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With 6 million Australians now eligible to book in to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, increasing online chatter about supposed vaccine-related deaths continues to spread. This week, we’ve looked at a number of misleading claims being made about the jab from around the world.
We’ve also brought you the verdict of US fact checkers on President Joe Biden’s first televised address and detail the extreme tactics employed by China to spread false information about the BBC.
Deaths following COVID-19 vaccinations — the facts
With more than 85 million people across the globe now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, suggestions that the jab may be causing death among some populations have quickly spread online, undermining inoculation efforts.
Claims that a number of elderly people died as a result of the jab in Norway, for instance, have been debunked by the country’s health officials, who said the deaths were likely to be coincidental. We covered that story in more detail a couple of weeks ago.
This week, we’ve examined claims about deaths in Israel and the UK, as well as a couple of high-profile individual cases which drew the attention of sceptics.
Vaccines not more dangerous to Israelis than COVID-19
With nearly half of its population fully vaccinated, Israel has fast become a world leader in the effort to inoculate its citizens against COVID-19.
But on social media and misinformation-spreading news websites, claims that the vaccine may be more dangerous than the disease itself have also gained traction.
One such “news” story, sent to Fact Check by a concerned reader, suggests that the Israeli health ministry had warned that the Pfizer vaccine had killed more people than the disease itself.
“New analysis from the Israeli Health Ministry concluded Pfizer’s COVID vaccine killed ‘about 40 times more (elderly) people than the disease itself would have killed’ during a recent five-week vaccination period,” reads an article published by Children’s Health Defense, a site which has been accused of promoting “pseudo-science”.
The story further claims that the Pfizer vaccine led to the death of “260 times more younger people than would have died from the virus”.
An investigation by fact checkers at Health Feedback, however, found that data published by the Israeli health ministry “actually points to the vaccine reducing the likelihood of dying from COVID-19, in both the young and the old”.
“The data showed that the majority of COVID-19 deaths in vaccinated people occurred in those who had received only one dose,” Health Feedback reported.
“This isn’t as unexpected as the post claimed, as these people hadn’t fully developed immunity and were still as vulnerable to COVID-19 as unvaccinated people.”
The findings may not be surprising to those familiar with Children’s Health Defense, which was given a low trustworthy rating by Media Bias/Fact Check, a website dedicated to cataloguing media bias and deceptive news practices.
“Overall, we rate the Children’s Health Defense a strong conspiracy and quackery level advocacy group that frequently promotes unsupported claims,” the website concluded.
UK vaccination deaths not the full story
Under the UK Government’s “Yellow Card” scheme, information on suspected side effects and adverse reactions to medicines is collected and monitored by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), including those related to COVID-19 vaccines.
According to the latest Yellow Card report, a total of 508 people have died following a COVID-19 vaccine in the UK.
But that doesn’t mean the vaccine caused their deaths.
According to the MHRA, the reported adverse events following a COVID-19 vaccine are not always a proven side effect of the jab, and some events “may have happened anyway, regardless of vaccination”.
“A high proportion of people vaccinated in the vaccination campaign so far are very elderly, many of whom will also have pre-existing medical conditions,” the agency notes in its report.
“Older age and chronic underlying illnesses make it more likely that coincidental adverse events will occur, especially given the millions of people vaccinated.”
Full Fact also noted that the MHRA has asked for any suspicions about adverse effects to be reported, “even if the person reporting it is not sure that it was caused by the vaccine”.
“This means that many suspected [adverse reactions] reported ‘do not have any relation to the vaccine or medicine and it is often coincidental that they both occurred around the same time’,” Full Fact said.
Japanese death not linked to jab
In a similar misunderstanding of correlation and causation, a claim that a Japanese woman died of a brain haemorrhage in the days after receiving a Pfizer vaccine has been debunked by AFP Fact Check.
According to the fact checkers, posts spread online showed a portion of a news report on the woman’s death, but failed to include the section of the report in which experts clarified that no link had been established between the woman’s death and the vaccine.
