Dr. Deborah Birx, COVID-19 response coordinator under former President Donald Trump, didn’t mince words as she spoke recently of the messaging around COVID-19 vaccines.
Birx appeared on Fox News on July 22, the day after President Joe Biden tested positive for COVID-19. Host Neil Cavuto asked Birx what she would say to unvaccinated people who question the need to get vaccinated when vaccinated people like Biden are catching the coronavirus.
Birx responded by touting the merits of testing and Paxlovid, the antiviral used to treat COVID-19 infections. She still recommended folks get vaccinated — but she also made a statement about vaccine communication that got plenty of people talking.
“I think we overplayed the vaccines, and it made people then worry that it’s not going to protect against severe disease and hospitalization. It will,” Birx said.
Now some social media users are taking that comment out of context, with one viral Facebook post suggesting it shows she “changed her story” on the efficacy of vaccines.
“WARNING US DNA under threat!; Dr Brix changes tune on vax; FBI Huawei interferes with US military,” read the caption on a July 25 Facebook post, misspelling Birx’s name. The post shared a video from Front Page with Scott Goulet, a conservative YouTube channel.
“Birx admits vaccines don’t work,” read the text across the screen as Goulet cut to a clip of Birx making the statement about “overplaying the vaccines.”
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
A look at Birx’s full statements on Fox and an examination of her prior comments about the vaccines show she neither changed her tune nor admitted that the vaccines “don’t work.”
What Birx said on Fox
First, Birx did tell Fox News that she thought the vaccine was overplayed. But she also said the vaccine “will protect you.” Here are her comments in full:
Cavuto: “I did want to get your take — a lot of people looking at the president having (COVID-19). And a lot of people vaxxed and boosted and they’re getting it. The 20% of Americans who have not been vaccinated might look at that and say, ‘Why bother? Why bother?’ What do you tell them?”
Birx: “If you’re across the South and you’re in the middle of this wave, what is going to save you is Paxlovid. But once we get through this wave, during that lull, you should get vaccinated and boosted, because we do believe it will protect you, particularly if you’re over 70. I knew these vaccines were not going to protect against infection. I think we overplayed the vaccines, and it made people then worry that it’s not going to protect against severe disease and hospitalization. It will. But let’s be very clear, 50% of the people who died from the omicron surge were older and vaccinated. Even if you’re vaccinated and boosted, if you’re unvaccinated, right now, the key is testing and Paxlovid. It’s effective, it’s a great antiviral. And really it’s what’s going to save your lives right now if you’re over 70.”
What Birx previously said about vaccines
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, and Biden have received high-profile criticism for overstating the extent of the vaccines’ ability to thwart infection.
However, Birx has remained largely consistent in saying that COVID-19 vaccines do not provide long-term immunity, and she has repeatedly touted a multi-pronged approach to combat the virus.
We found no record of Birx saying the vaccine could provide complete protection against infection. In fact, as early as December 2020, she said that it could not curtail an uptick in COVID-19 cases.
“I want to be very frank to the American people: The vaccine is critical, but it’s not going to save us from this current surge,” Birx said during a Dec. 6, 2020, interview with NBC. She went on to say a multipronged approach is needed to prevent the virus’ spread.
Later that month, Birx said in a televised interview that much was still unknown about the level of protection the vaccines provide. She distinguished between what was known about the vaccine’s ability to prevent infection and what was known about its ability to prevent disease.
John Hopkins University differentiates between infection and disease by writing that most COVID-19 vaccines do not prevent infection but do prevent infection from spreading within the body and causing severe illness.
“Right now, we don’t know how great these vaccines might be against preventing infection,” Birx said in that Dec. 22, 2020, interview. “So, you may get a low-grade infection. And you may shed virus. We know it protects against disease. And it protects against severe disease … But what we don’t know is, ‘Does it protect against infection?’ And we’ll be able to really understand that in the next few weeks to months.”
She was blunter in 2022. During a May 1 interview with CBS, Birx criticized the false notion that vaccinated people are “somehow invincible.”
“Let’s be clear, not every vulnerable family member has an effective immune response either to the vaccine or the booster,” Birx said. “We have to make it very clear to the American people that your protection against infection wanes.”
In Birx’s book, “Silent Invasion,” released in April, she recounted the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s response. She also acknowledged the power of “silent transmission by fully vaccinated,” infected people.
She stressed that presuming “vaccines have now solved the problem totally is a mistake,” according to The New York Times.
Such remarks did not deviate from Birx’s previous messaging on the subject. The Facebook post pointed to an earlier comment from Birx hailing the efficacy of the vaccine to suggest she changed her mind:
“I understand the depth of the efficacy of this vaccine,” Birx said Dec. 16, 2020. “This is one of the most highly effective vaccines we have in our infectious disease arsenal.”
But the vaccine is effective, even if it doesn’t provide full immunity from the virus. People who have been vaccinated possess varying degrees of immunity. Antibodies from the vaccine can prevent severe disease, though it doesn’t always prevent reinfection.
A Facebook post said Birx “changes tune on” COVID-19 vaccines and “admits they don’t work.”
Birx’s full comments show she said she believes the vaccines do work and people should get them. PolitiFact found no record of Birx stating the vaccine could provide complete protection against infection. During the initial vaccine rollout, Birx said it was unclear the level of immunity that the vaccine provided.
In subsequent interviews, she said a multipronged approach is needed to prevent the virus’ spread. We rate this claim False.