Coronavirus myths debunked: Popular Covid-19 conspiracies from Facebook fact checked

There has been a worrying rise in misinformation spreading on social media throughout this pandemic.

We have noticed on our own Facebook pages an increasing minority of accounts spreading Covid myths and misinformation, and today we’d like to address them.

It is all too easy to dismiss this small group of individuals who lurk in the comments section. But we believe it is more helpful to try and understand why people think this way and explain to them the facts.

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Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, an infection and immunity scientist at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, which is helping research Covid-19.

We put some of the most common claims found on The Scotsman Facebook page to her, and this is what she said.

MYTH: ‘The coronavirus vaccine has been made too quickly and corners cut.’

Dr Tait-Burkard: “The speeding up of vaccine development has actually been something that has been discussed and optimised for the past 20 years, really since the outbreak of SARS-CoV-1 (‘the original one’) in 2002/2003 and reinforced by the outbreak of MERS-CoV in the early 2010s.

“As a consequence, the development of all the vaccines under development against Covid-19 are based on ‘building block’ vaccines or protein delivery methods; whether that's Adenovirus vectoring (Oxford/Astra Zeneca) or RNA vaccines (Moderna, Pfizer/BioNtech).

“Then there are other factors that have influenced speed - the sheer scale of the outbreak of Covid-19 and the incredible willingness of people to test this vaccine meant that clinical trials could progress quickly, taking record-breakingly short times to reach the number of volunteers to sign up. Also, the second wave actually meant the phase III clinical studies reached the statistically significant numbers of infected patients quickly.

“The last factor is also that the vaccines are going through a rolling approval process, meaning the governing bodies, in the UK the MHRA, have been given access to the safety and efficacy data as soon as they were available, meaning they had more time to look over the data rather than being given tens of thousands of pages of documents to go through at the end of a trial.”

MYTH: ‘The vaccine contains a microchip so Bill Gates can monitor me.’

Dr Tait-Burkard: “This is definitely one that belongs in the category conspiracy theory. Everyone with a pet who has seen the vet administer a microchip to their cat or dog will know the needle used to administer a microchip is not for the fainthearted.

Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, debunks popular Facebook Covid myths
Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, debunks popular Facebook Covid myths

“Whilst microchip technology may be advancing, they still don't fit through the tiny needles that will be used to administer the vaccine.

“Similarly, we should ask ourselves what the use of such a microchip would be. Again, anyone ever having tried to fit a microchip-reading cat flap will know the very short range of such a chip, which may only be used for identification of a dead body.”

MYTH: ‘Covid has never been isolated or purified, confirmed by FOI requests.’

Dr Tait-Burkard: “I can confirm that I myself have isolated SARS-CoV-2 from patient samples, cultivated it on cell culture (in a high containment lab) and visualised it with antibodies and looked at it in an electron microscope.

“Similarly, we are using these viruses to test how they behave and interact with human host cells, which will in future bring us hopefully a better understanding of why people get severely ill but also what drugs we may use to prevent the infection and severe disease.”

MYTH: ‘The vaccine’s side effects are suicidal thoughts and some people have died in the trials.’

Dr Tait-Burkard: “Whilst vaccine trials monitor the physical health of people, they also monitor the mental health of people since depression of suicidal thoughts could indeed be a side effect.

“Would such symptoms prevail in the vaccinated but not the control group they would be recognised and reported.

“We have already heard over the course of this year there was one death of a trial participant in the Oxford/Astra Zeneca study (who turned out to have been administered the placebo).

“We should take great comfort in the fact this got reported, the trial was stopped, and the death investigated, before the trial continued.

“This is a good example these vaccine trials are not just green-lighted and allowed to pursue at will for the greater picture of getting a vaccine out at the end.”

MYTH: ‘The vaccine doesn’t stop you getting the virus, it just reduces the symptoms. You can still spread Covid after you have had the vaccine.’

Dr Tait-Burkard: “Sterile immunity, or the non-shedding of virus after vaccination, is one of the big questions that indeed hasn't been answered yet.

“In the monkey infections with the Oxford / Astra Zeneca vaccine it was found that some of the animals were still replicating the virus in the nasal cavity whilst replication in the lungs was reduced, however, in the Moderna monkey trial, replication of the virus was strongly reduced both in the nose and the lung.

“The lack of sterile immunity would be a threat to the idea of herd immunity.

“However, this doesn't mean the vaccine would be unhelpful as it would still protect from severe disease. But it will mean a higher percentage of the population will have to take up the vaccine.”

MYTH: ‘Covid is a hoax.’

Dr Tait-Burkard: “With the utmost certainty can we say Covid is not a hoax and many people have died and even more have gotten severely ill from it.

“Once again, people should ask themselves what would be the benefit of this, and, whilst I am aware there are plenty of conspiracy theories out there, it would take an awful lot of conspiracy to make up sick patients, overworked and exhausted hospital staff, crying carers, and isolated people shielding and in care homes.”

MYTH: ‘The virus is no worse than the flu.’

Dr Tait-Burkard: “Whilst we still don't know the absolute mortality rate of Covid-19, we know it is higher than the seasonal flu.

“Whilst the pandemic flu causes around 0.1% mortality in the worst case scenario, Covid-19 is now probably lethal in 0.3-1% of patients.

“However, we need to keep in mind that all the treatments that we have against severe Covid are hospital-based and that 3-10% of people need hospital treatment.

“If the hospitals are full we will not be able to give people the hospital-based treatments anymore (including oxygen, steroids, and blood thinners), and more people will die.

“Similarly, if hospital beds are full of Covid patients other patients will not get their life-saving treatments anymore, may it be organ transplants, cancer treatments, or car accident victims.”

MYTH ‘I don’t trust the vaccine because of what happened with Thalidomide.’

Dr Tait-Burkard: “Thalidomide is definitely one of the darkest chapters of pharmaceutical history.

“Thalidomide, however, is a chemical compound that comes in two versions, one of which is harmless, the other one causes severe developmental impairment in foetuses amongst other severe side effects.

“Many of these side effects were already observed in clinical trials but, due to the regulations at the time, didn't have to be disclosed.

“Legislation has changed significantly since then and all side effects (even minor) now have to be disclosed to the regulators for instance.

“The tightening of rules since Thalidomide has made drugs safer overall as higher safety standards have to be achieved.

“And, whilst the regulatory process has been fast for these vaccines, they are not new compounds overall since their backbones have been through rigorously safety testing already for other purposes.

“Similarly, all side effects have to be reported and the normal rules on safety and efficacy still apply to the vaccine.”

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