A year after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world is trying to fight the new coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 with the most powerful tool made available by science: vaccines.
At the moment, four vaccines are widely being distributed in the majority of Western countries: the ones developed by the American companies Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer in partnership with the German company BioNTech; and the Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca.
Even though disinformation about this broad topic has been circulating across Europe for months, during the last couple of weeks confusion was exacerbated by the decision of several European countries to stop the distribution of AstraZeneca vaccines citing relevant health concerns. The move, taken out of precaution and quickly revoked, spread doubts about the actual safety of the Anglo-Swedish vaccine, in spite of repeated reassurances from the World health organization (Who) and the European medicines agency (Ema) about its effectiveness in preventing severe forms of Covid-19.
As it often happens in situations with such high stakes and potential global consequences, many news media used alarmist and sensationalist tones in covering the issue, paving the way for hoaxes and disinformation. With the help of the Soma network, Pagella Politica pieced together what did – and did not – happen as European countries temporarily suspended the use of AstraZeneca vaccines, and what official data say about its safety and side effects.
Among authorized Covid-19 vaccines, AstraZeneca currently offers the cheapest option and the best available one in terms of distribution requirements (together with the one developed by Johnson & Johnson).
The AstraZeneca vaccine was firstly approved by the United Kingdom on December 30, 2020, and – apart from Europe – it is today available in most South and Central America, South-East Asia, Canada, and Oceania. It was greenlighted by the European medicines agency (Ema) on January 29, 2021, and by the World health organization (Who) on February 15. It is currently authorized for emergency use or conditional marketing in more than 70 countries.
European countries halt distribution
On March 7, 2021, Austria suspended the distribution of a specific batch of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines after two alarming cases of side effects linked to blood clots – one of which resulting in death – were reported in two vaccinated women.
Four days later Denmark, Norway, and Iceland decided to put the full distribution of AstraZeneca vaccines on pause, and they were quickly followed by as many as 15 European countries including Italy, France (as highlighted by fact-checkers at Les Surligneurs, part of the Soma network), Spain, and Germany.
As doubts and diffidence started spreading among the general public, governments and health authorities reassured that the decision was taken out of precaution, in order to allow regulatory agencies to perform further tests and investigations on the potential side effects the vaccine could cause in terms of blood clots or thrombosis.
AstraZeneca is safe, again
On March 18, 2021, the European Medicines Agency announced the results of a «preliminary review of a signal of blood clots» in people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine, performed by its safety committee.
The Committee clearly stated that «the vaccine is not associated with an increase in the overall risk of blood clots» and that «the benefits of the vaccine in combating the still widespread threat of Covid-19 continue to outweigh the risk of side effects.» The same recommendation was delivered by the Who on March 17.
After these reassuring statements, most of the countries which had paused the AstraZeneca vaccination campaign decided to resume its mass distribution. More in detail: Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, and Sweden resumed full usage of AstraZeneca vaccines. Denmark and Norway decided to prolong the stop, while Austria and Romania had only blocked specific batches.
The spread of disinformation
The whole AstraZeneca clot scare lasted less than two weeks, but it was more than enough for conspiracy theorists to come up with several instances of disinformation about the quick succession of events. Unfortunately, this was often inflated by the irresponsible behavior of national media, which used alarmist headlines and exaggerated the actual incidence of side effects (to give an example, on March 12 the Italian newspaper La Repubblica opened its print edition with the headline: «AstraZeneca: Fear in Europe»).
In Spain, our colleagues from Globograma, a fact-checking project part of the Soma network, pointed us to a list of popular hoaxes about the AstraZeneca vaccine that circulate in the country, collected by the broadcast network Rtve. Fact-checkers at Globograma highlighted the common misconception linking the AstraZeneca vaccine with the formation of blood clots: as Rtve explained, at the moment there is no evidence that the vaccine directly causes thrombosis or other circulatory problems in patients.
A popular false news claimed, for instance, that a woman developed thrombosis and died in Marbella after receiving the Anglo-Swedish vaccine. While the chronological succession of events is correct, the results of the autopsy performed on her corpse found no evidence of connection between the blood clots and the vaccine.
