April 9, 2021

Vaccine falsehoods increased their share of the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance database in March, accounting for 49% of the 455 newly added claims. The database, which combines the work of more than 90 fact-checking organizations from more than 70 countries writing fact checks in more than 40 languages, has compiled more than 12,000 fact checks since the beginning of the infodemic.

The largest share of false vaccine claims centered on fears that the COVID-19 vaccine could lead to the recipient’s death. However, the latest vaccine monitoring information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “has not detected patterns in the cause of death that would indicate a safety problem with COVID-19 vaccines.”

Several claims were variations of a falsehood that Israel’s vaccination campaign led to increased deaths not from the COVID-19 virus, but from the vaccine intended to eradicate it. Fact-checkers in Mexico, Georgia, Spain and Brazil all checked claims that relied on a flawed interpretation of Israel’s vaccination data.

Ironically, the data, which examined the number of Israelis who contracted COVID-19 after being vaccinated, showed a precipitous drop in deaths for those who’d been fully vaccinated compared to those who were less than two weeks removed from their first vaccine. Fact-checkers pointed out that the vaccine requires two weeks to build up immunity in the body before it can be considered effective.

Falsehoods about Israel’s vaccine rollout may have inspired a criminal complaint filed against the country at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The complaint, which accused Israel of “violations of the Nuremberg code,” inspired a falsehood checked by both Correctiv from Germany and Agence France Presse that both Israel and Pfizer would imminently be put on trial. Both fact-checkers pointed out the ICC had merely acknowledged receiving the complaint, rather than setting a definitive trial date.

Pfizer got the most mentions in the database when it came to falsehoods about deaths, but AstraZeneca topped the pack when it came to falsehoods about adverse effects. This may have been a reflection of the moves by several European countries to pause usage of the vaccine after reports it had caused blood clots in a handful of patients. Taiwan FactCheck Center confronted a claim that South Korea had offloaded its supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Taiwan believing it to be inferior — it didn’t.

Moderna also got a handful of mentions for comments made by its chief medical officer, Tal Zaks, in a 2017 TED Talk. Speaking to the audience about ways to use our current knowledge of DNA to develop new treatments for cancer, Zaks was quoted as saying, “We’re actually hacking the software of life,” which several falsehoods claimed was proof that mRNA vaccines harmfully modify human DNA. Fact-checkers in Italy, France, Mexico, North Macedonia and Spain all noted Zaks was speaking metaphorically, with several explaining how mRNA works to deliver information to the body’s immune system to help it fight COVID-19.

The fake jab falsehood, in which the public vaccinations of celebrities and world leaders are alleged to be staged (they’re not), also persisted in March.  StopFake.org in Ukraine explained to its audience that the use of two different colored needles in the vaccination of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was a standard procedure to protect against infection. FactCheck Georgia gave a frame-by-frame account of the country’s deputy head of its national centers for disease control getting vaccinated to prove that the doctor’s hand covering the needle hadn’t hidden a fake vaccination.

There were also a handful of falsehoods playing on people’s fears that getting a COVID-19 vaccine will become mandatory. Estadão Verifica in Brazil and AFP in New Zealand both confronted a hoax that used a video of scared Nigeran school children to claim they were running from mandatory vaccination. Both outlets informed their audiences the video was taken in 2019 and the children were running from an open tear gas canister.

Falsehoods about masks and cures also persisted. Several either propagated the notion that masks cause cancer or are in some other way harmful to the wearer — they’re not — while others accused world leaders of hypocrisy for not wearing a mask after mandating it publicly. AFP had two fact checks explaining that maskless photos of French President Emmanuel Macron were taken either before COVID-19 or at a time during the pandemic before France’s mask mandate.

When it came to falsehoods about cures, ivermectin topped hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine as the false miracle drug of choice. Fact-checkers in Brazil, Colombia and the Philippines confronted false claims that the drug could be used to dramatically reduce COVID-19 infections. All explained that there’s not enough scientific evidence to suggest the drug has any meaningful impact on the treatment of COVID-19.

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
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