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Pfizer, left, and Moderna bivalent COVID-19 vaccines are readied Nov. 17, 2022, for use at a clinic in Richmond, Va. (AP) Pfizer, left, and Moderna bivalent COVID-19 vaccines are readied Nov. 17, 2022, for use at a clinic in Richmond, Va. (AP)

Pfizer, left, and Moderna bivalent COVID-19 vaccines are readied Nov. 17, 2022, for use at a clinic in Richmond, Va. (AP)

Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu
By Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu March 15, 2024

If Your Time is short

  • Four years after the spread of a novel coronavirus first prompted U.S. officials to shutter schools and limit public gatherings, misinformation about the virus persists.

  • False claims that COVID-19 vaccines cause deaths and other diseases such as cancer are still prevalent despite multiple studies showing the vaccines saved lives and do not cause cancers.

  • No spin, just facts you can trust. Here's how we do it.

From spring break parties to Mardi Gras, many people remember the last major "normal" thing they did before the novel coronavirus pandemic dawned, forcing governments worldwide to issue stay-at-home advisories and shutdowns.

Even before the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the U.S., fears and uncertainties helped spur misinformation’s rapid spread. In March 2020, schools closed, employers sent staff to work from home and grocery stores called for social distancing to keep people safe. But little halted the flow of misleading claims that sent fact-checkers and public health officials into overdrive.

Some people falsely asserted COVID-19’s symptoms were associated with 5G wireless technology. Faux cures and untested treatments populated social media and political discourse. Amid uncertainty about the virus’s origins, some even proclaimed COVID-19 didn’t exist at all. PolitiFact named downplay and denial about the virus its 2020 Lie of the Year

Four years later, people’s lives are largely free of the extreme public health measures that restricted them early in the pandemic. But COVID-19 misinformation persists, although it’s now centered mostly on vaccines and vaccine-related conspiracy theories.

PolitiFact has published more than 2,000 fact-checks related to COVID-19 vaccines alone.

"From a misinformation researcher perspective, [there has been] shifting levels of trust," said Tara Kirk Sell, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "Early on in the pandemic, there was a lot of: ‘this isn’t real,’ fake cures, and then later on, we see more vaccine-focused mis- and disinformation and a more partisan type of disinformation and misinformation."

Here are some of the most persistent COVID-19 misinformation narratives we see today:

A loss of trust in the vaccines

COVID-19 vaccines were quickly developed, with U.S. patients receiving the first shots in December 2020, 11 months after the first domestic case was detected.

Experts credit the speedy development with helping to save millions of lives and preventing hospitalizations. Researchers at the University of Southern California and Brown University calculated that vaccines saved 2.4 million lives in 141 countries from January 2021 to August 2021 alone. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows there were 574 U.S. deaths attributed to COVID-19 the week of March 2, down from nearly 26,000 at the pandemic’s height in January 2021, as vaccines were just rolling out.

But on social media and in some public officials’ remarks, misinformation about COVID-19 vaccine efficacy and safety is common. U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. built his 2024 campaign on a movement that seeks to legitimize conspiracy theories about the vaccines. We made that our 2023 Lie of the Year.

PolitiFact has seen claims that spike proteins from vaccines are replacing sperm in vaccinated males. (That’s False.) We’ve researched the assertion that vaccines can change your DNA. (That’s misleading and ignores evidence). Social media posts poked fun at Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce for encouraging people to get vaccinated, asserting that the vaccine actually shuts off recipients’ hearts. (No, it doesn’t.)  And some people pointed to an American Red Cross blood donation questionnaire as evidence that shots are unsafe. (We rated that False.)

Experts say this misinformation has real-world effects.

A Nov. 2023 survey by KFF found that only 57% of Americans "say they are very or somewhat confident" in COVID-19 vaccines. And those who distrust them are more likely to identify as politically conservative: Thirty-six percent of Republicans compared with 84% of Democrats say they are very or somewhat confident in the vaccine.

Immunization rates for routine vaccines for other conditions have also taken a hit. Measles had been eradicated for more than 20 years in the U.S. but there have been recent outbreaks in states including Florida, Maryland and Ohio. Florida’s surgeon general has expressed skepticism about vaccines and rejected guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how to contain potentially deadly disease spread.

The vaccination rate among kindergarteners has declined from 95% in the 2019-20 school year to 93% in 2022-23, according to the CDC. Public health officials have set a 95% vaccination rate target to prevent and reduce the risk of disease outbreaks. The CDC also found exemptions had risen to 3%, the highest rate ever recorded in the U.S.

Unsubstantiated claims that vaccines cause deaths other illness

PolitiFact has seen repeated and unsubstantiated claims that COVID-19 vaccines have caused mass numbers of deaths.

A recent widely shared post claimed 17 million people had died because of the vaccine, despite contrary evidence from multiple studies and institutions such as the World Health Organization and CDC that the vaccines are safe and help to prevent severe illness and death. 

Another online post claimed the booster vaccine had eight strains of HIV and would kill 23% of the population. Vaccine manufacturers publish the ingredient lists; they do not include HIV. People living with HIV were among the people given priority access during early vaccine rollout to protect them from severe illness.

We have also seen COVID-19 vaccines blamed for causing Alzheimer’s and cancer. Experts have found no evidence the vaccines cause either conditions.

