- Flora Carmichael*
- BBC Reality Check
The wave of rumors on social networks was to be expected.
The news that a vaccine for covid-19 BNT162 made by Pfizer and BioNTech showed more than 90% efficiency caused a chain of false information on social networks.
Part of the rumors focused on the fact that the vaccine has as one of its differentials being RNA-based. But others also resurfaced.
The BBC Reality Check fact-checking team has examined some of the most widely shared false claims: alleged plans to microchip people through injection, the alleged change in our genetic code, and the overall safety of vaccines.
Bill Gates and the alleged microchip
The name of Bill Gates was widely shared on Twitter after announcements of the vaccine results.
Microsoft’s billionaire founder has been the subject of many false rumors during the pandemic. He became a target because of his philanthropic work in public health and vaccine development.
One of the most shared claims (which has been circulating since the beginning of this year) is that the coronavirus pandemic is an excuse for a plan implantation of traceable microchips in people and that Gates is behind it all.
The rumors emerged in March, when Gates mentioned in an interview that in the future “we will have digital certificates” that would be used to show who recovered, who was tested and, ultimately, who received the vaccine. He didn’t mention microchips.
That response led to a widely shared article, titled: “Bill Gates to Use Microchip Implants to Fight Coronavirus.”
The article refers to a study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, on a technology that could store someone’s vaccine records in a special ink administered at the same time as an injection.
But nevertheless, technology is not a microchip and it looks more like an invisible tattoo. It has not yet been implemented, it would not allow people to be tracked, and personal information would not be entered into a database, says Ana Jaklenec, a scientist involved in the study.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said that “the reference to ‘digital certificates’ is related to efforts to create an open source digital platform with the goal of expanding access to secure home tests.”
Therefore, there is no evidence to support claims that there is a plan to implement traceable microchips. And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation told the BBC that These claims are completely false.
Despite the lack of evidence, a May survey of 1,640 people in the US suggested that 28% believed Gates wanted to use vaccines to implant microchips in people.
The alleged “altered DNA”
A White House correspondent for a pro-Donald Trump website, Newsmax, told her 264,000 Twitter followers to “be careful” with the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine.
Emerald Robinson claimed in the tweet: “It interferes with your DNA.”
The fear that a vaccine will somehow change the recipient’s genes is another claim seen in multiple Facebook posts.
The BBC asked three independent scientists about this. They said that the coronavirus vaccine would not alter human DNA.
One of the biggest differentiators of the BNT162 vaccine (Pfizer and BioNTech) is the fact that it is based on RNA.
“Injecting RNA into a person does nothing with the DNA of a human cell,” said Professor Jeffrey Almond of the University of Oxford.
Pfizer spokesman Andrew Widger said the company’s vaccine “does not alter the DNA sequence of a human body.”
This is not the first time that claims that a coronavirus vaccine would alter DNA have been examined. A very popular video spread the theory in May.
Part of the misunderstanding appears to be due to the type of vaccine being developed. The Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine uses messenger RNA technology or “MRNA“.
This product contains a small, laboratory-created genetic sequence that “teaches” the human body’s own cells to produce proteins similar to Those of the Sars-CoV-2.
From there, the immune system recognizes the threat and creates a response that protects the body from future infections.
Robinson’s tweet included the claim that the mRNA vaccine technology “had never been tested or approved before.”
It is true that no mRNA vaccine has been approved before, but in recent years there have been several studies of mRNA vaccines in humans.
Almond says the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine is the first to show the effectiveness it would take to achieve authorization. The fact that it’s a new technology, he says, “It doesn’t mean we should be afraid of him.”
The new vaccines undergo rigorous safety checks before being recommended for widespread use.
In Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials, vaccines are tested in a small number of volunteers to verify that they are safe and to determine the correct dose.
In Phase 3 trials, they are tested on thousands of people to see if they are effective.
The group that received the vaccine and a control group that received the placebo are closely monitored for any adverse reactions (side effects). The security check continues even after a vaccine is cleared.
Various strategies and technologies are being evaluated to create vaccines against covid-19: from the use of inactivated viruss until new formulations with RNA, a genetic code created in the laboratory.
Claire Wardle, author of a recent report on vaccine myths on social media, says that there is a “data gap” around topics like mRNA technology.
In other words, it is a situation in which there is a high demand for information, but the supply of reliable information is scarce.
“This leaves people vulnerable to misinformation, which quickly fills the gap, “said Wardle, CEO of anti-disinformation nonprofit First Draft.
“While reliable information is struggling to keep up with demand, untrusted individual accounts and alternative media can decrease confidence in vaccines,” he says.
Another statement in Robinson’s tweet was one of the main anti-vaccine topics shared in recent days.
He said 75% of the volunteers in the vaccine trial experienced side effects. But Pfizer and BioNTech did not report any major security issues in his study.
Many vaccines have side effects. But most are not as harsh as anti-vaccine activists want us to believe.
“Like all vaccines, this can cause short-term side effects, including injection site pain, fever, muscle aches and pains, headache and fatigue,” said Penny Ward, professor of pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London.
Ward noted that these types of side effects are also felt by a large number of people who receive the annual flu vaccine. They are generally mild, disappear after a few days at most and can be relieved with paracetamol or ibuprofen.
It’s unclear where Robinson got the 75% data, but it may have been selectively chosen from the rate of mild side effects reported in an age group earlier in the study.
The BBC contacted Emerald Robinson for comment, but the journalist says she stands by her claims.
*With the collaboration of Kris Bramwell, Jack Goodman, Olga Robinson and Marianna Spring.
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