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Debunked: Multiple claims on Instagram about vaccines, face masks and Covid-19 tests are false or misleading
The claims have been made in recent weeks.

For debunks

IN RECENT WEEKS, a number of false and misleading claims about Covid-19 and vaccines have been shared widely by Irish users of Instagram.

Last week, The Journal Fact Check highlighted how some wellness accounts have become hotbeds for such misinformation.

As we reported, former television presenter Aisling O’Loughlin is gaining a significant new following as a result of her dissemination of the same messages – including videos that appear to undermine the use of vaccines and certain health measures which aim to fight Covid-19.

Videos being shared by accounts such as O’Loughlin’s often contain claims that are misleading, untrue or which cannot be proved – or which misrepresent the facts or lack important contextual information.

From our analysis, we know that messages like this get shared across an ever-growing network. We have also been contacted by many people who would like to be able to share more accurate information to the holders of these accounts.

Here is a breakdown of some of the most common claims being made on Irish Instagram right now and explanations for why they are false or misleading.

Claim 1: The Covid-19 vaccine is an “experimental” drug 

One of the most-repeated claims in O’Loughlin’s videos is that Covid-19 vaccines are an “experimental drug”. She makes the claim in nine of her videos, posted on 8 April, 17 April, 19 April, 20 April, 22 April, 23 April, 24 April, 28 April and 2 May.

It is misleading to suggest that vaccines are experimental because they have already been widely tested and given to millions of people over the past number of months.

All of the vaccines that have been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) – Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson – have undergone standard safety testing and been the subject of three-phase clinical trials.

They have received conditional marketing authorisation for use in Europe, which is valid for one year, in part due to Covid-19 pandemic causing an ongoing public health emergency.

The EMA grants this form of authorisation if it deems that the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks posed by a product, after it has been tested during clinical trials.

Before they were authorised, each of the vaccines were tested on thousands of people to determine their safety. They were all approved after clinical trials showed they met the EMA’s safety standards (you can read about this process for three of the vaccines here).

As part of conditional marketing authorisation, pharmaceutical companies are required to complete new studies and collect additional data about the approved medicine to confirm that its benefits outweigh the risks posed by it.

This is the case with vaccines against Covid-19, but describing them as “experimental” lacks context as it misses the process that led to them being authorised in the first place.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do use a new vaccine technology called messenger RNA (mRNA) to create immunity against Covid-19, the first such vaccines to do so. However, this technology has been developed over a number of years.

The Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines are viral vector vaccines, the type of shots used to inoculate against the flu and HIV, which is not a new or experimental technology.

start-of-company-vaccination-at-sartorius-ag DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Claim 2: Evidence against Covid-19 vaccines is “irrefutable”

In another video posted on 9 April, O’Loughlin suggests that evidence does not support the use of vaccines against Covid-19.

“The information that has come in is, I believe, irrefutable against this so-called vaccine,” she said.

However, scientific evidence to date refutes this.

All four vaccines which have been approved for use in the European Union to date have gone through clinical trials to test their safety and effectiveness.

Their use has also been monitored across the continent since being approved, allowing data on their safety and effectiveness to accumulate as people have interacted socially and reported on any side-effects they have experienced in the months since.

Evidence to date shows that the vaccine rollout has been overwhelmingly successful in helping to reduce the impact of Covid-19 on society.

In the UK, data from Public Health England (PHE) released this week found that – up until the end of April – vaccines stopped at least 33,000 people aged 65 and over from needing hospital treatment and saved 11,700 lives among those aged 60 and over.

Data from Scotland also suggests that both Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are 91% and 88% effective at preventing hospitalisation in those who have received their first dose.

Data from Israel and Qatar, where respectively over 50% and over 25% of the population have been fully vaccinated, shows that the transmission of Covid-19 and severe illness and death as a result of the virus declined as more people were vaccinated.

In both countries, the use of the Pfizer vaccine led to a reduction of over 96% of severe or fatal illness.

