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Debunked: Several claims about Covid-19 in a video featuring Dolores Cahill are false or misleading

The video was posted online before Christmas and now has more than 1 million views.

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BEFORE CHRISTMAS, A sixteen-minute interview featuring a number of false and misleading claims about Covid-19 was posted on Facebook.

The video, featuring chair of the fringe Irish Freedom Party Professor Dolores Cahill, has since been shared hundreds of times and has over one million views.

It incorrectly claims that Covid-19 vaccines and face masks are unsafe; that several official facts about Covid-19 are wrong; that Covid-19 does not spread as easily as official sources state; and that lockdowns will cause everyone to die an early death.  

These claims are untrue, misrepresent the facts and do not stand up to public health advice. 

Here is a breakdown of the claims and why they are false or misleading:

Claim 1: Australia could force its citizens to be vaccinated against Covid-19

At the beginning of the video, Cahill is asked whether people should take a Covid-19 vaccine and she replies that she would not take one herself.

She says:

I have said if you paid me £10 million I would not take [a vaccine], and if anyone forcibly injected me like they can potentially try to do in Australia, I would sue someone for attempted murder.

The suggestion that governments will try to force people to receive Covid-19 vaccines has been a popular trope among pandemic sceptics. 

Although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested in a radio interview last August that he would try to make the vaccine “as mandatory as possible”, he rowed back on this the same day after his comments provoked a backlash and no such policy was ever introduced. 

Federal health minister Greg Hunt has reiterated several times since that getting vaccinated against Covid-19 will be voluntary. 

As recently as this week, Hunt said it was an “important national principle” that vaccination is voluntary. 

scott-morrison-nsw-coronavirus-update Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison Source: AAP/PA Images

Claim 2: The results from mRNA vaccine trials over the past 20 years have been so bad that no such vaccines have ever been licensed.

A few seconds later, Cahill says in the video that “adverse events and deaths over the last 20 years related to RNA vaccines have been so significantly bad that zero vaccines have been licensed for coronavirus ever”.

It should be noted that there have only been a small number of clinical trials of messenger RNA (or mRNA) vaccines over the years, partly because the approach is relatively new – a handful of scientists first began exploring RNA vaccines as a possibility about 30 years ago. 

No mRNA vaccine has been approved before now, because scientists have had to overcome a number of obstacles to produce a vaccine that is effective.

These obstacles included things like how to modify mRNA in a way that would not produce a violent immune response, how to encourage a person’s immune system to accept a vaccine’s mRNA, and getting cells to make protein to fight the new disease.

There have been several breakthroughs over the years, but research into mRNA vaccines ramped up after the arrival of Covid-19 last year, partly helped by the huge amount of scientific collaboration that has been going on across the globe over the past year. 

Two mRNA vaccines against Covid-19 – the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs – have been approved across the world in recent weeks, including by the European Medicines Agency.

But multiple studies of other mRNA vaccines in humans have already taken place over the last few years.

Vaccines for rabiesZika and influenza were tested in humans, and despite not being licensed, none of those who participated in the studies showed any long-term adverse effects (though there were some moderate cases of inflammation).

More recently, larger trials by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna involving tens of thousands of people were hugely successful.

Both companies’ Covid-19 vaccines were found to be over 90% effective in clinical trials.

In the video, Cahill speaks about mRNA vaccine trials conducted on animals to draw the conclusion that such vaccines are unsafe for humans.

But it is misleading to suggest that adverse results in previous mRNA vaccine trials make the Covid 19 vaccines unsafe, particularly when widespread testing of such vaccines has been carried out on humans.

virus-outbreak-germany A bottle of Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine Source: AP/PA Images

Cahill also cites studies of mRNA vaccines which she claimed resulted in deaths and serious illness in animals and people.

In one study, she suggests that up to half of all animals in a trial “got seriously ill or died”. In another, she says that children and babies were hospitalised, and in another case, she says two babies in a study of 35 children died.

Cahill does not specify in the video which studies these results come from, but TheJournal.ie could find no evidence that such studies exist.

