Scott Morrison – Scott Morrison posted pictures of his COVID-19 vaccination on Facebook. And then the anti-vaccine commenters appeared
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With Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout finally under way, misinformation and conspiracy theories abound on social media, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Facebook page has not been immune. This week, we’ve fact checked some claims published within the comment sections of Mr Morrison’s posts.
We’ve also looked at a claim made by US President Joe Biden, who compared COVID-19 deaths to those sustained in war, and check a statement from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on so-called “welfare dependency”.
Fact checking the comments on Scott Morrison’s vaccine Facebook posts
Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week became one of the first people in Australia to be vaccinated against COVID-19, receiving the jab on Sunday alongside a small group that included healthcare workers, hotel quarantine workers and an 84-year-old World War II survivor.
Taking to Facebook to share the news, Mr Morrison said he and Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly had received the shot in order to “give further confidence to Australians these vaccines are safe and effective”.
But while Australian media outlets, including fact checkers, were blocked from posting to Facebook at the time of Mr Morrison’s posts, hundreds of the platform’s users were able to flood the comments section of many posts on Mr
Morrison’s page with unfounded conspiracy theories and misinformation about the jab.
We’ve fact checked some of the most egregious claims — all of which are publicly visible on the Prime Minister’s page.
Getting stuck in
The most common allegation shared on Mr Morrison’s posts was that the orange tip of the hypodermic needle seen directed towards the Prime Minister’s arm was a “cap” preventing Mr Morrison from being given the vaccine.
“If you look a bit closer you can see the orange cap is still on,” one commenter said.
Others, meanwhile, claimed the wrong needle entirely was used for the vaccination.
“Any nurse or doctor immediately knows this is faked, as the wrong needle gauge was used,” one woman wrote. “It should have been a blue IM [intramuscular] needle, not an orange subcutaneous needle.”
Catherine Bennett, the chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, told Fact Check the orange section of the needle was not a cap, but rather “the hub that holds the needle”.
She added that contrary to the assertions on Facebook, the needle used on Mr Morrison would have been an intramuscular needle, and that the “low dead space” needles used for the Pfizer vaccine did not follow the same colour coding as suggested by the commenter.
Professor Bennett pointed Fact Check to a website selling intramuscular needles with orange hubs in the size necessary for administering a COVID-19 vaccine.
The ‘survival rate’ of COVID-19
A common argument waged by people when urging the lifting of restrictions during periods of lockdown — the supposedly high “survival rate” of people infected with COVID-19 — was referenced by commenters on Mr Morrison’s posts as justification for refusing the vaccine.
“Totally unnecessary for a virus with a 98 per cent recovery rate,” one Facebook user wrote, while another suggested the survival rate was as high as 99 per cent.
According to the Coronavirus Resource Center at the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University, the “observed case-fatality ratio” — that is, the number of deaths per confirmed cases — is currently just over 2 per cent globally.
As the university points out, the case-fatality ratio can differ across countries, in part, due to differences in the number of people tested, the demographic of the population and variances in healthcare systems.
In Mexico, a country hit hard by the pandemic, the observed case-fatality ratio is as high as 8.8 per cent, while in the US and the UK that number is 1.8 per cent and 2.9 per cent respectively.
Australia’s observed case-fatality ratio is just above 3 per cent.
While these figures are not far off from the claims made on Facebook, they fail to paint a full picture of the harm caused by COVID-19.
Professor Bennett told Fact Check that an Australian study had found that up to 20 per cent of COVID-19 patients still suffered symptoms months after contracting the virus, and that overseas studies had returned similar findings.
According to Professor Bennett, allowing the coronavirus to spread freely could also have devastating effects if the health system became overwhelmed.
“That would not only increase the [COVID-19] fatality rate as not everyone can then get optimum care, it also impacts health service access, including intensive care, for all indications,” she explained.
“So, more people die or suffer serious consequences from illnesses when health staff, hospital beds or drug supplies are impacted.”