Another smaller study from the US also suggests that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 94% effective at preventing hospitalisation due to Covid-19 in people aged over 65 who have received both doses.

All of the vaccines authorised by the European Medicines Agency have reduced severe infection, hospitalisation and death in Covid-19 patients who have been given them.

We can already see the impact of the vaccine rollout in Ireland, where more than a third of adults have been vaccinated.

Older people – who were previously at the highest risk of death and severe illness as a result of the virus – are now allowed to socialise and see family members again (in certain circumstances) if they have been vaccinated.

HSE figures show that the number of people hospitalised and intensive care with Covid-19 has fallen to levels not seen since six months ago, despite 300 to 500 new cases of the virus being confirmed in Ireland every day.

And the use of Covid-19 vaccines has overwhelmingly proved safe. More than a billion people across the world have been given a Covid-19 vaccine to date, of whom only a tiny proportion have reported serious side-effects.

The evidence against vaccines is far from “irrefutable”.

virus-outbreak-greece-vaccine AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

Claim 3: The Covid-19 vaccine is “not a vaccine”

Another claim common across the platform is that the Covid-19 vaccine isn’t really a vaccine.

The claim appeared on O’Loughlin’s Instagram on 17 April in a video in which she says that “we can’t even call it a vaccine any more”.

The claim was made again on 22 April and 2 May (when the vaccine was described as “not a vaccine”), on 5 May (when it was referred to as a “so-called vaccine”) and on 7 May (when it was called a “pretend jab”).

All of these claims are untrue. The Covid-19 vaccine is a vaccine in every sense of the term.

The World Health Organisation defines a vaccine as a product which stimulates a person’s immune system to produce antibodies to create immunity against a specific disease, protecting the person from that disease.

All of the four vaccines approved by the EMA for use in the European Union fulfil this role, although they do it in different ways.

The AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson shots are viral vector vaccines, which have been used for decades.

When they are used, a person is injected with a harmless version of a virus to deliver instructions to cells in the body to create immunity against Covid-19.

Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines use mRNA technology, and are the first two vaccines ever approved which do so.

Instead, they contain a technology – rather than a virus – which teaches the body how to make a protein that will trigger an immune response against Covid-19.

Millions of people around the world have had their immunity boosted against Covid-19 since receiving vaccines against the virus.

As mentioned above, severe illness and death has greatly reduced among those who have been given a vaccine. That is what vaccines do.

barcelona-daily-life-after-lockdown DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Claim 4: The Covid-19 vaccine is killing people

Misleading and false claims about Covid-19 vaccines killing people have also been made on Instagram.

One video posted by Aisling O’Loughlin states that vaccines are causing adverse reactions “including death” around the world.

It is true that people have died after receiving the vaccine but it’s important to clarify how and why these deaths occurred. It also also important to measure them against the total number of people who have been vaccinated.

Firstly, more than a billion people around the world have been given a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. It’s not possible to put an exact figure on it, but the overwhelming majority of these people are still alive.

In Ireland, where around 1.5 million people have been vaccinated, there have been very few deaths in people who have received one or more doses of a vaccine.

The Health Products Regulatory Authority has previously explained that there will inevitably be deaths among people who have received the Covid-19 vaccine.

This is especially because many people who received the vaccine at the beginning of the rollout were older or vulnerable patients.

And this is statistically bound to happen, the same way someone in hospital could die after being given a morphine injection – their condition may be so far advanced that they could have been likely to die shortly after being given a dose regardless.

But that does not mean these people died as a result of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Dozens of people have died across the EU after they were vaccinated against Covid-19, but this does not incriminate the vaccines.

Nor is this to deny that there have been some adverse events directly linked to vaccines, including death.

In March, concerns arose about the AstraZeneca vaccine after reports that it caused blood clots in a small number of people who received it, including nine deaths in Europe.

In the middle of that month, when around 20 million people in Europe had received the vaccine, only 25 cases of possible clotting linked to the vaccine had been notified to the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Nevertheless, many EU countries immediately paused the use of the vaccine and conducted reviews into whether it was safe to use.

