Is it true that the novel coronavirus has not crossed borders, that 2020 death rates are not higher than an average year, that COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe and ineffective and that COVID is no more lethal and infectious than the flu? No, none of those claims is true. Full-time virologists, vaccinologists, epidemiologists and public health officials cite peer-reviewed professional studies that find the COVID-19 epidemic has spread from continent to continent, that the number of non-predicted "excess" deaths in the U.S. was already 300,000 in mid-December 2020, that the FDA-approved vaccines prevent COVID infection in the vast majority of patients, that three-phase safety studies found side effects fall within regulators' acceptable risk ranges and that COVID is more easily spread and more lethal than the flu.
33 professionals, from 11 countries, many working in the medical field, have come together to share important messages with humanity at this time. Some key points:
- This is not a real medical [email protected] demic. Death rates are not higher than an average year.
This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:
(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Dec 15 19:47:45 2020 UTC)
The post makes a dozen more claims. This Lead Stories fact-check article will limit itself to the following claims made in the Facebook post:
This is not a real medical p @ n demic.
Death rates are not higher than an average year.
The v @ x is not safe or effective.
The c virus is in terms of harmfulness, mortality and transmissibility, comparable to a seasonal flu.
All four claims (written with symbols and spaces so as to duck social media AI falsehood alerts) have been addressed in prior coronavirus fact checks by Lead Stories. To debunk the claims, Lead Stories relied on published research, experts with the appropriate specialty and interviews with specialists who both treat COVID patients and conduct clinical research. By contrast, the claims made in the Facebook post and the video that launches from the Facebook post are made in several cases by doctors who lack board certification or clinical or lab experience in the relevant fields: virology, epidemiology, immunology, vaccinology or public health.
The video in the post also features claims made with no supporting evidence by journalists and natural healing activists. Several figures in the video are frequent participants in the counter-factual anti-vaccine movement.
Taken in order:
Claim: 'This is not a real medical pandemic'
Here is the link to the Trump administration's declaration of a COVID-19 pandemic, in which the White House cites the World Health Organization's pandemic declaration and refers to the determination of public health experts that the infection epidemic had crossed national boundaries, which is the definition of a pandemic.
In a December 8, 2020, email to Lead Stories, Dr. Geoffrey Baird, interim chair of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said there's ample evidence of a real medical pandemic:
While some infections are asymptomatic, the virus is real, it has been measured in humans who have been affected, it has been identified in the bodies/organs of people who died of it (and there are photos of the viral particles in infected individuals' organs).
Claim: 'Death rates are not higher than an average year'
In a December 8, 2020, email to Lead Stories addressing the same claim in another Facebook post, Robert Anderson, the nation's expert on death data as chief of mortality statistics at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics said medical doctors who make that claim ignore solid data:
The statement that no additional deaths have occurred in relation to a new disease is incorrect.
Mortality surveillance in the United States during 2020 clearly shows, thus far, more than 250,000 deaths attributed specifically to SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 and more than 300,000 excess deaths, i.e., more than we would see in a normal year.
These data are based on death certificates registered in the 50 states, New York City and the District of Columbia (see https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/covid-19.htm). Death certificate data for other countries also show large numbers of excess deaths (see https://www.euromomo.eu/graphs-and-maps).
Claim: 'The vaccine is not safe or effective'
On December 8, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released advance copies of a report that while Pfizer's COVID vaccine has "intense" side effects, none are fatal and the vaccine has proven safe, and the FDA said it expected to approve the vaccine for widespread public use to prevent further spread.
The University of Washington's Baird, a pathology and lab science leader wrote to Lead Stories of the safety testing:
The vaccine trials that have been reviewed so far have administered (for each trial) vaccine doses to 15,000 individuals and placebo to 15,000 individuals.
In the two mRNA vaccine trials (Pfizer and Moderna), of the thirty thousand trial participants, each had over 100 people become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but approximately 95% of the infections were in the placebo volunteers while only 5% were in those who got the vaccine. Thus, the vaccines are "effective", since a large group of people were protected (~20-fold lower rate of disease) in the vaccinated individuals compared to placebo.
No serious side effects were identified at the first evaluation time point (several months in), but trials will continue for ~2 years to continue to look for later-onset side effects. As of today, though, the vaccines appear safe.
Some anti-vaccine activists have focused on Pfizer's first-ever mRNA vaccine. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute website "Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a molecule similar to DNA," . The "Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines" post on the CDCs website clearly states that such vaccines do not alter the DNA of the people who receive them:
They do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way:
mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.
The cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA soon after it is finished using the instructions.
Claim: 'The coronavirus is in terms of harmfulness, mortality and transmissibility, comparable to a seasonal flu'
Asked in October to compare 2020 death to other years, the CDC's Anderson said many amateurs overlook the fact that death rates change with the weather. He wrote, in an email to Lead Stories on October 9, 2020:
Mortality is seasonal, that is, it increases in the winter and decreases in the summer. Since February, weekly deaths in 2020 have been higher compared to the same time period in previous years. A more appropriate way to look at this is in terms of excess deaths, i.e., the number of deaths this year compared to what we would expect in a normal year (see https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid19/excess_deaths.htm).
Though many more Americans are wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines than did during past flu seasons, COVID has in 2020 killed five times as many American as die of flu even a severe U.S. flu season, in which as many as 60,000 people have died in years past.
The World Health Organization reported that globally as of November 23, 2020, COVID-19's impact was:
- 58.42 million cases
- 1.38 million deaths
By comparison, the WHO says the seasonal flu globally has an annual tally of:
- 1 billion cases, with 3 million to 5 million being severe
- 290,000 - 650,000 deaths
University of Georgia professor John Drake, who is director of the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases, demonstrated in the October 6, 2020, issue of Forbes that COVID-19 is more than twice as transmissible as flu and 54 times more lethal than influenza.
Those statistics will change once all data for 2020 has been collected and audited, but even more conservative estimates by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, put COVID's lethality at 10 times that of the seasonal flu, noting that ease of transmission makes it much more dangerous than flu.