June 1, 2021

This is a new one.

Instead of the established understanding that vaccines help reduce the spread of COVID-19, and thereby decrease the likelihood that the virus will be able to mutate enough to create new variants, a new claim circulating online posits that it’s the vaccines that are creating the variants.

The claim comes from French virologist Luc Montagnier, a joint recipient of the Nobel Prize in 2008 for discovering HIV. But Montagnier has been in the news since for sharing what some scientists characterize as pseudoscientific statements, most recently relating to misinformation about the coronavirus.

Montagnier makes the claim in a 2-minute video spreading on Facebook that’s spoken in French with English subtitles. It bears the watermark of the RAIR Foundation, which describes itself as a “grassroots activist organization” that’s working to “combat the threats from Islamic supremacists, radical leftists and their allies.”

In the video, Montagnier calls the vaccination program for COVID-19 “an unacceptable mistake” because, according to him, “it is the vaccination that is creating the variants.”

He adds: “For the China virus there are antibodies created by the vaccine. What does the virus do? Does it die or find another solution? The new variants are a production and result from the vaccination.”

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.)

First, it’s important to note that we found no evidence that this video is doctored.

Bethan John, a French speaker and social media journalist for the misinformation research organization First Draft, wrote up an analysis of the video and says the clip of Montagnier was posted on alternative video sharing platform Odysee by HOLD-UP Média, a group behind a viral French documentary-style video about the pandemic that’s been debunked by fact-checkers.

John reported that the video’s misleading narrative that the vaccines create variants has been gaining traction in France for several weeks. Other First Draft researchers also found the video circulating in Spanish and Portuguese and said the subtitles matched the claims Montagnier is seen making in the video, though there are a lot of sharp editing cuts throughout.

But while the video appears legitimate, what Montagnier said in it is not.

First, several of the variants that are circulating in the global population emerged before COVID-19 vaccines were widely available, like B.1.1.7, the variant that emerged in the United Kingdom in September 2020. Second, the vaccines help reduce the spread of the virus, therefore decreasing the likelihood that it will mutate and create new variants.

The video’s claim is a distortion of the factual premise that slow vaccine uptake in a population can lead to the development of variants.

Viruses try to create variants in order to escape immunity — but that’s any immunity — vaccine-induced or natural, which arises from being infected.

The difference is that people who are vaccinated are better protected against such variants.

“The virus is always going to try to evolve to promote its own survival,” said Dr. Sarah Fortune, chair of the Immunology and Infectious Diseases department at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t get vaccinated. The virus is going to try to evolve to escape natural immunity, even if you choose not to get vaccinated.”

She added: “Either people are going to get sick and get COVID-19, and the virus tries to escape that immune selection, or people can be vaccinated and the virus is going to try to escape that immune selection. Avoiding vaccination is not going to limit the evolution of the virus.”

Antibody-dependent enhancement

In the video, Montagnier also discusses a phenomenon called “antibody-dependent enhancement” as a concern with the COVID-19 vaccines. That’s a phenomenon that happens when antibodies produced by an infection or a vaccine bind to the viral pathogen, but don’t kill it. Sometimes called “ADE,” it can cause people with antibodies to have more severe symptoms should they end up getting infected later.

But the video fails to mention that this has not been observed with COVID-19 or any of the vaccines that have been developed to prevent it.

ADE was initially a concern contemplated by scientists when they were creating COVID-19 vaccines. Animal studies were designed to specifically look for signs of ADE, and did not find any evidence of it. There has also been no sign of it happening in the real-world rollout of the vaccines.

“With lots and lots of experience with use of antibodies therapeutically, we’ve seen no evidence of enhancement,” Dr. Stuart Ray, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s medical school, told the Associated Press in a related fact-check. “We also worried about the possibility that people who were reinfected might have more severe infection, akin to the situation we’ve seen with dengue virus, and that also hasn’t been borne out. So there’s really no basis for the claim that’s being ascribed to Dr. Montagnier.”

Montagnier’s pseudoscience claims

Shortly after winning the Nobel Prize, Montagnier started to make headlines when he claimed that a “good immune system” was enough to protect people against AIDS. He has also become known for being anti-vaccination and pro-homeopathy and believes that “water has memory,” a theory that has been discredited by the scientific community.

In 2017, in response to Montagnier’s claims that vaccines are poisonous, over 100 academic scientists wrote an open letter that said, “We, academics of medicine, cannot accept that one of our peers is using his Nobel Prize [status] to spread dangerous health messages outside of his field of knowledge,” according to the French news website Connexion.

Our ruling

A video on Facebook shows French virologist Luc Montagnier claiming that the COVID-19 vaccines create the variants.

The COVID-19 vaccines help reduce the spread of the virus, decreasing the likelihood that it will mutate and create new variants. Several coronavirus variants emerged before the vaccines were rolled out in late 2020.

Slow vaccine uptake can cause more variants, since the virus continually looks to evolve and escape any immunity — natural or vaccine-induced. Public health experts say this doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t get vaccinated, but just the opposite, as faster uptake slows this from happening and will leave people better protected from the virus in the process.

We rate this False.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for these fact checks here and more of their fact checks here.

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Samantha Putterman is a fact-checker for PolitiFact based in New York. Previously, she reported for the Bradenton Herald and the Tampa Bay Times. She is…
Samantha Putterman

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