Rumor control: Watch out for these fake stories on COVID-19, vote counting

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NOT CRISIS ACTORS: In this Tuesday Dec. 8, 2020 file photo, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan, the first patient in the U.K. to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, receives an injection by nurse May Parsons at University Hospital, Coventry, England. On Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly asserting the first two recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine in Britain are “crisis actors.” Parsons first administered the vaccine to Keenan, then to “Bill” William Shakespeare. (Jacob King/Pool via AP)

Here’s a look at some of the fake news surrounding COVID-19 and claims of voter fraud this week:

No evidence that COVID-19 vaccine results in sterilization

CLAIM: The head of research at Pfizer says the COVID-19 vaccine causes female sterilization because it contains a spike protein known as syncytin-1.

THE FACTS: The Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine does not contain the protein syncytin-1, which is important for the creation of placenta. The head of research at Pfizer made no such claim.

Social media users are sharing a screenshot from an article titled “Head of Pfizer Research: Covid Vaccine is Female Sterilization” to claim the vaccine results in sterilization of women. Information in the article, carried by the blog “Health and Money News,” is attributed to Michael Yeadon, a retired British doctor who left Pfizer nine years ago.

The article says “the vaccine contains a spike protein called syncytin-1, vital for the formation of human placenta in women.” It goes on to say “the vaccine works so that we form an immune response AGAINST the spike protein, we are also training the female body to attack syncytin-1, which could lead to infertility in women of an unspecified duration.”

Posts carrying the false information shared a petition filed by Yeadon and Wolfgang Wodarg, a German physician, to the European Medicines Agency that demanded that clinical trials of the Pfizer vaccine be stopped in the European Union until more safety and efficacy data can be provided. In the petition, the two acknowledge that there is no indication “whether antibodies against spike proteins of SARS viruses would also act like anti-Syncytin-1 antibodies.” But they go on to say “if this were to be the case this would then also prevent the formation of a placenta which would result in vaccinated women essentially becoming infertile,” the petition says.

Yeadon said he is not saying there is a guaranteed problem between the vaccine and fertility, but asked if the vaccine makers would be sure there would not be a problem.

Pfizer spokeswoman Jerica Pitts confirmed to The Associated Press that their vaccine candidate has not been found to cause infertility. “It has been incorrectly suggested that COVID-19 vaccines will cause infertility because of a shared amino acid sequence in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 and a placental protein,” she said in an email. “The sequence, however, is too short to plausibly give rise to autoimmunity.”

Experts also say there is no evidence that the Pfizer vaccine would result in sterilization of women. Rebecca Dutch, chair of University of Kentucky’s department of molecular and cellular biochemistry, said in an email that while syncytin-1 and the spike protein broadly share some features, they are quite different in the details that antibodies recognize. Aside from the fact that COVID-19’s spike protein and syncytin-1 are viral fusion proteins that cause membrane fusion, they are not related at all, Dutch said. Additionally, the vaccine being developed by Moderna, like the one being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, relies on messenger mRNA, which tells the body how to make the spike protein and trains the immune system to identify the real virus. They do not contain syncytin-1.

No evidence ivermectin is a miracle drug against COVID-19

CLAIM: The antiparasitic drug ivermectin “has a miraculous effectiveness that obliterates” the transmission of COVID-19 and will prevent people from getting sick.

THE FACTS: During a Senate hearing Tuesday, a group of doctors touted alternative COVID-19 treatments, including ivermectin and the anti-malaria medication hydroxychloroquine. Medical experts have cautioned against using either of those drugs to treat COVID-19. Studies have shown that hydroxychloroquine has no benefit against the coronavirus and can have serious side effects.

There is no evidence ivermectin has been proven a safe or effective treatment against COVID-19. Yet Dr. Pierre Kory, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Aurora St Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, described ivermectin as a “wonder drug” with immensely powerful antiviral and anti-inflammatory agents at the hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Clips of Kory’s comments on ivermectin during the hearing were shared widely on social media with one clip receiving more than 1 million views on YouTube.

Ivermectin is approved in the U.S. in tablet form to treat parasitic worms as well as a topical solution to treat external parasites. The drug is also available for animals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health have said that the drug is not approved for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19.

According to the FDA, side effects for the drug include skin rash, nausea and vomiting.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University, said most of the research around ivermectin at the moment is made up of anecdotes and studies that are not the gold standard in terms of how to use ivermectin.

“We need to get much more data before we can say this is a definitive treatment,” he said. “We would like to see more data before I recommend it to my patients.” Kory told the AP that he stands by the comments he made at the hearing, saying that he was not trying to promote the drug but the data around it.

In June, Australian researchers published the findings of a study that found ivermectin inhibited the replication of SARS-CoV-2 in a laboratory setting, which is not the same as testing the drug on humans or animals. Following the study, the FDA released a letter out of concern warning consumers not to self-medicate with ivermectin products intended for animals.

“It is a far cry from an in vitro lab replication to helping humans,” said Dr. Nasia Safdar, medical director of infection prevention at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hospital. The discussion about the drug in the Senate hearing has some experts worried that Americans will start buying up ivermectin out of desperation.