A search of the US National Library of Medicine database, which contains results of over 360,000 clinical trials in 200 countries, did not return any results for mRNA vaccine trials in children at the time of publication.

A clinical trial on the effectiveness of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine in children aged 12 and over was later added. However, no results were posted by the time the video featuring Cahill was shared on social media. 

A similar search of the EU Clinical Trials Register, which contains details of almost 40,000 trials since 2004, also returned no results for trials of mRNA vaccines in children at the time of publication.

Claim 3: Coronaviruses only cause illness in the northern hemisphere between December and April

In the video, Cahill claims that the type of virus which causes Covid-19 only affects people in the northern hemisphere between December and April.

She repeats the claim multiple times in an attempt to suggest that public health measures to fight Covid-19, such as the wearing of face masks, social distancing rules and the use of national lockdowns, are not necessary.

This is untrue: coronaviruses cause illness and death in northern hemisphere countries all year round.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which may cause illness in animals or humans.

In humans, several coronaviruses are known to cause respiratory infections ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases, including Covid-19, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 – began to spread across the globe during the spring of 2020, and the number of confirmed cases is continuing to rise.

The virus did not stop circulating in the northern hemisphere after April last year: there were significant increases in the number of cases and deaths between May and November.

Furthermore, other coronaviruses have previously been recorded circulating in the northern hemisphere outside the December to April window.

SARS-CoV-1 – the virus that causes the illness known as SARS – was first detected in Guangdong province in China in November 2002 and spread until July the following year.

And MERS-CoV – the virus that causes Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome – was first detected in Saudi Arabia in June 2012, with large outbreaks in South Korea in the summer of 2015 and in Saudi Arabia again from August 2018 until February 2019.

south-korea-mers South Korean workers spray antiseptic solution as a precaution against MERS in June 2015 Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Claim 4: Covid-19 can be prevented with Vitamins C, D and zinc

In the video, Cahill attempts to explain that public health measures are not required because there are already treatments available to stop the spread of Covid-19.

“Coronaviruses can be successfully prevented and treated by… Vitamins C, D and zinc,” she says.

However, multiple studies are still ongoing to determine whether these supplements can treat Covid-19 and there is no proof that they can prevent the illness (or any other coronavirus).

The only things that can stop someone from getting Covid-19 are avoiding contact with those who have the virus and surfaces or locations where it is present. 

Many people take vitamins C, D and zinc to boost their immune systems. But these supplements are unlikely to impact on a person’s immune function or prevent them from getting Covid-19 or another coronavirus.

Zinc has been touted as a Covid-19 treatment because of its role in regulating the immune system.

Several clinical trials have sought to evaluate the effects of zinc in Covid-19 patients, although the results from these studies are still pending and there is no solid evidence that zinc can prevent someone from getting the virus.

Other studies – including one carried out by researchers at Trinity College Dublin – have pointed to links between lower levels of vitamin D and the severity of infection in those who contract Covid-19.

A study of Covid-19 patients at Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown also showed that those admitted to intensive care and put on ventilators had lower levels of vitamin D.

Likewise, Vitamin C has been touted in some quarters as being helpful to patients who are suffering with Covid-19, similar to those who say it helps manage symptoms of the common cold.

But although these treatments may help those who have already contracted Covid-19 – and it’s important to note that studies are still working out whether this is the case – they will not prevent a person from catching the virus or from being hospitalised by it.

keep-your-distance-sign-in-london-uk-4-jan-2021 Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Claim 5: The World Health Organisation ‘locked down the world’ on 11 March 2020

In the video, Cahill suggests that the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a global lockdown on 11 March 2020 in response to the escalating number of Covid-19 cases.

At one point, she urges viewers to search online for the WHO’s declaration of a pandemic on that date.

But at another point, Cahill references the date again, saying: “When they locked down the world on 11 March…”

However, the WHO does not have the ability to implement public health measures in sovereign states.

Some countries introduced their own lockdowns at different points, including on 11 March, but most chose to implement lockdowns before or after that date.

