Since the very first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, almost 100 different pharmaceutical companies have been working on a solution to immunize the world’s population against the new coronavirus Sars-CoV-2.
In just 11 months, two companies – BioNTech in partnership with the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and Moderna – were able to develop, test, and start to distribute vaccines that proved to be more than 90% effective. The first one was approved by the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States; while Moderna’s one is currently available in the United States and Canada, and it will likely be approved by the European Medicines Agency on January 6.
Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna vaccines were immediately drawn into the “infodemic,” the wave of disinformation that started spreading as fast and as extensively as the virus, creating fake narratives for example about miraculous cures and remedies, the perils posed by masks, the links between Covid-19 and the 5G technology, the role of Bill Gates as the great architect of it all, and so on.
The closer pharmaceutical companies got to finding effective vaccines, the more disinformation was spread about their potential dangers, raising doubts and fostering skepticism among the general public.
Pagella Politica and Facta conducted a collaborative investigation with members of the SOMA network in order to identify the most common examples of disinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines that traveled across Europe.
As a result, we were able to isolate four macro-categories of disinformation: vaccines haven’t been tested enough to guarantee their safety; people who took the vaccine are now dead; vaccines often result in severe adverse events; and vaccines can modify our DNA.
Before starting to analyze them, it’s important to take a step back and highlight two main elements that keep recurring and have often been exploited by conspiracy theorists to support their ideas: the accelerated pace of the vaccines’ development process, and the mRNA technology.
Record times and mRNA
The two Covid-19 vaccines that are currently available were developed in less than a year: a record-breaking speed for a process that, in the past, generally required up to 10 years of work. The acceleration was largely due to the unprecedented assets that governments and institutions made available to researchers, in the attempt to stop both a global pandemic and a dire economic crisis.
To give some figures, a teleconference organized by the European Union raised $8 billion to foster research, while the U.S. Congress allocated $10 billions to Operation Warp Speed, the national program aimed at developing and distributing Covid-19 vaccines.
Furthermore, according to the Italian Medicines Agency (Aifa), the process could count on ten times the workforce usually involved in similar operations. Last but not least, the regulatory agencies that are in charge or reviewing data and approving or dismissing a vaccine – such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or the European Medicines Agency – also speeded up their usual pace (without skipping steps though) in order to reach a verdict in shorter times.
Moving on to the methodology used to develop a solution against Covid-19, both the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines are not based on the traditional practice used until now – the injection of a weakened virus, or some of its parts, that can teach our immune system how to react to it – but employ instead the mRNA technology.
In simple terms, an mRNA vaccine injects into our bodies the instructions it needs to create antibodies against a virus (in this case, the Sars-Cov-2). The instructions will self-dissolve after a while, but they lead to the creation of special cells (called T-cells) that prepare our immune system to respond properly should it be exposed to the virus.
As explained by the Harvard Medical School, research about the possibility of developing vaccines based on mRNA have been going on for about 30 years, but the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna solutions against Covid-19 are the first vaccines based on this technology to ever be approved for large-scale use.
Vaccines based on mRNA are safer and cheaper to produce, also considering that they do not involve the need to actually produce or manipulate any virus, but “only” to synthesize mRNA sequences.
However, these two elements – the fact that the vaccines were developed and tested so quickly, and that they employ a different method rather than the traditional one – inflamed the debate and can often be read between the lines of false news.
Let’s see now the four macro-categories of disinformation we talked about.
False narrative #1: Vaccines haven’t been tested enough
A first popular narrative states that the vaccines that are currently available haven’t been tested properly, and thus we cannot know whether they are actually safe or not.
Initially, when it became clear that a vaccine would soon be approved and regulatory agencies acted faster and faster to reach that goal, some levels of doubt could be considered as legitimate, and a number of well-known scientists also tended to react with mistrust or diffidence to such an expedite process.
In Italy, for instance, during an interview on November 23 with the news channel SkyTG24, microbiologist Andrea Crisanti claimed that he would only get vaccinated when official data about the testing phases will be released, denouncing how we shouldn’t have to rely solely on the information made available by the companies in their own press releases.
