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FactCheck: Covid-19 claims shared on a LED display driven around a number of locations in Ireland are false

Messages flashed on an LED display beside roads are spreading misinformation about Covid-19.

For Covid factchecks

AN UNOFFICIAL LED display that has been parked next to roads in a number of locations and flashes messages about Covid-19 is sharing multiple incorrect claims about the illness. 

The messages contain misinformation about the coronavirus, vaccines, and Covid-19 testing.

The false claims include “Covid tests are fraudulent” and “up to 95% of Covid tests are false positives”; “vaccines cause autism”, “untested covid vaccine has significant side effects”; and “masks spread germs”.

One of the messages says that “Covid is a psychological operation to collapse the world economy”.

Anti-Corruption Ireland, a group that shares conspiracy theories and opposes Covid-19 restrictions, has claimed ownership of the sign, which has been brought to multiple towns in Ireland.

One video of the sign that has been shared on Facebook has been viewed over 50,000 times since it was uploaded on 26 January.

Let’s look at the claims one by one. 

Claim: Covid-19 tests are fraudulent and up to 95% of tests are false positives

Verdict: FALSE

There’s more than one type of Covid-19 test: some tests are used to see whether a person has a current case of the virus, while others are used to check whether a person has antibodies for Covid-19, which would indicate that they were previously infected.

For the purpose of diagnosing a case of Covid-19, the HSE uses PCR testing, which it describes as the “most reliable way of diagnosing Covid-19″. These tests can show if a person is currently infected with the virus at the time that they were tested.

PCR testing works by taking a sample of genetic material, which is very small, and multiplying it so that it can be studied and used to detect whether the virus is present or not present in the sample.

It is the method recommended by the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and is in use widely around the world.

The rate of false positives from PCR testing in Ireland is as low as between 0.1 and 0.2%, according to Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory.

TheJournal.ie has previously debunked misinformation around PCR testing, including claims that it has a 97% false positive rate, that a positive result can be returned because the person has previously been vaccinated for the flu, or that the WHO said a positive test is more likely due to a cold, all of which are false.

Claim: Vaccines cause autism

Verdict: FALSE

The claim that vaccines cause autism is a widely-shared piece of misinformation, but there is no truth to it.

EpTB0NeWEAMmtml The LED sign in Howth, Dublin in December Source: Cathal Mac Coille

The myth linking autism to vaccines was started by a 1998 paper in The Lancet medical journal by a UK doctor called Andrew Wakefield, which suggested the MMR vaccine could cause autism. However, The Lancet retracted the paper in 2010, and Wakefield’s medical licence has since been revoked by the UK’s General Medical Council which means he can no longer practice as a doctor. 

Wakefield’s study has never been replicated or backed up by any other research. The myth is insidious, however, and has been linked to a number of vaccines since the original MMR claim. 

The claim has since been discredited by a wide range of scientific studies.  

An analysis of five studies that involved 1,256,407 children found that there was “no relationship between vaccination and autism, nor was there a relationship between autism and MMR, or thimerosal, or mercury”.

“Findings of this meta-analysis suggest that vaccinations are not associated with the development of autism or autism spectrum disorder,” the authors wrote.

“Furthermore, the components of the vaccines (thimerosal or mercury) or multiple vaccines (MMR) are not associated with the development of autism or autism spectrum disorder.” 

A UK study published in The Lancet in 1999, shortly after the 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield, studied whether there was a change in trends around the incidence of autism or the age children were being diagnosed at after the MMR vaccine was introduced to the UK in 1988.

The study found that its “analyses do not support a causal association between MMR vaccine and autism”.

Among children who had been diagnosed with autism, the study identified that there was “no difference in age at diagnosis between the cases vaccinated before or after 18 months of age and those never vaccinated”.

Similarly, in 2019, research in Denmark studied all children born in the country (whose mothers were also born there) between 1999 and 2010.

The Danish study “strongly supports that MMR vaccination does not increase the risk for autism, does not trigger autism in susceptible children, and is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination”. 