Rtve also verified a popular tweet which claimed that a nurse died in Norway after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine. However, Norvegian authorities stated that «it has not been concluded that there is any link between the vaccine and the death.»
After having been debunked several times over the course of 2020, a false news stating that AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines contain fetal cells resurfaced in Spain. Rtve explained that the company did not use actual fetal cells, but clones of the original ones, a practice common in medical and biological research.
Both in Spain and in France, misleading news claimed that the Australian Health Minister Gregg Hunt was hospitalized as a consequence of having received the AstraZeneca vaccine. However, a media statement released by his Ministry clarified that «his condition is not considered to be related with the vaccine.»
In Germany, misleading information spread on social media comparing the risks of blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine and birth-control pills, claiming that a woman using the latter actually has more possibilities of developing thrombosis than a person who gets a shot of the Anglo-Swedish vaccine. Fact-checkers at Correctiv explained that the forms of thrombosis potentially caused by the vaccine and birth-control pills are very different from each other, and cannot be compared.
Italian fact-checkers at Facta debunked an article’s misleading headline which implicitly linked the death of an Austrian nurse with the fact that she had recently received the AstraZeneca vaccine. While the nurse actually passed away, there is no evidence that links the two factors.
Facta also verified a leaflet, part of an anti-vax propaganda campaign, according to which the AstraZeneca vaccine would contain «genetically modified embryonic cells.» As explained by the Vaccine knowledge project, managed by Oxford University, it is «unlikely that any human material remains in the final vaccine,» since the viruses used «are purified several times to remove the cell culture material.»
Pagella Politica verified a claim made by Giorgia Meloni, leader of the right-wing party Fratelli d’Italia, according to which Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to get vaccinated with AstraZeneca. What actually happened is that, during an interview published on February 24, Merkel said that she couldn’t receive the Anglo-Swedish shot because it was not recommended for use on people of her age (66). On March 4, Germany greenlighted AstraZeneca in people aged over 65.
Fact-checking colleagues and Soma members from DebunkEU also pointed us to instances of disinformation related with the AstraZeneca vaccine in Lithuania, often spread by the unreliable website Respublika.lt. On March 17, for example, the website published an article titled: «It is not just AstraZeneca that is doubted: Registration of all vaccines is conditional», thus claiming that all of the Covid-19 vaccines are still in the testing phase; and it repeatedly reported about a number of unfounded risks caused by the Anglo-Swedish vaccine.
The Polish government was attacked for deciding not to suspend the use of AstraZeneca vaccines, with conspiracy theorists accusing it of thus disregarding people’s health and safety.
On March 7, 2021, Austria halted the distribution of a specific batch of AstraZeneca vaccines after severe circulatory complications were reported in two people who received a shot. In about a week, at least 17 European countries – including France, Spain, Italy, and Germany – halted the use of the Anglo-Swedish vaccine.
The European medicines agency quickly conducted a special review of the potential correlation between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots, and on March 18 released a statement to reiterate that «the benefits of the vaccine in combating the still widespread threat of Covid-19 continue to outweigh the risk of side effects.» After this reassuring conclusion, most European countries resumed distribution.
Even in such a short timeframe, disinformation spread across Europe to discredit the safety and effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine, building on the often alarmist headlines published by legit media outlets.
In Spain, for example, an old false news resurfaced to claim that AstraZeneca used fetal cells in the production of its Covid-19 vaccine (an information that, while not completely unfounded, is certainly misleading), while an hoax circulated to link the short hospitalization of the Australian Health Minister, which really happened, with the fact that he received the AstraZeneca shot. In Lithuania, an unreliable website claimed that all the currently available Covid-19 vaccines are still in the testing phase. And so on.
These instances of disinformation, along with many others, worsened a situation which was already characterized by chaos and contradictory information coming from both official and unofficial sources simultaneously.
Pagella Politica, Facta, Globograma, Les Surligneurs, and DebunkEU contributed to this collaborative investigation.