The declaration by the WHO that the Covid-19 outbreak was a pandemic was simply a warning that the virus was spreading across the globe.

According to the WHO: “A pandemic is defined as ‘an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people’.”

Some countries did implement national lockdowns in response to the WHO’s announcement on 11 March - for example, the Irish government announced a ‘stay at home’ order the following day.

And other countries had already implemented national or partial lockdowns by that point: China’s Hubei province went into lockdown on 23 January and Italy’s national lockdown began on 9 March.

But many countries did not introduce lockdowns until weeks later, and others did not do so at all.

There was no uniformity to how governments implemented lockdowns in the spring of 2020, and although the WHO’s declaration on 11 March may have influenced their thinking, the WHO did not have any control over how different countries acted.

switzerland-geneva-who-covid-19-pandemic-threat WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declares a pandemic on 11 March, 2020 Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Claim 6: The chances of dying as a result of Covid-19 are 1 in 1.8 billion

As part of the same section of the video in which Cahill suggests the WHO announced a global lockdown on 11 March, she puts forward a number of figures on the mortality risk of Covid-19.

It’s important to state that the exact case fatality rate of Covid-19 has not been accurately gauged yet, largely due to the number of asymptomatic cases of the virus around the world.

But all current indications are that the case fatality ratio is a lot higher than 1 in 1.8 billion: global figures based on the total number of confirmed cases and deaths (which are rough and based on calculations by Johns Hopkins University) put it closer to 1 in 45.

There are also two terms used to talk about death rates.

The case fatality ratio is the number of people who have died in proportion to the number of people who are confirmed by a laboratory test to have Covid-19.

The infection fatality ratio is the number of people who have died in proportion to the number of people who are estimated to have Covid-19, both tested and untested.

Put simply, the case fatality ratio is the number of people who have died as a percentage of the cases we are aware of, while the infection fatality ratio is the number of people who have died as a percentage of all cases – including the cases which haven’t been detected.

We looked at the differences between the two in more detail in a previous FactCheck here.

Leaving aside the number of unconfirmed cases, it should be noted that the case fatality ratio is not a fixed number: rates vary across different countries and regions, age groups, social classes, and ethnicities.

The number can also differ over time. For example, the fatality rate in Ireland was higher in the spring than the autumn, because more outbreaks occurred in nursing homes – whose residents would be more prone to dying due to the virus - which accounted for 56% of deaths in the first wave.

Because of this, it’s virtually impossible to say what the chances of an individual dying with Covid-19 would be: there are no fixed individual odds of this happening.

Nevertheless, Cahill lays out a number of figures in an attempt to downplay the impact of the virus. She says:

When they locked down the world on 11 March, 56 people were dying per day in the world of Covid-19. That works out, because we have [7.8 billion] people in the world that people had a chance of dying of 1 in 1.8 billion

In Ireland, we have 5 million people, so in the flu season in Ireland, maybe two to three people would have died in the flu season from Covid-19.

Firstly, the initial claim that there were only 56 deaths due to Covid-19 per day by 11 March is inaccurate.

By that date, 4,291 people around the world had lost their lives due to Covid-19 – equivalent to around 60 per day since the virus was first reported on 31 December, 2019.

But that number was exponentially increasing as time went on and the virus spread around the world.

On 11 March alone, there were 280 new deaths from the virus around the world, including 196 in Italy and 63 in Iran; the following day saw 321 more deaths around the world.

italy-coffins-waiting-for-transport-in-the-church-of-the-holy-trinity-convent Coffins waiting for transport in a church in Bergamo, Italy last March Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The “chance of dying” odds put forward by Cahill are also statistically incorrect due to an error in her sample size.

Rather than counting those who had contracted Covid-19 only, Cahill counts everyone in the world – most of whom did not have the virus and so could not die from it.

Looking at the overall case fatality ratio using data from across the world (to momentarily ignore the misgivings about doing this outlined above) shows that the correct figure is a lot higher than the one put forward by Cahill.

