Not real news roundup: A look at what didn’t happen this week
A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out. Here are the facts:
COVID vaccines lower hospitalizations across the board, not just in the US
CLAIM: Vaccines only reduce hospitalizations in the U.S., not in other countries.
THE FACTS: COVID-19 vaccines, with or without a booster dose, have been shown to reduce rates of hospitalization in several countries. Social media users are sharing video clips of a COVID-19 discussion panel held on Monday by Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican representing Wisconsin, leading to the spread of false information about vaccines.
Dr. Peter McCullough, a Dallas cardiologist and vaccine critic who spoke at the conference, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is conducting academic fraud and that COVID-19 vaccines are not effective at preventing hospitalization from COVID-19. He also falsely claimed that the U.S. is the only country reporting a decline in hospitalizations from the vaccines while South Africa, the United Kingdom and Israel are not. Publicly available data contradicts McCullough’s claims.
Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that globally, people who are vaccinated have lower rates of hospitalization. When comparing vaccinated versus unvaccinated people, he said, “consistently across all countries” that report data, vaccinated people have lower hospitalization rates than those who are not immunized.
On Friday, the CDC published a report finding that COVID-19 vaccine booster shots are preventing hospitalizations. The report detailed how the third shot provided 90% protection against hospitalization. The U.S. is not the only country seeing these results. Israel, South Africa and England have shown similar results on preventing hospitalizations. Data from multiple countries has demonstrated that the vaccines are effective, said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, director of ICAP, a global health center at Columbia University.
The AP reported on an analysis from South Africa in December that found that those who had two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine had 70% protection against hospitalization from COVID-19 during the country’s omicron surge. The UK Health Security Agency released data earlier this month that found that after three months of receiving the third dose, those 65 and older had 90% protection against hospitalization. Those with two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had 70% protection from hospitalization after three months of receiving the vaccine and 50% at six months. According to the World Health Organization, evidence shows that the COVID-19 vaccines remain effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death against all variants of SARS-CoV-2 virus, including omicron, although data on omicron is still early. McCullough did not respond to a request for comment via email.
UK report did not find COVID-19 vaccines damage immune response
CLAIM: A report by health officials in the United Kingdom showed that the COVID-19 vaccines are “damaging the immune response” in people who were vaccinated after a previous infection.
THE FACTS: The report did not reach that conclusion. The finding being referenced dealt with people who were infected after being vaccinated — not the reverse — and experts say it showed that vaccine-induced immunity was working properly. A Yale epidemiologist made the false claim speaking during a panel discussion on COVID-19 hosted by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson on Monday.
Dr. Harvey Risch said at the discussion that an October report from U.K. health officials “showed that people who’ve had COVID and then get vaccinated have lower levels of anti-nucleocapsid antibodies” — which he said meant that the vaccines are “damaging the immune response.”
But Risch had details about what the report said out of order. The report referred to people who were vaccinated against COVID-19, and subsequently infected. And its statement on such people having lower levels of such antibodies — referred to as “N antibodies” and generated following an infection with the coronavirus — is not indicative of a problem with the vaccines, the U.K. Health Security Agency and experts said. On the contrary, “It shows the vaccine is limiting the natural infection from the virus, lowering the level of virus replication and therefore limiting the number of antibodies against N that are generated,” Kevin Brown, consultant medical virologist at the U.K. Health Security Agency, said in an email.
In an email to The Associated Press, Risch acknowledged that he mixed up the order in his remarks. Asked if he stood by his claim that the vaccines are “damaging the immune response,” Risch said his “interpretation is that by involvement in N antibody levels, that is more general than just their direct involvement in the spike antigens and antibodies.”
But several experts disputed Risch’s claim that the vaccines do damage. “It’s untrue in its implication and it reflects a complete misunderstanding of the way vaccine immunity works,” said E. John Wherry, director of the Institute for Immunology at the University of Pennsylvania.
The COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.K. and the U.S. work by instructing cells to produce spike proteins in order to trigger an immune response; they do not generate N antibodies. When someone is vaccinated, and later becomes infected, their immune system works to limit the virus from replicating, Wherry said. Therefore, it’s not surprising that antibodies to other parts of the virus would be lower. Dr. Taia Wang, a Stanford University assistant professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology, offered a similar assessment. She also said in an email that lower levels of N antibodies “does not indicate that the vaccines are damaging to the immune system,” and that it “simply means that the vaccine worked exactly as it should.”
— Associated Press writer Angelo Fichera in Philadelphia contributed this report.
UK police haven’t launched criminal investigation into COVID-19 vaccines
CLAIM: London’s Metropolitan Police Service has launched an investigation into alleged public health threats caused by the country’s COVID-19 vaccine program.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: No such investigation has been launched, the Metropolitan Police Service said in a statement. Still, social media users shared videos, tweets and homemade press releases to spread the false claim. One widely shared false post claimed that Metropolitan Police and those in the west London district of Hammersmith have agreed there is enough evidence to conduct the “world’s largest criminal investigation” into public health threats resulting from the vaccines. As alleged proof that an investigation is underway, many posts listed a supposed “case number”: 6092967912. Some posts did not specify what “crimes” are being alleged, while others offered a list of unsubstantiated allegations from “misconduct in public office” to “murder.”
But the Metropolitan Police Service says no such criminal investigation has been launched. The police force, whose jurisdiction includes the borough of Hammersmith, issued a statement saying that “a number of documents were submitted at a west London police station in support of allegations of criminality in relation to the UK’s vaccine programme” on Dec. 20. The “case number” identified in the claims is just a routine crime reference number that was generated when the complaint was filed. It is not a sign that any investigation is underway. “Officers have been tasked with reviewing the documents. This process is time consuming and has been prolonged by the submission of further documents by people encouraged to do so online,” the Metropolitan Police said in the statement. “While the assessment continues, to date there is nothing to indicate that a crime has been committed and no criminal investigation has been launched.”
One video circulating on Twitter and fringe platforms showed a woman making a report to police. In the clip, a woman, who appears to be in a police station, reads from a statement where she claims evidence shows COVID-19 vaccines are responsible for serious harm and death. Health officials internationally have said that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective at preventing serious illness, and reports of serious adverse reactions and death are rare.
— Associated Press writer Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed this report.
COVID-19 vaccines do not cause new variants
CLAIM: COVID-19 vaccines are facilitating omicron’s infectiousness and mass vaccination might spur the development of new mutations.
THE FACTS: Experts say that they have seen no credible evidence to support the claim that COVID-19 vaccines are making the omicron variant more infectious, or that the vaccines will increase the likelihood of new variants. During a panel discussion on Monday hosted by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, Dr. Robert Malone, a frequent critic of the COVID-19 vaccines, suggested that mass vaccination will produce new variants of the virus, and that the vaccines increase the infectiousness of the omicron variant. “If we continue to pursue universal vaccination, the high probability is that what we will continue to see is the evolution of additional escape mutants that are increasingly infectious and may well become more pathogenic,” Malone said. “Omicron is not only resistant to the vaccine but its infectivity seems to be facilitated by the vaccine.” A video clip of Malone’s comments has circulated widely on social media and on blogs.
But the claims are false, according to epidemiology and vaccinology experts, who say vaccine-induced immunity actually decreases the chances that new forms of the virus will spread. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley, told the AP that variants are more likely to emerge in unvaccinated populations because the virus replicates better in people who aren’t vaccinated, giving it a better chance of evolving. “An unvaccinated person produces so much more virus so there’s a much greater chance of a variant being produced.” Of the claim that the vaccines make omicron more infectious, Swartzberg said, “I’ve seen no evidence to suggest, much less indicate that.”
Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, confirmed in an email to the AP that Malone’s claims were false. While it’s possible for new variants to emerge alongside mass vaccination, infections in unvaccinated people pose a greater overall risk, John Mittler, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told the AP. “The big picture is that vaccination reduces the amount of virus circulating in the body,” Mittler wrote in an email. “The net effect of the vaccine is to reduce the total number of cells that get infected.”