Health authorities across the continent – including Ireland – then changed their advice around the use of the vaccine as a precaution to ensure it is given to those not at risk of getting blood clots.

At the time, the EMA pointed out that the vaccine is not associated with an increase in the risk of blood clots, and that the benefits of AstraZeneca in fighting the spread of Covid-19 (which can cause clotting problems itself) outweigh the risk of clots.

There were similar concerns about clotting linked to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the April, after eight rare blood clot events with low levels of blood platelets were recorded in the US. At the time, 7 million people had received the vaccine.

The EMA subsequently said that “very rare blood clots” should be listed as a side-effect but that, once again, the benefits of Johnson & Johnson outweighed the risks.

Ireland also updated its advice to help ensure that those most at risk of clotting from Johnson & Johnson receive other vaccines.

While it is true to say that Covid-19 vaccines may have led to some deaths, the risk of death from receiving one is almost non-existent. 

virus-outbreak-afghanistan Rahmat Gul / PA Rahmat Gul / PA / PA

Claim 5: Covid-19 vaccines are causing a spike in illness in India

Another claim that has made it to Irish shores is that a recent spike in illness in India was caused by Covid-19 vaccines.

India has seen a huge increase in cases of the virus in recent weeks, becoming the world’s second-most infected country and repeatedly breaking global records of daily case numbers.

To date, more than 24 million cases and 260,000 deaths from Covid-19 have been recorded.

But despite numerous claims on social media, the upsurge of Covid-19 cases in India was not caused by vaccines.

The spread of Covid-19 across India did follow the rollout of two Covid-19 vaccines there from January onwards, but the two are not associated with each other.

In other words, correlation does not imply causation.

Analysts have speculated that the rapid increase in Covid-19 cases in India was down to a number of things, including the easing of lockdowns, large gatherings, an emerging variant of concern, and a general lack of preparedness.

report in medical journal The Lancet suggested religious mass gatherings and a lack of protective measures allowed Covid-19 to spread as easily as it did.

But the situation would have undoubtedly been worse had the vaccine rollout not started. As outlined above, Covid-19 vaccines not only reduce the spread of the virus, but also result in less severe outcomes for those who do contract it.

If anything, vaccines helped prevent an even bigger spike in illness in India.

coronavirus-model-project-for-operational-vaccination-krtis DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Claim 6: PCR tests are untrustworthy and “open to being misused”

O’Loughlin made further false claims about PCR tests, which are used to detect Covid-19 and other illnesses.

On 13 April, she described PCR tests used to check whether a person has Covid-19 as “so untrustworthy”, while on 22 April, she also said they are unreliable and not fit for the purpose they’re being used for. 

She also claimed on 21 April that PCR tests are open to being misused, though she did not specify how. 

However, PCR tests are quite reliable at detecting Covid-19, especially compared to other forms of testing, and it is misleading to suggest that they are somehow being misused.

The PCR testing method is being used internationally, including in Ireland, to detect if a person is currently infected with Covid-19.

The RT-PCR test is considered the gold standard for diagnosing a suspected case of Covid-19, and is the test recommended by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Health Organisation.

It works by amplifying DNA so that it can be closely studied and used to detect the presence of a virus.

The method has widely been used in diagnostic laboratories for years, such as in testing for herpes, HIV, and hepatitis C.

Studies vary on how accurate PCR tests are at detecting Covid-19, but concerns are more based on the level of false negatives – that is, where someone has the virus but a PCR test tells them that they don’t.

systematic review of the accuracy of Covid-19 tests published in the British Medical Journal reported false negative rates of between 2% and 29% in PCR tests.

False positives – where a test tells someone that they have Covid-19 when they don’t – are far less likely.

Dr Cillian de Gascun, the director of the National Viral Reference Laboratory (NVRL), told Newstalk last year that at most, the testing system in Ireland produces a maximum of one false positive for every 500 tests carried out, and likely even fewer than that.

In the UK, the BBC has also countered claims around false positives and the accuracy of tests.

