January 12, 2023

As a highly transmissible coronavirus variant begins to dominate new infections in the U.S., social media users are sharing a video clip from vaccine scientist-turned-anti-vaccine activist Dr. Robert Malone.

In a TikTok clip shared Jan. 3 on Instagram, Malone falsely called COVID-19 vaccines “experimental genetic therapy” and said they “provide zero benefit relative to risk for the young and healthy.”

He didn’t define young.

The Instagram 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 Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

The COVID-19 vaccines are not gene therapy; they do not alter DNA.

COVID-19 generally poses more of a health threat as people age, but experts say younger people still share in vaccination’s benefits, including a reduced chance of serious illness if they contract the virus.

As for the risk of vaccination, myocarditis, a rare heart muscle inflammation, occurs far more often among young people who get COVID-19.

Studies back up the experts on both points.

Who is Malone?

We’ve written about Malone before. He has promoted several false and misleading claims about the COVID-19 vaccines and the pandemic.

In January 2022, Malone was banned from Twitter for violating its COVID-19 misinformation policies; YouTube removed videos of a controversial interview he did with podcast host Joe Rogan. Malone’s Twitter account was restored in December.

Malone didn’t reply to our requests for information for this fact-check.

Serious COVID-19 less common among young

It’s long been known that serious illness and death from COVID-19 is much less common among young people, even though the largest number of cases is among 18- to 29-year-olds. The latest data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back that up.

For example, as of Dec. 28, the COVID-19 hospitalization risk among people ages 85 and older was 15 times higher than among people ages 18 to 29; the COVID-19 death rate was 350 times higher for the older cohort.

Because the risk of severe COVID-19 is low for the young and healthy, “there are people who feel like the benefit isn’t worth it,” said Dr. Robert Wachter, professor and chair of the University of California, San Francisco’s Department of Medicine.

But Wachter said there is evidence that vaccines for young people lower the risk of a severe case, the probability of long COVID and the probability of transmitting the virus to others.

Clear benefits of vaccination

Dr. Matthew Laurens, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and researcher at the University of Maryland’s Center for Vaccine Development, said vaccination protection against serious COVID-19 complications, including hospitalization and death, apply to both healthy people and those with underlying illnesses.

study published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine found that vaccination reduced the risk of omicron variant-associated hospitalization by two-thirds among children ages 5 to 11 years. The same month, a study published in the journal Nature Medicine found that vaccination reduced the probability of long COVID — long-term effects from infection — by 15%.

Other benefits of vaccination to younger people, said Dr. Davidson Hamer, interim director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at Boston University, include preventing lost time from work or school because of infection and preventing infection spread to other people.

Ten children were being treated for COVID-19 at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on Jan. 9 when we called Dr. Paul Offit, director of the hospital’s Vaccine Education Center.

Malone “should come to a children’s hospital and see children suffering,” Offit said, citing the importance of COVID-19 vaccination. “When you see children suffering and it’s preventable, you prevent it,” he said.

Low risks of vaccination

Vaccine critics sometimes cite myocarditis as a COVID-19 vaccination risk, particularly among younger people. But the risk is often overstated.

Hamer said there is “very low risk” among young people of myocarditis and the condition stemming from vaccination tends to be mild to moderate, and temporary. Moreover, he said, cardiac complications “are more common after the disease itself as opposed to vaccination.”

Laurens pointed to a CDC study that found that from March 2020 to January 2021, patients ages 16 to 39 with COVID-19 had seven times the risk for myocarditis compared with patients who did not have COVID-19.

The findings underscored the importance of vaccination “to reduce the public health impact of COVID-19 and its associated complications,” the study said.

News stories in January reported that a new variant, XBB.1.5, was quickly becoming the dominant strain in parts of the United States. The World Health Organization described the strain as the omicron variant’s most transmissible descendant. The strain has been causing 25% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., up from 10% in December, Johns Hopkins University said Jan. 9.

Our ruling

Malone, an anti-vaccine activist, said COVID-19 vaccines “provide zero benefit relative to risk for the young and healthy.”

Although younger people face less of a health threat from COVID-19, vaccines reduce their chances of developing serious disease from the virus. As for risk, heart inflammation from the vaccines is rare among young people, and occurs more commonly among young people infected by COVID-19.

We rate the statement False.

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

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Tom Kertscher is a contributing writer for PolitiFact. Previously, he was a fact-checker for PolitiFact Wisconsin.
Tom Kertscher

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