000 trips to the emergency room, 26,000 hospitalizations, and 458 deaths — 100 of them accidental. What's more, the drug may have additional rare side effects like hormone disruption or asthma.

Let's compare to the coronavirus vaccines. The most serious complications reported after many billions of doses administered are unusual blood clots from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines (made with traditional technology) and heart swelling from the Pfizer/Moderna mRNA shots. The clotting risk is so tiny it might not exist at all — some studies have found a few dozen cases of clotting and a handful of deaths out of hundreds of millions of AstraZeneca/J&J doses administered, but the European Medical Agency concluded AstraZeneca at least does not actually increase clotting risk. There does appear to be a risk of heart swelling with the mRNA vaccines, particularly for young men, but it's extremely small — a 2.13 in 100,000 risk according to one study, or a 23 in 2.8 million risk in another. Moreover, in the large majority of cases, the swelling was mild and recovery was quick.

In short, the coronavirus vaccines have a risk of serious side effects that is something like an order of magnitude less than the risk of dying from taking aspirin regularly (as half of adults over 45 do), and have virtually no risk of death.

Anyway, of course it would be wrong to ban aspirin because it does have many benefits: improving heart health in some populations, reducing the risk of some cancers, and so on (though personally, I would not allow acetaminophen to be sold over the counter anymore). It's simply that the benefits of aspirin come at a small risk — so small that most nations don't even bother requiring a doctor's note to get it.

The coronavirus vaccines are both much, much more beneficial than aspirin, and much, much less risky. There is simply no reason to fret about them.