A few days later, similar complaints were also supported by the French doctor Eric Caumes, Head of infectious diseases at La Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. Caumes then changed his mind, and on December 14 said he was ready to get vaccinated.
As the Italian fact-checking project Facta (a sister publication of Pagella Politica) explained, it’s common for pharmaceutical companies to only release complete data about their products months, or even years, after the conclusion of their tests. However, before being distributed among the general public vaccines must be approved by national or international agencies (such as the European Medicines Agency or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), whose boards have access and can review all the available data.
If, as we said, an initial skepticism can be legitimate and it was largely motivated by the unprecedented speed of the process (which however followed all the standard steps and testing requirements), a much more alarming set of plainly false news started spreading in parallel with more informed opinions.
SOMA members from the Institute for future media and communications at Dublin City University pointed out an article, published on the Irish newspaper TheJournal.ie, where fact-checkers verified a claim which suggested that regulators «in other countries» were not going sign off on a Covid-19 vaccine due to incomplete testing data. This is false: at the moment the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and others have already approved either one or both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
Similarly, SOMA members from eVai Intelligence highlighted a hoax which circulated in Germany claiming that Swiss authorities would not approve the use of vaccines against Covid-19, defining them as «too dangerous and unpredictable.» Fact-checkers at Correctiv debunked this claim, stating that during a press conference held on December 1, representatives of Swissmedic – the Swiss surveillance authority for medicines and medical devices – said that they were actually planning to wait for more data before making a final decision, but never used those words to describe the vaccines. Swissmedic approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on December 19.
Lithuanian researchers at Debunk.eu also pointed us to an article published on the website Sarmatai that claimed: «A vaccine against Covid-19 must be tested for at least five years for it to be safe and effective. Now it hasn’t even been a year, and Lithuania is already buying doses… isn’t this crazy?». The article goes on listing a series of conspiracies about the vaccine, and it also refers to people who want to get vaccinated as «laboratory rabbits.»
However, even though the Covid-19 vaccines that are currently available have been developed in a fraction of the time usually needed for the process, researchers still followed all the standard procedures and ran every test required to guarantee their safety and efficiency, according to European health authorities.
Furthermore, during the past year several companies have been working simultaneously on different vaccines that could fight the same virus, and they received unprecedented financial support from governments and private donors. All of these factors contributed to speeding up procedures and reaching a solution faster than ever before.
False narrative #2: People who took the vaccine are now dead
Another popular fake narrative about vaccines claims that people who have already been vaccinated, such as those who participated in the testing phases or doctors and healthcare workers, died shortly afterwards receiving the first dose.
In October, for instance, several news articles claimed that a Brazilian volunteer who was participating in the AstraZeneca trials – another company that is currently testing a vaccine but hasn’t filed for approval yet – died during the process.
The information circulated, among other countries, in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and the United States, but local and international newspapers clarified that the volunteer was part of the control group, and thus he hadn’t been administered the vaccine but only a placebo. The actual cause of death was Covid-19.
In December, Italian fact-checkers dealt with a Facebook post which stated that six people died during the Pfizer-BioNTech trials, and implicitly linked their demise to the vaccine they had received. As Facta explained, four of these people were in the control group, and the two who actually got vaccinated died of causes that are independent from the testing procedures (in those cases, a heart attack and arteriosclerosis).
Another false news claimed that a Tennessee nurse called Tiffany Dover died after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The news circulated in Italy, France, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries. As we can see in this video, Tiffany Dover fainted during the press conference that followed the delivery of the first doses, but the hospital where she works claimed that she quickly recovered and is now «doing well.»
Researching this broad topic, we also found several examples of disinformation related with other vaccines which had been approved and were largely used even before the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, fact-checkers at the Ireland newspaper TheJournal.ie debunked a false news according to which two people living in an elderly care home died within 48 hours of receiving a flu vaccine. There is no official record or evidence for this.
False narrative #3: Vaccines often have severe side effects
The third category of false information about the alleged risks posed by Covid-19 vaccines is related to a number of severe side effects that they can cause, most of which have been invented or largely exaggerated.