Claim: “Covid is a psychological operation to collapse the world economy”

Verdict: FALSE

A psychological operation – a term which originated with the US military -  uses communication to influence the emotions and behaviour of large groups of people. This claim suggests that the pandemic was a planned operation designed to collapse the economy. 

Covid-19 is a physical disease and the virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2, has been isolated and photographed by scientists across the world, including in Ireland, the US and Canada.

Images of the SARS-CoV-2 were captured by scientists in the US in February 2020 using scanning and transmission electron microscopes. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an agency with the US Department of Health, published the images.

The NIAID observed that SARS-CoV-2′s appearance is similar to MERS-CoV, which causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, and SARS-CoV, which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, both of which are also types of coronaviruses.

“That is not surprising: The spikes on the surface of coronaviruses give this virus family its name – corona, which is Latin for ‘crown,’ and most any coronavirus will have a crown-like appearance,” the NIAID said.

In Ireland, there have been 211,751 confirmed cases of Covid-19 since the first outbreak of the virus.

There is no evidence to suggest the pandemic has been planned in order to destroy the world economy. This is a common conspiracy trope which has been shared since the pandemic began.

Almost 2.5 million people have died and 109 million people have contracted the illness since early 2020.

49912952543_5b5c841a71_c Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Claim: “Untested covid vaccine has significant side effects.”

Verdict: Partly False. Covid-19 vaccines approved for use have been clinically tested. They can have some rare, significant side effects, but generally only have mild, short-term side effects which only affect some people who get a vaccine. 

Vaccines against Covid-19 that have been approved for use were put through multiple phases of scientific testing during clinical trials.

There are three vaccines approved for use in Ireland right now: Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford/AstraZeneca.

The European Commission approved the Pfizer vaccine on 21 December – the first of the three vaccines to receive the green light-  after a recommendation from the European Medicines Authority (EMA).

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Executive Director of the EMA Emer Cooke said that the authority’s “thorough evaluation means that we can confidently assure EU citizens of the safety and efficacy of this vaccine and that it meets necessary quality standards”. 

“However, our work does not stop here. We will continue to collect and analyse data on the safety and effectiveness of this vaccine to protect people taking the vaccine in the EU,” Cooke said.

A clinical trial of the Pfizer vaccine that involved 44,000 people showed that the vaccine had 95% efficacy.

The most common side effects identified during the trial were “usually mild or moderate and got better within a few days after vaccination”, the EMA said.

“They included pain and swelling at the injection site, tiredness, headache, muscle and joint pain, chills and fever.”

The Moderna and Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccines also went through clinical trials and were approved for use after the EMA determined they were safe and effective.

The HSE has a full list available of the side effects that can be experienced from the vaccines.

Common side effects for all three of the vaccines can be tenderness in the arm where the person was injected, a headache, and feeling tired. 

Some rarer side effects after the AstraZeneca vaccine that may affect 1 in 1,000 people include reduced appetite, dizziness, and sleepiness.

For the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, 1 in 10,000 people may develop Bell’s palsy, which is a weakness or paralysis of the facial muscles. Most people start to recover from Bell’s palsy around two weeks after the symptoms first appear and continue to improve over the following three to six months.

The HSE says that “serious side effects, like a severe allergic reaction, are extremely rare”. 

Serious side effects in the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are seen in around 1 in 100,000 people, and 1 in a million people for the Moderna vaccine.

“Your vaccinator is trained to treat any serious allergic reactions,” the HSE says.

Claim: Masks cause germs

Verdict: FALSE

Masks work by reducing the spread of droplets that carry a virus. They help to block viral particles that a person wearing a mask exhales, and can also help to reduce the droplets that a person wearing a mask inhales by filtering droplets and particles. 

When used in line with public health guidance, such as how often to wash a reusable mask, masks are safe to wear.

Guidance from the HSE, and other public health organisations, advises that cloth masks should be washed frequently with soap or detergent and water if washing by hand, or in a washing machine using laundry detergent at the recommended setting for the type of fabric.

Disposable masks that are designed for one-time use should be thrown away after they are worn. 

Claims that mask-wearing reduces oxygen intake or causes Legionnaire’s disease are also false.

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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