"​​You had this remarkable scientific or medical accomplishment contrasted with this remarkable rejection of that technology by a significant portion of the American public," said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

About 70% of Americans have completed a primary series of COVID-19 vaccination, more than three years after they became available, according to CDC figures. About 17% have gotten the most recent bivalent booster.

False claims often pull from and misuse data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. The database, run by the CDC and Food and Drug Administration, allows anybody to report reactions after any vaccine. The reports themselves are unverified, but the database is designed to help researchers find patterns for further investigation.

A November 2023 survey published by Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found 63% of Americans think "it is safer to get the COVID-19 vaccine than the COVID-19 disease" — that was down from 75% in April 2021.

Celebrity deaths falsely attributed to vaccines

Betty White, Bob Saget, Matthew Perry, and DMX are just a few of the many celebrities whose deaths were falsely linked to the vaccine. The anti-vaccine film "Died Suddenly"  tried to give credence to false claims that the vaccine causes people to die shortly after receiving it.

Dr. Céline Gounder, editor at large for public health at KFF Health News and an infectious disease specialist, said these claims proliferate because of two things —  cognitive bias and more insidious motivated reasoning. 

"It's like saying ‘I had an ice cream cone and then I died the next day, the ice cream must have killed me," she said. And those with pre-existing beliefs about the vaccine seek to attach sudden deaths to the vaccine.

Gounder experienced this  personally when her husband, the celebrated sports journalist Grant Wahl, died while covering the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Wahl died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm but anti-vax accounts falsely linked his death to the COVID-19 vaccine, forcing Gounder to publicly set the record straight.

"It is very clear that this is about harming other people," said Gounder, who was a guest at United Facts of America in 2023. "And in this case, trying to harm me and my family at a point where we were grieving my husband's loss. What was important in that moment was to really stand up for my husband, his legacy, and to do what I know he would have wanted me to do, which is to speak the truth and to do so very publicly."

False claims the pandemic was planned or government-orchestrated

We continue to see false claims that the pandemic was planned by government leaders and those in power.

At any given moment, Microsoft Corp. co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, World Economic Forum Chair Klaus Schwab and former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci are blamed for orchestrating pandemic-related threats.

In February, Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., falsely claimed Fauci, "brought" the virus to his state a  year before the pandemic.  There is no evidence of that. Gates, according to the narratives, is using dangerous vaccines to push a depopulation agenda. That’s False. And Schwab has not said he has an "agenda" to establish a totalitarian global regime using the coronavirus to depopulate the earth and reorganize society. That’s part of a conspiracy theory that’s come to be called "The Great Reset" that has been debunked many times.

The United Nations’ World Health Organization is frequently painted as a global force for evil, too, with detractors saying it is using vaccination to control or harm people. But the WHO has not declared that a new pandemic is happening, as some have claimed. Its current pandemic preparedness treaty is in no way positioned to remove human rights protections or restrict freedoms, as one post said. And the organization has not announced plans to deploy troops to corral people and forcibly vaccinate them. The WHO is, however, working on a new treaty to help countries improve coordination in response to future pandemics.

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Our Sources

PolitiFact, COVID-19 vaccines saved lives, did not cause 17 million deaths, Jan. 17, 2024

ABC News, Exemptions for routine childhood vaccination at highest level ever: CDC report, Nov. 9, 2023

PolitiFact, No, 5G technology does not cause COVID-19 symptoms, Dec. 17, 2021

PolitiFact, Hydroxychloroquine is not proven to treat COVID-19 or radiation sickness, May 19, 2020

PolitiFact, Facebook users are claiming there ‘is no’ coronavirus. That’s ridiculously wrong, March 19, 2020

PolitiFact, Lie of the Year: Coronavirus downplay and denial, Dec. 16, 2020

PolitiFact, Federal VAERS database is a critical tool for researchers, but a breeding ground for misinformation, May 3, 2021

University of Southern California, COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign Saved 2.4 Million Lives, Oct. 30, 2023

PolitiFact, COVID-19 vaccines saved lives, did not cause 17 million deaths, Jan. 9, 2024

PolitiFact, The COVID-19 vaccine does not replace male sperm with spike protein, Jan. 26, 2024

PolitiFact, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign of conspiracy theories: PolitiFact’s 2023 Lie of the Year, Dec. 21, 2023

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID Data Tracker, accessed March 14, 2024

Annenberg Public Policy Center, ​​Vaccine Confidence Falls as Belief in Health Misinformation Grows, Nov. 1, 2023

NBC News, Measles is a 'heat-seeking missile' experts warn as Florida outbreak grows, Feb. 24, 2024

PolitiFact, Why an analysis of COVID-19 vaccines from Florida’s surgeon general is flawed, Oct. 23, 2022, No, Bob Saget and Betty White’s deaths were not due to the COVID-19 vaccine, March 2, 2022

The New York Times, Grant Wahl Was a Loving Husband. I Will Always Protect His Legacy., Jan. 8, 2023

PolitiFact, The World Economic Forum is not planning to seize control of everything through ‘the Great Reset’, Sept. 28, 2023

PolitiFact, Congressman off base in ad claiming Fauci shipped COVID-19 to Montana a year before it was detected, Feb. 5, 2024

PolitiFact, No, Bill Gates didn’t write an article called ‘Depopulation Through Forced Vaccination,’ Nov. 3, 2023

PolitiFact, Video falsely claims the next deadly global pandemic is here, Oct. 5, 2023

PolitiFact, Pandemic treaty wouldn’t give the WHO power to forcibly vaccinate people, Jan. 26, 2024

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