Frequency of Adverse Events in the Placebo Arms of COVID-19 Vaccine Trials: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

Citations of this article
Mendeley users who have this article in their library.

This article is free to access.


Importance: Adverse events (AEs) after placebo treatment are common in randomized clinical drug trials. Systematic evidence regarding these nocebo responses in vaccine trials is important for COVID-19 vaccination worldwide especially because concern about AEs is reported to be a reason for vaccination hesitancy. Objective: To compare the frequencies of AEs reported in the placebo groups of COVID-19 vaccine trials with those reported in the vaccine groups. Data Sources: For this systematic review and meta-analysis, the Medline (PubMed) and Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) databases were searched systematically using medical subheading terms and free-text keywords for trials of COVID-19 vaccines published up to July 14, 2021. Study Selection: Randomized clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines that investigated adults aged 16 years or older were selected if they assessed solicited AEs within 7 days of injection, included an inert placebo arm, and provided AE reports for both the vaccine and placebo groups separately. Full texts were reviewed for eligibility by 2 independent reviewers. Data Extraction and Synthesis: Data extraction and quality assessment were performed independently by 2 reviewers, adhering to the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses (PRISMA) guideline and using the Cochrane risk-of-bias tool. Meta-analyses were based on random-effects models. Main Outcomes and Measures: The primary outcomes were the proportions of placebo recipients reporting overall, systemic, and local (injection-site) AEs as well as logarithmic odds ratios (ORs) to evaluate group differences. Outcomes were tested for significance using z tests with 95% CIs. Results: Twelve articles with AE reports for 45380 participants (22578 placebo recipients and 22802 vaccine recipients) were analyzed. After the first dose, 35.2% (95% CI, 26.7%-43.7%) of placebo recipients experienced systemic AEs, with headache (19.3%; 95% CI, 13.6%-25.1%) and fatigue (16.7%; 95% CI, 9.8%-23.6%) being most common. After the second dose, 31.8% (95% CI, 28.7%-35.0%) of placebo recipients reported systemic AEs. The ratio between placebo and vaccine arms showed that nocebo responses accounted for 76.0% of systemic AEs after the first COVID-19 vaccine dose and for 51.8% after the second dose. Significantly more vaccine recipients reported AEs, but the group difference for systemic AEs was small after the first dose (OR, -0.47; 95% CI, -0.54 to -0.40; P




Haas, J. W., Bender, F. L., Ballou, S., Kelley, J. M., Wilhelm, M., Miller, F. G., … Kaptchuk, T. J. (2022). Frequency of Adverse Events in the Placebo Arms of COVID-19 Vaccine Trials: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Network Open. American Medical Association.

Register to see more suggestions

Mendeley helps you to discover research relevant for your work.

Already have an account?

Save time finding and organizing research with Mendeley

Sign up for free