Global figures which exclude asymptomatic cases show the global case fatality ratio at the time of publication (according to data from Johns Hopkins University) is around 2.2%.

That’s equivalent to 1 in 45 cases, or 40 million times higher than the 1 in 1.8 billion figure claimed by Cahill.

The WHO estimates that Covid-19′s infection fatality ratio – that is, the number of people who have died out of all cases including asymptomatic cases – is between 0.5% and 1%.

That is equivalent to nine to 18 million deaths per billion people.

Finally, official figures show that Cahill is incorrect to say that only two or three people in Ireland would have died with Covid-19 in the flu season.

The flu season in Ireland runs from October to May. Figures show that 1,649 people with Covid-19 died between March and May in the first wave of the virus, with a further 461 deaths occurring between October and the present date in the second wave.

Claim 7: Six-month lockdowns will cause entire populations to die six months earlier

In the video, Cahill argues against lockdowns by claiming that the detrimental impact of people not being able to leave their homes will result in them losing six months of life.

She says:

For the lockdown for six months, from a Swiss study, everybody in the United Kingdom would lose six months of life… everyone will die six months younger because of the lockdown.

This has not proven to be true, or projected by any study.

Although Cahill does not name the research she is referencing, a paper published in the journal European Psychiatry last May appears to form the basis for her claim.

In the paper, the authors look at how three months of restrictions on movement and social contact could affect a measure known as ‘years of life lost’ (YLL).

The measure indicates the number of years which an average person’s lifespan would be shortened by as a result of certain factors.

The researchers looked at how overall levels of YLL could increase due to higher rates of suicide, depression, alcohol misuse, childhood trauma as a result of domestic violence, changes in marital status, and social isolation as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns.

Their projections focused on the population of Switzerland, but they also provided rough estimates for a number of countries – including the United Kingdom – for illustrative purposes.

Based on their data, the study projected that the “psycho-social consequences” of a three-month Covid-19 lockdown could result in 0.205 YLL – equivalent to about two-and-a-half months – to the average person.

However, they note that such losses would be entirely borne by 2.1% of the total population (who would have an average of 9.79 YLL themselves). In other words, almost 98% of people would not be impacted.

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At no point does the study measure what impact six months of lockdown would have on YLL.

The authors explain that their modelling is based on projections and that they “had to make several assumptions” because the evidence base for building such models is limited. Their projections cannot be seen as in any way certain.

It is also worth noting that the authors do not advocate against lockdowns.

In their conclusions, they say their data hopes to provide authorities with information about introducing lockdowns, and to indicate the importance of supporting mental health workers to allow them to be “maximally efficient” in the face of such measures.

ireland-dublin-covid-19-nationwide-lockdown Shops closed in Dublin in response to a nationwide lockdown in October Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Claim 8: The total number of deaths in Ireland as a result of Covid-19 by September 2020 was 100 people

In the video, Cahill claims that Covid-19 only killed 100 people in Ireland by September 2020.

“The real numbers of actual deaths [from Covid-19] in Ireland [are] 100 people died from the lockdown between January and the beginning of September 2020,” she says.

We previously debunked this claim here.

There were a total of 1,777 deaths from Covid-19 on the date the claim was first made in September last year.

The claim is based on a video by anti-government campaigner Ben Gilroy, who quoted figures from a report by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), the state agency which monitors diseases and regularly publishes statistics on the virus in Ireland.

The report cited by Gilroy noted that of the 1,777 deaths related to Covid-19 in Ireland, 1,677 people had “underlying clinical conditions” – meaning 100 people did not.

Gilroy used this figure to incorrectly conclude that just 100 people had actually died from Covid-19. While it may be true to say that only 100 people died from Covid-19 alone, the virus was a factor in all 1,777 deaths up to that date.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health told TheJournal.ie at the time that those with underlying medical conditions who had died from Covid-19 may have continued to live for a long time if they had not contracted the virus.

Discounting deaths in patients with underlying conditions is also incorrect, as per guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO) which Ireland follows.

The guidance advises that a death due to Covid-19 may not be attributed to another disease and should be counted independently of pre-existing conditions.