Despite a majority of evidence showing hydroxychloroquine is not an effective COVID-19 treatment, there was a rush on that drug earlier this year after President Donald Trump called it a cure. That depleted supply for those who needed the medication to treat lupus and other conditions. “If there is one thing we have learned in the pandemic is that we cannot jump the gun as far as determining or making assumptions about the effectiveness of potential agents,” Safdar said.

First to get COVID-19 vaccine in UK were not ‘crisis actors’

CLAIM: The first two recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine in Britain are “crisis actors.” The image of the first person who was vaccinated on Dec. 8 was published in October, long before the vaccine was approved. The same nurse was photographed administering the vaccine to two people, in two locations 20 miles apart.

THE FACTS: After Margaret Keenan, 90, and William ‘Bill’ Shakespeare, 81, became the first two people to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech shot outside of a clinical trial, multiple false posts surfaced on social media suggesting that they were hired actors. Britain was the first country in the world to deliver the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to the general public.

At University Hospital Coventry on Dec. 8, nurse May Parsons first administered the vaccine to Keenan, and then to Shakespeare. One Twitter post falsely claimed that an image of Keenan being vaccinated first appeared on CNN in October: “Excuse me, but how is the exact same person who’s the ‘first to get vaccinated’ today…also in a CNN photo wearing the exact same clothes, in the exact same chair, and getting a shot back in October? Which one of these lying stories did you want us to pretend is true?” the post had over 6,000 retweets.

The post compares two screenshots. One shows a BBC story dated Dec. 8 featuring an image of Keenan receiving the vaccine. The second screenshot shows an Oct. 22 CNN article about COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. The CNN article includes an image from a video that shows Keenan receiving her shot. But that is because when viewing some articles on CNN.com, a video player automatically plays the latest news reports related to the topic. CNN readers who navigated to the October article this week were shown the recent video from the Dec. 8 vaccination on the same page.

Another post falsely claims that the nurse shown vaccinating Keenan and Shakespeare is not a real nurse because she was photographed in two different hospitals. “Busy nurse today working in Coventry and Stratford Upon Avon at the same time,” read the post, which featured photos of Keenan and Shakespeare being vaccinated by the same woman. “Crisis actors. I’m really hoping people start to wake up because we are headed into a fight for our lives…” wrote one Facebook user who shared the post. In reality, Parsons vaccinated both Keenan and Shakespeare at University Hospital Coventry. It appears social media users misconstrued news reports noting that the hospital is 20 miles away from Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of dramatist and poet William Shakespeare.

Posts falsely claim COVID-19 virus has not yet been isolated

CLAIM: Scientists have not isolated the COVID-19 virus, so a vaccine is not possible.

THE FACTS: The virus was first isolated by Chinese authorities on Jan. 7, according to the World Health Organization. A virus is isolated when a specimen is collected from an infected patient to be grown and studied. Virus isolation is critical for diagnosis of diseases and in the development of vaccines.

Following news that test results showed COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna to be more than 90 percent effective, Facebook and Instagram users began sharing a post suggesting that the COVID-19 virus was never isolated, making it impossible to create a vaccine. The posts say, “if no one has isolated the virus then what’s in the vaccine??” over a photo that appears to show a doctor holding a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to WHO officials, its office in China was first informed about the virus in December of 2019. The virus was then isolated on Jan. 7 by Chinese authorities. China later shared the genetic sequence of the virus on Jan. 11. The genetic sequence has allowed for diagnostic and vaccine development, said Glenn Randall, a professor in the department of microbiology at the University of Chicago. “The CDC isolated the virus from the first known infected US patient Jan. 20,” Randall said in an email. “It then was grown and distributed to qualified research laboratories.”

Dominion machines didn’t ‘flip’ votes in Ware County, Georgia

CLAIM: Forensic tests completed on Dominion Voting Systems equipment show that dozens of votes cast for President Donald Trump in Ware County, Georgia, were “switched” or “flipped” to count for Joe Biden, who has been declared the winner in the presidential election.

THE FACTS: Social media users are misrepresenting a minor error in Ware County’s initial vote tally as evidence of election fraud, even as local elections officials confirm nothing is awry. An election worker made a small tabulation error on election night involving 37 votes out of about 14,000 cast for president, according to Ware County Elections Supervisor Carlos Nelson. Election officials caught the error during an internal audit and corrected it during a full hand recount of paper ballots, Nelson said.

A machine recount requested by Trump resulted in the same numbers as the hand recount, giving officials confidence in those results. There was never an issue with the Dominion technology used for vote tabulation, Nelson said. And the 37-vote shift did not influence the election results in Ware County, where Trump won with about 70% of votes.

“There was no vote flipping,” Nelson told the AP. “The system worked like it should.”

