Fact-checking claims about Fauci’s emails, COVID vaccines making people magnetic and more
A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out. Here are the facts:
Spike protein produced by vaccine is not toxic
CLAIM: COVID-19 vaccines make people produce a spike protein that is a toxin and can spread to other parts of the body and damage organs.
THE FACTS: COVID-19 vaccines do instruct the body to produce spike proteins that teach the immune system to combat the spikes on the coronavirus, but experts say these proteins are not toxic and do not damage organs.
“The spike protein is immunogenic, meaning it causes an immune response, but it is not a toxin,” said William Matchett, a vaccine researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
Dr. Byram Bridle, an associate professor in viral immunology at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, forwarded the fringe theory about the spike protein being a toxin during a radio interview with Alex Pierson in Ontario, Canada.
“We made a big mistake. We didn’t realize it until now, we thought the spike protein was a great target antigen. We never knew the spike protein itself was a toxin and was a pathogenic protein so by vaccinating people we are inadvertently inoculating them with a toxin,” said Bridle, who described himself as pro-vaccine.
But scientists and researchers say that is not the case. Dr. Daniel Kaul, an infectious disease expert at the University of Michigan, noted that the vaccines have been proven safe and effective through clinical trials and the millions of people who have so far received the vaccines in the U.S. “In terms of the spike protein itself being pathogenic in some way that’s just simply not true,” he said in response to Bridle’s claims. All the vaccines that received emergency use authorization in the U.S. do not contain live COVID-19 virus. Nor do they contain actual spike protein from the virus, which is what allows the virus to easily infect the human cell and replicate.
The vaccines work by teaching the immune system to identify and fight off the spike protein in the body. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines rely on messenger RNA, often referred to as mRNA, that delivers a set of instructions to create spike proteins so your body can learn to combat them. Unlike the mRNA vaccines, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine carries its genetic instructions for the spike protein through a modified adenovirus. Posts online shared quotes of Bridle’s interview to further push the false narrative that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous and attack the body. In the interview, Bridle says that the spike proteins generated by the vaccines don’t stay in the shoulder muscle, but spread and cause “so much damage in other parts of the bodies of the vaccinated.” But Dr. Adam Ratner, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health, said that vaccines are mostly concentrated at the site of injection or the local lymph nodes. “What was said in the radio show was completely inaccurate,” Ratner said. “There is no spike protein in the vaccines first of all. The amounts that are made after the mRNA is injected are very small and it almost exclusively stays locally. It is nowhere near the amount he was talking about.” Bridle did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press. An auto-reply email from his account said that a more comprehensive report on his comments would soon be published. “My answer to the question posed by the host was objective and founded on multiple reliable scientific sources,” the email reads.
— Associated Press writer Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed this report.
Video misleads on Fauci emails
CLAIM: People should stop wearing masks because leaked emails written by Dr. Anthony Fauci said masks aren’t effective against COVID-19. Emails also showed Fauci takes hydroxychloroquine and tells his family members to take it to prevent COVID-19.
THE FACTS: A trove of emails from Fauci, longtime director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was released to The Washington Post and Buzzfeed News through Freedom of Information Act requests. The emails were not leaked. Social media users have misrepresented the emails to make it appear Fauci lied to the public.
Several of the claims were contained in a TikTok video that was shared on Facebook this week. “How you see Dr. Fauci’s leaked emails about how masks don’t work and still wear masks? Brainwashed,” states a man in the TikTok video. “The typical mask you buy in a drugstore is not really effective. Guys, that’s from Fauci, that’s not me. That’s from the man who got y’all wearing masks.”
The video is accompanied by a screenshot of an email that Fauci wrote on Feb. 5, 2020, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, that was later published by Buzzfeed News: “Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection. The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material,” reads the email. Fauci had sent the note to Sylvia Burwell, president of American University and a former secretary of health and human services, after she asked him whether she should take a mask to the airport. But that was written in early February 2020 when there were few reported cases in the U.S. Early in the pandemic, Fauci had publicly downplayed mask wearing for the general public, stating in March 2020 masks should be spared for healthcare workers. As new information emerged on how the virus spreads, officials shifted their messaging, urging everyone to wear a mask, even if they weren’t sick with COVID-19.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on April 3, 2020, to recommend that people wear masks, Fauci also promoted that message. During a PBS Newshour interview that day, Fauci encouraged masks, saying new information showed infected people without symptoms can still transmit the virus. In a CNN interview on May 21, 2020, Fauci stated: “Wear a mask.”