While PCR tests may to some extent be unreliable, it is far more likely that they are underestimating – not overestimating – the number of cases of Covid-19 that are present in the community.

That is why people who show symptoms of the virus are advised to isolate for 14 days, even if they return a negative test result.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that PCR tests are being misused by public health authorities or officials anywhere to misrepresent the number of positive cases of Covid-19 that are reported.

passengers-testing-at-dadar-terminus-in-mumbai-india-16-apr-2021 SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

Claim 7: Wearing face masks is “not good for you” because it causes people to breathe in carbon dioxide all day

This is a common misinformation trope across the world. In a video posted on 7 April, O’Loughlin asked whether face masks could be dangerous.

“Breathing in your own waste air all day long, what’s that about?” she said.

“It can’t be good, we breathe for a reason. We have a nose and a mouth for a reason, breathe in, breathe out. Breathing in your own carbon dioxide all day long, surely that’s not good for you?”

However, the suggestion that face masks are dangerous because they cause people to breathe in carbon dioxide all day is misleading. It has been debunked several times.  

The Journal reported in a previous fact-checking article last year that face coverings block Covid-19 droplets but do not block either oxygen or carbon dioxide.

Face masks do not cause people to breathe in carbon dioxide all day.

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Claim 8: Science does not support wearing face masks to prevent Covid-19

O’Loughlin has also made false claims about whether face masks work in videos posted on 19 April and 30 April.

“I’m not an anti-masker at all… I’m pro being able to breathe, I’m pro-breath,” she says in the video on 19 April, implying again that masks prevent people from breathing properly (as discussed above, this suggestion is misleading).

She continues: “The science is not behind the masks any more.”

This is not true.

The World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) both recommend that masks should be worn to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

The ECDC does warn that evidence for the effectiveness of face masks at preventing Covid-19 is limited, but this does not mean that science is against wearing masks.

It specifically says that wearing masks in indoor and crowded settings is recommended, and that the wearing of masks in general should complement other measures, such as hand hygiene and social distancing.

A peer-reviewed study by scientists from around the world, published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in December, also recommends the use of face masks by the public.

The authors state that evidence shows mask wearing reduces the transmissibility of Covid-19 per contact by reducing the transmission of infected respiratory particles.

They also recommend that public health officials and governments “strongly encourage the use of widespread face masks in public” to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

download (22) Shutterstock Shutterstock

Claim 9: Face masks contain “parasitic worms” and “toxic substances”

There are countless false and misleading claims about masks across the Internet. In a video posted on 19 April, O’Loughlin talks about what she believes what can be found in them.

“On the mask issue, there’s a story up there about a doctor who has found these parasitic worms [in a mask],” she says towards the end of the video, repeating the claim multiple times.

She then claims that “official masks” in Belgium were found to contain “toxic substances”.

The claim that face masks contain worms is untrue and has been debunked by multiple sources. The claim about Belgian masks, while true, is lacking important contextual information.

The worms claim was found in several videos posted on social media from April onwards which showed close-up shots of face masks, including one video posted on Facebook which has been viewed almost 70,000 times.

AFPFull Fact and Reuters are among those who have debunked variations this claim, with the former quoting scientists as saying the ‘worms’ are likely to be fibres.

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Meanwhile, the claim that official face masks in Belgium contain toxic substances is misleading and lacks context.

What is true is that in February, the country’s health minister warned warned that some of the free face masks that were distributed across the country since last year contained nanoparticles of silver and titanium oxide.

The government said these masks should no longer be used or distributed.

However, a government spokesperson also said at the time that there was “no evidence of danger to public health” despite the finding.

Claims that face masks contain “toxic substances” have been used to discourage their use over the course of the pandemic, but generally lack context like this one.

Rumours have suggested that face masks are toxic because they are sprayed with Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) or contain asbestos-like substances.

However, face masks do not pose a danger to public health and are safe to use (unless a person has a number condition that means they have trouble breathing – more information is available from the HSE here).

Contains reporting from previous FactChecks by Lauren Boland.

The Journal’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.

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