It’s important to clarify that vaccines can actually have mild side effects, but most of them disappear in a couple of days. According to Aifa, about 1 in 10 people who were vaccinated against Covid-19 suffered from headaches, fatigue, muscle soreness or joint pain, or fever. All of these symptoms, though, didn’t last long and didn’t lead to further complications.
There were also a few instances of more alarming consequences. In the United Kingdom, two healthcare workers had severe allergic reactions after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. In Alaska, a healthcare worker experienced an anaphylactic reaction soon after receiving the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, while another «developed eye puffiness, lightheadedness and a scratchy throat.» All of them have recovered after receiving medical treatment.
Of course, these rare events need to be framed within the general picture, taking into account the fact that thousands of people are being vaccinated every day without experiencing any sort of remarkable problems.
Nonetheless, and on the basis of these episodes (frequent mild reactions, and very few cases of more severe consequences), conspiracy theorists created a wide set of false stories about the negative effects of Covid-19 vaccines. Sometimes disinformation sparked from real events which were exaggerated or taken out of their context, while in other instances it just presented data and theories that are not supported by any kind of reliable evidence.
A common hoax that traveled around Europe claims that the vaccine often causes female infertility. In Italy, fact-checkers at Facta debunked this information in mid-December, when it became popular through an online petition which urged to stop the trials of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine because, among other factors, it would supposedly prevent the «development of a placenta in mammals and humans.» It is worth noting that the campaign was launched by Wolfgang Wogard, a doctor and politician affiliated with the German party Spd, and Michael Yeadon, a former Pfizer employee well-known among British conspiracy theorists.
As we already mentioned, mild side effects can happen both with the Pfixer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna’s one, but severe episodes are quite rare, and for sure do not account for 21% of the people who were vaccinated.
More in detail, Moderna’s studies claim that the frequency of serious adverse events during trials was about 1%, while Pfizer-BioNTech stated that severe adverse events occurred in less than 0.5% of patients.
False narrative #4: The Covid-19 vaccine can modify human DNA
Another popular narrative among conspiracy theorists claims that the vaccines developed against Covid-19 with the mRNA technology can modify our DNA. This has often been associated with the fact that the vaccine will actually implant a microchip in our bodies, in order to «control» the general population.
Of course, both of these theories are completely unfounded and are not supported by any kind of scientific evidence. As we mentioned, the mRNA technology adopted for developing both the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, in facts, injects molecules that “teach” our immune system how to react to the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2, but they self-degrade after a while, without leaving any trace in the body.
Collaboration with the SOMA network allowed us to isolate false news about these specific topics in a number of different countries.
In Ireland, fact-checkers at TheJournal.ie debunked a twitter post stating that «any vaccine that needs to be shipped and stored at -80 degrees [Celsius] isn’t a vaccine. It’s a transfection agent, kept alive so it can infect your cells and transfer genetic material.» As TheJournal.ie explained, «RNA vaccines are kept at extremely low temperatures to slow down the chemical reactions that break apart RNA. The cold temperature storage has nothing to do with it being “alive”, and does not change the fact that a vaccine is still a vaccine.»
In Spain, a popular video claimed that the vaccine was going to inject in our bodies a biosensor called «luciferasa» which will immediately start collecting information about our vital functions. Luciferase is an actual enzyme that produces bioluminescence, it’s harmless for the organism and it’s used to visually confirm if Covid-19 antibodies are being formed after the vaccine’s injection.
In Germany, a false news stated that «big pharma and Microsoft», the company founded by Bill Gates, are part of an alliance which aims to implant microchips in our bodies through these new vaccines. This thesis became extremely popular and circulated in several countries – such as Italy, the United Kingdom, and France – but it was obviously debunked: nobody will be injected with a microchip without his or her knowledge.
Most of the times these ideas have been spread through social media or unreliable websites, but in some cases they have also received support from public figures.
Last August, for instance, the Italian independent MP Sara Cunial claimed that the vaccines developed by AstraZeneca, Moderna and ReiThera perform a «genetic therapy» and thus they «modify DNA.» In France, similar claims were supported by Christian Perronne, head of the infectious diseases department at Garches hospital (Île-de-France) who also took part in Hold-Up, a documentary filled with all kinds of conspiracy theories about the pandemic.