The video also makes the false claims that Fauci admitted he took the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine because it is effective against COVID-19, and that therefore those who had promoted it as a cure were correct. The drug has not been approved as a treatment for COVID-19. To back up the false hydroxychloroquine claim about Fauci, the video shows a screenshot of an email stating: “The other drug I have, and have told my family and some friends to get, is called hyroxychloriquine — also seem to be effective and safe.” But Fauci didn’t write that email, in which the drug was misspelled. He received the email from Erik A. Nilsen, CEO of Bio-Signal Technologies, a startup based in Texas, on March 18, 2020, according to the emails published by Buzzfeed News. Other emails written by Fauci during that time period show that he was not willing to endorse hydroxychloroquine because data did not support its use and he has continued to state that science doesn’t back using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. “Dr. Fauci has never taken hydroxychloroquine,” an NIAID spokesperson confirmed to The Associated Press in an email.
—- Associated Press writer Arijeta Lajka in New York contributed this report.
COVID-19 vaccines do not cause magnetism in bodies
CLAIM: COVID-19 vaccines have resulted in some people becoming magnetic.
THE FACTS: In recent weeks, videos have circulated on social media falsely claiming that metal objects shown hanging on people’s bodies were the result of magnetism created by COVID-19 vaccines or microchips. A new video claims that magnetism was added to the vaccine in order to make the messenger RNA move throughout the body. The CDC says there is no truth to these claims and that the COVID-19 vaccines are free from ingredients that could produce an electromagnetic field.
“Receiving a COVID-19 vaccine will not make you magnetic, including at the site of vaccination which is usually your arm,” the agency posted on its website. “In addition, the typical dose for a COVID-19 vaccine is less than a milliliter, which is not enough to allow magnets to be attracted to your vaccination site even if the vaccine was filled with a magnetic metal.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized use of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines and the ingredients are publicly available in agency documents and on the CDC website. None of the shots include any metals.
The vaccines have gone through three phases of clinical trials and were tested on thousands of people to be deemed safe and effective before being distributed nationally in phases. If there was any possibility that the vaccines were magnetic, it would have been reported early on, said Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Some social media users shared videos of magnets sticking to their bodies only to later confirm it was a joke. If some videos do show metal objects stuck to a person, there could be an explanation. Dr. Christopher Gill, an infectious disease expert at the Boston University School of Public Health, said the answer could be as simple as humidity in the room or moisture. “Back when I was in college, I had this game of sticking spoons to my face and I would just blow on it a little to get some moisture,” he said. “But clearly my face is not magnetic.” There are other clues that the videos showing supposed magnetism are not authentic, according to Fichtenbaum. “What’s interesting to me is I haven’t seen anybody put a compass on their arm because a compass under a magnetic field gets disrupted,” said Fichtenbaum.
— Beatrice Dupuy
Asymptomatic COVID-19 infections do occur
CLAIM: Coronavirus cases without symptoms aren’t real. An asymptomatic patient is simply a healthy person.
THE FACTS: Posts liked thousands of times on Instagram this week are falsely claiming that asymptomatic COVID-19 cases do not exist.
“In case anyone is still confused- an ‘asymptomatic’ person is a healthy person,” the posts read. “Never in the history of acute respiratory illnesses have we declared ‘cases’ without any indication of symptoms. It’s called a false positive. The end.”
In fact, asymptomatic COVID-19 infections do occur and are a key feature of the virus, according to the CDC and several experts consulted by The Associated Press. “We know that asymptomatic infections occur based on at least two facts,” said Jade Fulce, public affairs specialist at the CDC. First, she said, the “virus has been isolated by culture from persons who have tested positive but never develop symptoms.” Second, she said, “there are well documented cases of infected persons who are asymptomatic who have transmitted infection.”
Though false positive and negative tests can occur, the risk of such errors is low in most of the tests authorized for use by the FDA, Fulce said. Furthermore, false positives due to lab errors are not the same as asymptomatic cases. Though estimates vary, researchers who reviewed the available published data in May 2021 said that at least one-third of people who become infected with the coronavirus likely did not experience symptoms. “This occurs pretty frequently,” said Dr. Roger Shapiro, an associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard Medical School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We would not expect our tests to have false positives to that high of a percentage.”