However, the advocacy group Voter GA misrepresented that reality in a Dec. 3 press release, saying it had “confirmed the Dominion Democracy Suite 5.5 system” caused 37 votes to be “swapped” from Trump to Biden in Ware County. Over the weekend, other social media users and conservative websites picked up on the false theory that a Dominion algorithm switched votes to Biden in Ware County. Jody Hice, a Republican congressman from Georgia, also spread the false information, tweeting that a “forensics examination” in Ware County found votes were switched.

“This is one machine in one county in one state,” read the tweet shared more than 17,000 times. “Did this happen elsewhere? We need to know! EXAMINE ALL THE MACHINES!” In fact, a forensic audit completed on a random sample of Dominion machines in Georgia found “no signs of cyber attacks or election hacking,” according to the Georgia secretary of state’s office.

Voting machines that Ware County used during the 2020 election are secured in storage, according to Nelson, and couldn’t have been accessed for the so-called “forensic examination” social media users have referenced. A statement released by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, a federal agency that oversees U.S. election security, says there’s no truth to claims that any voting system “deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised” in the 2020 election.

Dominion also denies claims that it somehow used an algorithm to manipulate votes, saying the company’s systems do not support “fractional” or weighted voting, and that it “is technologically impossible to ‘see’ votes being counted in real-time and/or to ‘flip’ them.” Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office, called Hice’s post “flat out disinformation.” “Ware County has accounted for all its equipment,” he said in a tweet. “There are no vote flipping machines.”

A spokesperson for Hice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

School bus in Arizona held surplus office equipment, not voting machines

CLAIM: Photos show an abandoned school bus full of voting machines discovered in Buckeye, Arizona.

THE FACTS: The bus was full of office equipment purchased at a surplus sale, not voting machines, according to an investigation by the Buckeye Police Department and the Arizona attorney general’s office. It was not abandoned; the driver of the bus was in the vehicle, according to an employee at the gas station where the photos were taken.

On Dec. 3, an employee at a gas station off State Route 85 in the Phoenix suburb of Buckeye called the police about a suspicious-looking school bus full of large machinery parked on the property. The Buckeye Police Department arrived within 15 minutes, quickly determining that the bus contained printers bought at a surplus sale.

“The guy was legitimate,” an employee at the gas station confirmed in an interview with The Associated Press. “It was just printers and blank paper.” However, a passerby who came across officials investigating the bus didn’t get that memo. Instead, he took pictures of the bus and the equipment inside, posting the images on social media with false claims the bus was abandoned and harboring voting equipment.

“This morning I stopped at the shell market on Buckeye road just east of hwy 85 for coffee!” the post read. “The place was crawling with police and investigators! Turns out the bus broke down in the early hours of the morning. No driver around but the police were called for suspicious vehicle. Turns out to have 2006 nevada plates. They opened the back doors and the bus is completely packed with voter machines! WTF!!!” His post and several others containing the same photos quickly gained traction on Facebook, together amassing more than 10,000 shares over the weekend. Some social media users went even further with their claims, saying the bus held “missing AZ voter machines” and suggesting the photos be shared with Trump’s legal team.

The spread of misinformation prompted the Buckeye Police Department to publish a statement confirming the facts of the investigation.

“Both the Buckeye Police Department and an investigator from the Attorney General’s office responded to this ‘suspicious bus,’ the statement read. “It was determined the bus was full of office equipment purchased at a surplus sale, complete with invoices and receipts. The information in the original post is inaccurate. Thank you, as always, for your support.” A spokesperson with the department told the AP that the equipment was purchased at a surplus sale out of Yuma County, Arizona. In response to inquiries about some of the bus windows being “blacked out,” the spokesperson said that covering windows is “not uncommon for people who buy old school buses and convert them for other uses.”

Photo shows poll worker in Pennsylvania, not Georgia state senator

CLAIM: Image captures Democratic state Sen. Elena Parent of Atlanta counting votes.

THE FACTS: This week, social media users shared a screenshot from a video of a woman counting ballots at the Allegheny County elections warehouse on Nov. 7 and wrongly identified the poll worker as Parent.

The posts came on the heels of a hearing last week, where Parent, a member of the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee, countered claims of voting fraud in Georgia. The image of the poll worker was shared on Facebook and Twitter, with posts erroneously questioning why the state senator would be involved in vote counting.

“State Senator Elena Parent of Georgia is seen here counting ballots in Pa? Not sure that’s lawful Senator…” wrote a user on Facebook on Dec. 6. The Facebook user posted footage of the poll worker alongside a photo of Parent at the state Senate hearing to suggest they were the same person. The post had over 3,000 shares.

“Elena Parent, Democratic Senator, why are you opening ballots and in counting rooms? I didn’t know a senators job description was to work in election counting rooms?” wrote another Twitter user on Dec. 5.

Parent told the AP she was targeted on social media due to her role in the hearing.

“These discredited claims are being made because I told the truth to Trump’s legal team during the election hearing: No ‘evidence’ was being presented to Georgia State Senators that was new and there is no evidence of widespread fraud in Georgia’s November election,” Parent told the AP in an email. “The allegations are false. I am not depicted in the video or stills,” Parent explained. “I have not been to Pennsylvania anytime in 2020 and I have never counted ballots in a state or local election.”

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