This week, videos showing people experiencing body tremors and other neurological symptoms after reportedly receiving a COVID vaccine have again gone viral, garnering millions of views and triggering a torrent of jokes and “Thanks Pfizer” videos poking fun at them.
The pandemic is entering its third year with more than 1 million COVID deaths in the US and baseless vaccine hesitancy continues to prevent people around the world from rolling up their sleeves.
Many questions about rare serious reactions post vaccination remain unanswered, particularly whether the shots are directly responsible. But the large majority of health experts agree that the COVID vaccines are safe and effective, saving millions of lives and keeping millions more out of the hospital.
The phrase “thanks pfizer” has been trending on Twitter as users make fun of those claiming to be injured by the COVID vaccines, likening their tremors to a scene from The Office, Taylor Swift’s quirky choreography in her “Delicate” music video, and Elvis’s famous wiggly moves.
A TikTok inspired by the viral vaccine videos shows 25-year-old Zsasha struggling to walk with body tremors until her shaky movements morph into the robot dance: “URGENT: I am now a prisoner in my own body. I was forced to get the mandated COVID-19 vaccine. I suffer every single day,” the text on the video reads.
The TikTok has amassed more than 7.6 million views and nearly 690,000 comments like:
- “I'm in agony every day, ever since i got my booster shot i can’t stop doing the cha cha slide.”
- “I got mine and I can’t stop twerking. Please pray for me.”
- “Since Covid vaccine, everyday I’m shuffling.”
- “I got mine and now I can’t stop doing the worm. life’s a nightmare.”
- “i'm so glad people are finally talking about this, i haven’t been the same since i got da jabby jabby. now i only do the stankiest of legs.”
The jokes are endless. But the comedy has sparked a more complicated discussion about the validity of the claims that COVID vaccines can cause reactions like body tremors — and how responsible it is to joke about them.
“The video is satire and it is of course aimed towards people who are faking seizures and tremors to spread fear within their own narrative. I never once said vaccine injuries are not real or serious,” Zsasha wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “I am pro vacc, and I understand there are risks to any vaccine… but I disagree that [people] need to enforce fear to prevent other people from protecting themselves.”
Zsasha highlighted one video of a woman struggling to walk around a hospital room as her whole body shakes and she attempts to sit on a bed. The tweet, which has been viewed over 70 million times, reads: “This is me after 1 dose of Pfizer on 1/5/2021 in the hospital. I was a very healthy 45 year old who managed a surgery center. Two years later I am still having major issues.”
On Jan. 18, the woman tweeted: “Please stop and think before you take another booster. They don’t protect you, they only harm you!”
COVID vaccines are safe and effective, and serious reactions after vaccination are rare; those that have been reported include anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction), blood clots, Guillain-Barré Syndrome (when the immune system damages nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis), and myocarditis and pericarditis (inflammation of the heart and its outer lining, respectively).
COVID vaccine–related reactions, and the videos people post about them, are difficult to vet as they exist alongside a sticky web of disinformation that’s been responsible for much of the largely irrational hesitancy around vaccines, face masks, and other preventive measures that are scientifically proven to save lives.
As a result, experts cannot confirm how many of these people may be faking their symptoms.
Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease expert with UChicago Medicine, said that while the symptoms people are recording can be “very real and can happen, there are good reasons to be a little bit skeptical.”
“I have no way of knowing whether or not these symptoms are real, staged, or taken out of context, but I also don’t want to minimize what these individuals are posting on social media because it can be really distressing to have significant neurologic symptoms,” Landon told BuzzFeed News. “Occasionally you can see neurological things happen after vaccines, but I think the context of ‘if you get vaccinated this will happen to you,’ is not right.”
Most of the reactions people experience after vaccination, such as fever, muscle aches, and fatigue, go away in a couple of days, Landon said, and “don’t usually cause long-term problems,” at least none that can’t be treated. (Body tremors are not recognized as a COVID vaccine side effect.) That said, and despite the unknowns, it’s important to be empathetic toward anyone experiencing potential medical issues, she added.
Complex, rare reactions to vaccinations of any kind have been documented in scientific case reports and studies, one of the most common being functional neurological disorder (FND), according to Dr. Christopher Chauncey Spears, a clinical associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan.