Other viruses, including other respiratory viruses, have also been identified in individuals who never developed symptoms, said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, an assistant professor in the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Asymptomatic can occur 100%,” Galiatsatos said. “There’s countless cases where an upper respiratory virus never gives you symptoms but still can be highly contagious. There’s many viruses that have done that, and other coronaviruses possibly in the past, as well, have done that.” Experts say when we talk about asymptomatic COVID-19 patients, we are actually talking about two different types of patients. There are patients who are truly asymptomatic and never develop symptoms. Then there are patients who don’t develop symptoms at first, but later do. “We do consider presymptomatic people more infectious,” Shapiro said. “They have virus that’s on the way up, they have viral loads sort of on the way up. They’re more likely to be replicating a lot of virus and passing that on.”
— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in Semora, North Carolina, contributed this report.
Video misrepresents Biden statements, policies on guns
CLAIM: President Joe Biden once said he was about to “swoop down with Special Forces” and “gather up every gun in America,” and now his administration is advertising giving out guns to people who get vaccinated for COVID-19.
THE FACTS: A video circulating widely on social media this week falsely claims to show the U.S. president standing at a podium and threatening to take people’s guns away.
Text overlaid on the video aims to contrast it with current policies, falsely suggesting Biden’s administration is now “advertising guns to the public” as an incentive to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Neither claim is true.
Biden’s administration has not led any national giveaway of guns for getting a vaccine. Some smaller-scale lotteries like this do exist, such as in West Virginia, where a statewide vaccine lottery counts hunting rifles and shotguns among its prizes. Biden also never threatened to take “every gun in America.”
The video, which amassed thousands of shares on TikTok and spread to Instagram, strips key context from Biden’s words during a 2013 press conference. The video makes it sound like Biden intends to take everyone’s guns away. However, Biden was actually explaining that the government would do no such thing. In the original video, then-Vice President Biden was speaking to reporters about disinformation surrounding gun control legislation proposed after a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Biden listed and debunked several false claims, including that the federal government wanted to put all firearm transactions into a “massive federal registry.” There’s “no central registry for anything,” Biden said. “No way that Uncle Sam can go find out whether you own a gun because we’re about to really take away all your rights and we’re going to swoop down with Special Forces and gather up every gun in America. It’s bizarre. But that’s what’s being sold out there.”
In context, it’s clear that Biden was dismissing false claims that the federal government wanted to keep all firearm transactions in a federal registry and take everybody’s guns. He was not describing actual plans to do these things. In his presidency, Biden has taken executive action to crack down on homemade firearms and regulate pistol-stabilizing braces like the one used in a recent shooting in Boulder, Colorado. He has also called on Congress to strengthen gun laws, including requiring background checks on all gun sales and banning assault weapons.
— Ali Swenson
Video uses fake subtitles to misrepresent pope’s message
CLAIM: Video shows Pope Francis saying in Italian that “we are living in the end times,” that he has “a secret agenda” to deceive people and that he unites people under one world religion in order to “control them better,” among other foreboding messages.
THE FACTS: A video clip circulating widely this week on Instagram, TikTok and conspiracy theory websites shows Pope Francis speaking to the camera in Italian while fake English subtitles mislead viewers about his message. The subtitles falsely claim the Roman Catholic leader is letting viewers in on something he has been “keeping secret for a long time.”
The video inaccurately translates Francis as saying that we are “living in the end times,” that we are “living like Jesus Christ isn’t coming back,” and that in worshipping Francis, people will actually receive a message from the Antichrist known as the “Mark of the Beast.” An internet search reveals the clip actually comes from a 2014 video filmed on a smartphone by Anthony Palmer, a pastor who knew Francis personally and died later that year. English subtitles on multiple 2014 versions of the video indicate that Francis is actually saying Christians should come together as brothers. The original videos do not include any mention of the Mark of the Beast or a secret agenda.
“I am here with my Brother, my Bishop Brother, Tony Palmer,” read English subtitles for Francis on the original video Palmer posted on YouTube in 2014. “We’ve been friends for years.” Later in his remarks, Francis says, “We have a lot of cultural riches, and religious riches. And we have diverse traditions. But we have to encounter one another as Brothers.” He goes on to say, “I am speaking to you as a Brother,” adding, “I speak to you in a simple way. With joy and nostalgia (yearning). Let us allow our nostalgia (yearning) to grow. Because this will propel us to find each other, to embrace one another. And together to worship Jesus Christ as the only Lord of History.” News reports on the video from 2014 confirm that the pope’s message was one of Christian unity.
— Ali Swenson