In response to the AP’s request for comment, Malone wrote in an email, “Right now, I am getting so many emails that I just don’t have time to personally respond to them all. I apologize, but I just don’t have enough hours in the day.”
— Associated Press writer Josh Kelety in Phoenix contributed this report.
Wisconsin Assembly did not vote to withdraw Biden electors
CLAIM: The Wisconsin Assembly voted this week to withdraw its 10 electoral votes for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
THE FACTS: No such vote took place, nor would it be possible within the law for Wisconsin to recall its 2020 electors. Though Republican state Rep. Timothy Ramthun last week introduced a resolution to reclaim the state’s presidential electors, no one voted on it and the Assembly’s rules committee chair has said he will shut the resolution down.
“(asterisk)(asterisk)HUGE BREAKING NEWS(asterisk)(asterisk) — Wisconsin Assembly Votes to Withdraw Its 10 Electors for Joe Biden in 2020 Election — VIDEO,” read a Tuesday headline from The Gateway Pundit, a conservative website that has spread numerous election-related conspiracy theories. The Gateway Pundit later changed its headline to claim that the Assembly voted “to advance” a resolution that would reclaim the state’s electors — which is also false. Thousands of social media users shared the article or similar claims, including Kari Lake, a 2022 gubernatorial candidate in Arizona endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
Rep. Jim Steineke, the Assembly’s majority leader and rules committee chair, tweeted to dispel the false claim on Tuesday. Steineke, a Republican, explained in his tweet that Ramthun introduced a resolution to withdraw the state’s electors. Because it was a “privileged” resolution, the Assembly’s rules required it to be referred to committee. The resolution was sent to the rules committee, which Steineke chairs.
In a separate tweet Tuesday, Steineke explained that Ramthun’s proposal was illegal and he wouldn’t advance it.
Steineke is right that there’s no constitutional or statutory authority to take back the state’s electors in an election that already has been certified, according to Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Experts including the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council have come to the same conclusion.
Ramthun did not comment. His legislative assistant, Erin Yager, said the representative stands by his position that the resolution was constitutional.
Biden beat former President Donald Trump in Wisconsin by about 20,000 votes, and there’s no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election in Wisconsin or elsewhere. Neither Lake nor The Gateway Pundit responded to emailed requests for comment.
— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York contributed this report.
Video and image don’t show South Carolina trucks or Mennonite buggies going to Canada protest
CLAIM: A video shows trucks traveling from South Carolina to Ottawa to protest COVID-19 mandates for cross-border drivers, and an image shows Mennonites in horse-drawn buggies traveling to the same protest.
THE FACTS: Neither claim is true. A video of a truck convoy on a highway shows trucks during a Special Olympics South Carolina event last year, according to an official for a trucking company whose owner posted the video. And an image of horse-drawn buggies traveling on a snowy road shows Old Order Mennonites going to church outside the Waterloo region in Ontario on Jan. 16, photographer Michelle Graham confirmed to the AP.
Both false claims circulated online as truck drivers began heading to Ottawa, Canada, this week to protest a new Canadian mandate requiring truckers entering the country to be fully vaccinated as of Jan. 15. The U.S. has imposed the same requirement on truckers crossing the border in the other direction. Social media users shared the video and image as alleged proof that people from different locations were uniting to join the “freedom convoy.”
But the truck video, posted Jan. 22 on TikTok by Mitchell Bottomley, the owner of the South Carolina trucking company Bottomley Enterprises, is being misrepresented. It has “nothing to do” with the protest in Canada and was taken during a “Truck Convoy for Special Olympics” event in August 2021, according to Michele Bryant, vice president of compliance at Bottomley Enterprises.
Meanwhile, the image of horse-drawn buggies depicts members of the religious order headed to church – a common sight outside the Waterloo region in Ontario, where it was captured – and is not related to the protest, said Graham, a sports photographer based in Canada. Graham took the photo on Jan. 16 and posted it to social media the following day. “I took it and a full series of shots from that morning, as seen on my website and various social media platforms,” said Graham in an email to the AP. “Zero relation to any political protest or movement. Just going to church.”
— Associated Press writers Fichera in Philadelphia and Arijeta Lajka in New York contributed this report.