Sometimes the presence of alleged microchips in the vaccines is associated with Bill Gates, a long-time target of disinformation about Covid-19. SOMA colleagues from the Belgian project Fact-check Vlandeeren focused on this, debunking a claim according to which the billionaire would have stated that vaccines will «modify our DNA forever» during an interview.
Other false narratives
Other popular false news claimed that national governments have already made the vaccine compulsory in their respective countries, or decided to discriminate against people who don’t want to get it.
Even though at the moment the vaccine is not compulsory anywhere, it’s safe to say that the idea has found some kind of support in different countries. In Italy, for instance, the Undersecretary of State for the Health ministry Sandra Zampa said to be in favour of making the vaccine compulsory for healthcare workers.
Furthermore, according to the Italian Deputy health minister Pierpaolo Sileri, if in a year’s time only a low percentage of the population will have taken the vaccine, «some form of compulsoriness will be needed.» A similar thesis was also supported by Spanish authorities.
In France, a draft law hinted at the possibility of denying access to public transports or other venues to people who cannot present a negative Covid-19 test or who are not following a preventive treatment against it, such as a vaccine. However, discussion about the bill was postponed, and the French Health minister stated that the vaccine won’t be compulsory in the country.
So, while some political representatives actually expressed individual support to the idea of making the vaccine compulsory in some way, we also found many unreliable websites or social media posts which claimed that governments had already imposed a sort of national vaccination mandate, or were about to do that.
In Spain, for instance, the broadcast network Rtve debunked a fake form which citizens could send to the Health Ministry in order to avoid getting vaccinated, thus implying that it was already compulsory to do so.
In Germany, a Telegram message claimed that, on November 18, the Bundestag was going to change a law and thus impose compulsory vaccination against Covid-19. Deutsche Welle fact-checked the message, clarifying that the quoted law is actually related to health measures adopted to contain the pandemic, but it never mentions vaccines.
In Lithuania, an article suggested that people who decide not to get vaccinated will eventually be treated as «Jews during World War II», who were forced to show the star of David on their clothes in order to be recognized.
Another popular false news stated that the first vaccination was performed in the United Kingdom as early as on October 22 (instead of December 8). This claim circulated in Italy, Germany, and Spain, and it was usually based on a screenshot of a CNN article, published on October 22, which featured on top of the page a video of Margaret Keenan, the first woman to get the vaccine in early December. However, the video is not related to the article: it didn’t imply that the vaccination took place on October 22, and it was only placed in the page to present readers with a different, more updated content that they could click on after reading the October article.
Since the very first months of the Covid-19 pandemic vaccines have largely been considered as the one element that could allow us to slowly go back to life as we used to know it.
Encouraged by this perspective – and the urge to put an end to a global economic crisis – governments, international institutions, and private donors have invested billions in an attempt to produce and deliver a safe vaccine as soon as possible.
As researchers got closer to a final solution, though, disinformation about this complex topic also started spreading more and more intensely. Pagella Politica and Facta conducted a collaborative investigation with members of the SOMA network from all over Europe in order to individuate the most common examples of disinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines that have been circulating in Europe during the last couple of months.
The analysis led to four macro categories of disinformation: vaccines haven’t been tested enough to confirm their safety; people who took the vaccine died shortly afterwards; they often cause severe side effects; and can somehow control or change our DNA.
As we saw, all of these narratives are often based on fragments of truth: the record-breaking speed at which vaccines were developed and approved, which followed all the standard steps but nevertheless raised some doubts even among reliable scientists; the deaths of people who were involved in vaccines’ trials (even though for causes that were independent from it); the rare adverse reactions that followed the first vaccinations around the world; or the use of a new technology based on mRNA.
On these true premises, conspiracy theorists then built plainly false news, which can lead to alarming consequences for people who fall into the trap of disinformation.
Despite the constant efforts of fact-checkers and reliable media networks to debunk them, false news about Covid-19 and vaccines keep circulating across several European countries.
Pagella Politica, Facta, Globograma, Institute for future media and communications at DCU, eVAI Intelligence, Debunk.eu, Stephanie Winkler, Les Surligneurs, and Factcheck Vlaanderen contributed to this investigation.