It adds: “A death due to Covid-19 is defined for surveillance purposes as a death resulting from a clinically compatible illness, in a probable or confirmed Covid-19 case, unless there is a clear alternative cause of death that cannot be related to Covid disease.”

Claim 9: Coronaviruses are not fatal between May and September

In the video, Cahill states that there were no deaths from Covid-19 beyond May of last year because coronaviruses do not kill beyond April, when the flu season ends.

This is untrue: there is no scientific reason why a deadly virus would become less fatal during the summer months.

The fatality rate of a virus may fall during the summer months, as respiratory viruses normally tend to infect more people during winter.

This may in turn improve health outcomes, because there are more hospital and intensive care beds, and the reduced strain on the health service may allow patients to receive a more optimal level of care than they would have during the winter. 

In the case of Covid-19, the number of deaths in Ireland fell during the summer because months of public health measures meant it was circulating at a lower level, while outbreaks in nursing homes were controlled and younger people were catching the virus.

But the virus continued to kill beyond April: 384 deaths were confirmed in May; 86 deaths were confirmed in June; 25 deaths were confirmed in July; 14 deaths were confirmed in August; and 27 deaths were confirmed in September.

covid-19-victims-funeral-mexico-city Workers in Mexico City prepare graves for Covid-19 victims last June Source: Tischler Carlos/Eyepix/ABACA

Claim 10: Ireland’s first recorded death from Covid-19 occurred on 5 April

In the video, Cahill cites figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) relating to deaths in Ireland due to Covid-19.

She claims that nobody died with Covid-19 in Ireland during the first quarter of 2020, between January and March, and that Ireland’s first recorded death was not until 5 April.

This is not true, and CSO statistics do not say this. Ireland’s first recorded death occurred on 11 March.

The CSO website specifically states this. The fact was also reported at the time by the National Public Health Emergency Team and the HPSC.

Claim 11: Facemasks reduce a person’s oxygen intake to dangerously low levels

In the video, Cahill claims that facemasks worn to protect against the spread of Covid-19 reduce a person’s oxygen intake to “dangerously low levels”.

She also claims that masks increase carbon dioxide intake to “toxic levels” and suggests that wearing masks for a prolonged period can give a person “irreversible brain damage”. 

All of these claims are untrue. We have previously debunked them here.

The World Health Organisation advises that wearing face coverings – including medical masks such as N95- or FFP3-rated devices – does not reduce oxygen intake.

“The prolonged use of medical masks can be uncomfortable,” the advice reads. “However, it does not lead to CO2 [carbon dioxide] intoxication nor oxygen deficiency.”

Masks, as well as cotton face coverings, are designed to be somewhat porous, allowing carbon dioxide and oxygen to pass through freely while blocking respiratory droplets. They do not block airflow to any extent that would cause hypoxia.

download (12) Source: Shutterstock

Claim 12: Coronaviruses are not spread by coughing or sneezing

Towards the end of the video, Cahill claims that coronaviruses are only spread when they fall on a solid surface. She says coronaviruses cannot be spread by “the aerosol method” – that is, by coughing and sneezing.

This is false. Coronaviruses can spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, or sings because patients can emit respiratory droplets containing the virus.

According to the World Health Organisation, these respiratory droplets can reach the mouth, nose or eyes of another person, which can result in infection.

Airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19 – can also occur during medical procedures that generate aerosols.

Some studies have shown that SARS-CoV-2 virus RNA can linger in air samples within aerosols for anything between 3 hours and 16 hours (although those findings were from experimentally induced aerosols that do not reflect normal human coughing).

Additional reporting from previous FactChecks by Órla Ryan, Nicky Ryan and Gráinne Ní Aodha.

Update: After publishing, a study on the effectiveness of an mRNA vaccine against Covid-19 in children was added to the US National Library of Medicine database. Lines at the bottom of ‘Claim 2′ were changed to reflect this, and to clarify that no such study was visible on the database at the time of publication. 

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There is a lot of false news and scaremongering being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie.

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