As pointed out by AFP Fact Check, the missing section of the news report reads:
“[A Japanese health official] clarified that the vaccine was not linked to the brain haemorrhage of the senior citizen who died, because this is a common cause of death for people within the 40 to 60 age group.”
An official Japanese Government report also “does not implicate Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine in the death”, the fact checkers added.
World famous boxer not vaccine victim
When boxing great Marvelous Marvin Hagler died this week, aged 66, rumours swirled that a COVID-19 vaccine had caused his death.
But that wasn’t the case, according to Hagler’s widow, Kay G Hagler.
“I was the only person close to him until the last minute, and I am the only person that know [sic] how things went not even his family know all the details,” Ms Hagler wrote on Facebook. “For sure [it] wasn’t the vaccine that caused his death”.
Did 80% of the HMAS Sydney crew fall ill after COVID jabs?
A Facebook post claiming 80 per cent of the crew of the HMAS Sydney suffered “severe illness” following COVID-19 vaccinations has been rubbished by the Department of Defence.
The post, published by a Facebook group serving the Australian veteran community, also suggested that eight crew members had been admitted to intensive care after receiving the jab.
In a statement published in response to questions put forward by Fact Check, the Department of Defence confirmed that the crew had voluntarily received the vaccine, and were encouraged to report to medical personnel if they subsequently felt unwell.
“Several members of HMAS Sydney’s crew did present to hospital after hours with mild side effects,” the department said.
“They were assessed in the emergency department before being released — they were not admitted to hospital. A number of other members also reported mild side effect symptoms that did not require medical care. All symptoms experienced were within the broad range of routine side effects associated with receiving any vaccination.”
According to the department, the ship had departed for the US on March 11 with a full crew.
“No members of the Ship’s company failed to deploy as a result of taking the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Social media commentary from 10 March 2021 asserting that members of HMAS Sydney who received the COVID-19 vaccine had experienced adverse reactions and were hospitalised in intensive care — and that 80 per cent of the Ship’s company were affected — is not true.”
From Washington, D.C.
Soon after signing the latest COVID-19 relief legislation last week, US President Joe Biden made his first prime time TV address to the nation, while fact checkers watched on closely.
Speaking about COVID-19 vaccines, Mr Biden claimed that two months prior, the country “didn’t have nearly enough vaccine supply to vaccinate all, or even near all, of the American public” but soon would.
FactCheck.org found this claim to be missing some crucial context.
“While the Biden administration has increased vaccine orders from the companies with authorised vaccines, the Trump administration had contracts in place for plenty of vaccines for all Americans — provided other vaccines gained authorisations,” the fact checkers said.
“And Biden’s predecessor also had options to increase orders from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, the first two vaccines to get Food and Drug Administration authorisation.”
FactCheck.org also noted that Mr Biden’s claim to be on track to deliver on his promise to administer 100 million vaccines in his first 100 days in office was helped along by the former administration.
“The US — even before Biden took office — was virtually already on pace to administer that many additional vaccine doses in his first 100 days.”
CNN Facts First, meanwhile, found that while Mr Biden’s claim that the US had administered more COVID-19 vaccines than any other country was correct, other nations had inoculated a greater proportion of their populations.
“Fourteen countries including Chile, Israel and the United Kingdom have vaccinated more people per capita,” the fact checkers noted.
In other news: The disinformation tactics used to push a pro-China narrative
Tensions are rising between the BBC and China in the wake of a documentary aired by the broadcaster about Chinese disinformation campaigns.
According to BBC Reality Check, Chinese officials had made “baseless accusations against media and human rights organisations”, including one claim that a Uyghur interviewee was an actress hired by the public broadcaster.
“There have been almost daily anti-BBC articles in Chinese state media since mid-February,” Reality Check said.
According to the BBC, tactics employed by China included the use of dozens of “new and highly active official social media accounts representing Chinese embassies and leading diplomats”, a practice labelled as “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
The country also reportedly draws on millions of citizens to “monitor the internet and influence public opinion on a massive scale online”, as well as utilising fake and hijacked social media accounts to push a pro-China narrative.
Edited by Ellen McCutchan, with thanks to Jeremy Gan