FND is not caused by a disease or damage to the nervous system like other conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, but it “can be triggered by most anything that is stressful,” including psychological trauma or getting pricked by a needle during vaccination, said Spears, who specializes in the disorder. It is treatable and can cause involuntary movements that can look like symptoms caused by seizures, strokes, paralysis, speech problems, sensory changes, and more.
In January 2021, some videos circulated on social media at the time, purporting to show people having a bad medical reaction after getting the COVID vaccines. The Functional Neurological Disorders Society posted a press release that month, noting that many of the symptoms are in line with those of FND.
“We would expect FND to develop in some individuals after vaccination due to a combination of heightened stress owing to the pandemic, feelings of uncertainty about the vaccine and the normal transient physical symptoms, and discomfort after vaccination,” the release reads.
Spears also suspects the people who are allegedly having tremors after the COVID vaccine may be experiencing FND, but he said that the shot itself might not be to blame.
“It's quite unlikely, especially for anybody with tremors or walking difficulty, that it's directly related to the vaccine. But indirectly, the vaccine can trigger certain types of disorders, so not causative, but a precipitator, if you will,” Spears said. “The vaccines are out there for a very important reason — to help prevent considerable illnesses, whether it be COVID, flu, or beyond.”
Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease specialist and researcher at Stanford University, also said it’s difficult to determine what’s really going on in those videos.
"It is hard to make any conclusions based off social media anecdotes. CDC publicly shares safety data for vaccines, as well as has surveillance systems to pick up signals for vaccine-related adverse events,” Karan told BuzzFeed News in an email. “Sometimes reactions are attributed to vaccination when they may have more to do with the individual's immune system, other health conditions, or some other confounding factor that isn't being taken into account."
Many commenters on TikTok told Zsasha that she was wrong to assume that people are faking a disability, but she told BuzzFeed News that she doesn’t believe she’s crossed that “fine line” because she has no doubt that some of the videos circulating online “are 100% fake.”
“The interesting part of it all was how many people scrutinized me, saw me as abled, claiming people are suffering from invisible disabilities (which they are) and here I am living with invisible disabilities,” said Zsasha, who has autism, arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome. “What I want people to understand from my video is that it's actually not OK to make fun of people with real disabilities, which is ironic, considering that is exactly what people think I am doing.”
“Faking real disabilities is disgusting,” she said.
Karen Graham, a 52-year-old from Alberta, Canada, with long COVID and other medical conditions that cause entire body tremors after episodes of tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), agrees. She told BuzzFeed News that she thinks that faking COVID vaccine injuries “invalidates people with real symptoms who need care and support.”
“I have had to jump through flaming hoops to prove that I am actually sick. Even my PET and MRI [of my brain] were disregarded at one point,” Graham said. “These fakers just make it harder for those of us who really need help and support. I would far rather be back at work and living a productive life.”
In one viral video, Carolina Bourque, 43, a marine biologist, recorded herself drinking beer from a can as her hand shakes. She posted the now-deleted video on Twitter.
Bourque told BuzzFeed News that the tremors occurred after receiving two doses of the Moderna vaccine in 2021, along with facial paralysis, dizziness, ear ringing, migraines, stomach pains, irregular heartbeat, memory problems, and more that she still deals with over a year later.
“I decided to delete the video as I received some nasty comments. I am new on Twitter, and didn’t expect that type of feedback. I have shared my story on other platforms with no issues,” Bourque told BuzzFeed News. She has since made her Twitter account private, changed her handle, and listed her location as in Brazil.
People who say they’ve been injured by the COVID vaccine “have been attacked by both sides: the anti-vaxxers group (as we took our vaccination) and the regular vaxxers that don’t want to hear our stories,” Bourque said.
Some critics noted that she created a GoFundMe account that had raised $2,353 of her requested $9,400 as of Jan. 25.
Bourque, who said she considers herself pro-vaccine, sent some screenshots of doctors’ notes, exam results, antibody tests, and her COVID vaccine card to BuzzFeed News, although we did not medically vet them.
When asked why she posted her video on social media, Bourque said she wants to “make people aware that if they have similar side effects, that we have research going on to be able to [them].”
She added, “Data shows that vaccines have saved many lives, for many years. But side effects need to be acknowledged in order for people that have them to find help.
“I did wish it was a fake story, as I am the one suffering with debilitating conditions every day since my vaccination,” Bourque said. “As soon as I mention that symptoms are ‘vaccine’-related, I feel completely ignored.”