Nothing untoward in ongoing vaccine trials
“The trials don’t end until 2023,” one woman wrote. “No one knows until after then if these [vaccines] are indeed ‘safe’.”
According to fact checkers at Reuters, while it is correct that the vaccines have been given “estimated study completion” dates into the next few years, the Facebook claims lack some important context, in that it is standard practice for safety monitoring to continue after a vaccine has been approved for use.
No, the vaccine does not alter your DNA
Another popular claim repeated in Mr Morrison’s comment section is the assertion that the COVID-19 vaccine can alter a person’s DNA.
“Which means you are coercing ppl to have an RNA (DNA changing) experiment!,” reads one comment.
As the fact checkers explained, the vaccine works by “giving the body instructions to produce a protein which is present on the surface of the coronavirus”.
“The immune system then learns to recognise and produce antibodies against the protein.”
Speaking to Reality Check, Jeffrey Almond, a visiting professor of microbiology at the University of Oxford, said that injecting RNA into a person did not “do anything to the DNA of a human cell”.
The fact checkers said that was a view shared by two other independent scientists.
Fact checkers at Snopes, Reuters, AFP Fact Check, Full Fact and PolitiFact all reached the same verdict.
Norwegian deaths not what they seem
Included in the comments left on Mr Morrison’s posts were allusions to 23 Norwegian people who supposedly died after receiving a COVID-19 jab.
“Tell us about the 23 Norwegian people that died within 24 hours of being vaccinated,” one man said.
These comments appear to be referring to news stories published in January which reported that there had been 23 deaths among elderly people who had received a COVID-19 vaccine in Norway.
But there’s no indication that those deaths were caused by the vaccine.
According to the latest in a series of weekly reports published by the Norwegian Medicines Agency, as of February 16 the number of deaths of elderly people reported in the two weeks following COVID-19 vaccinations had grown to 93, with most of the deceased residents of nursing homes.
“Many people in this patient group who have so far been vaccinated are very frail or terminally ill patients,” the report states.
“At this time of year, an average of around 50 people die every day in the age group 85 years or older, and around 35 people every day in the age group 75-85.
“It is therefore to be expected that deaths will occur soon after vaccination, without there necessarily being any causal link to the vaccine.”
In its report, the agency further explains that many of the reports of deaths state that “no link with vaccination is suspected” but that the report had been filed “for the sake of completeness”.
“These reports do not currently constitute a signal of an adverse reaction and do not provide a basis for revising the product information for the vaccines,” the agency concludes.
From Washington, D.C.
Mr Biden, the Post said, had made a similar claim in his inaugural address when he stated the 400,000 US lives lost to COVID-19 to that point were equal to the number of lives “America lost in all of World War II”.
That claim, which had included deaths in battle during World War II, as well as other deaths in service other than in theatre, checked out.
However, another measure — looking only at lives lost in battle during those wars — gives a figure of about 392,000 deaths, aligning with Mr Biden‘s claim.
“Indeed, if Biden was using only battlefield deaths, he actually could have said more people died of COVID-19 than in combat during all of America’s wars against foreign enemies,” the fact checkers said.
“That’s because fewer than 500,000 died in battle if you add up every war from the Revolutionary War to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. (We’re obviously not counting the Civil War.)”
In other news: Josh Frydenberg says welfare dependency was at a 30-year low heading into the pandemic. Is that correct?
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg recently pointed to the Government’s pre-pandemic success in cutting the unemployment rate, claiming this had led to the lowest welfare dependency for three decades.
“And let’s not forget that going into this crisis, we saw welfare dependency at a 30-year low because we’d got that unemployment rate down,” Mr Frydenberg told ABC’s Insiders program.
Fact Check this week found that while, yes, the data does put welfare dependency at a 30-year low, there’s more to the story than Mr Frydenberg’s claim suggests.
In June 2019, one measure of “welfare dependency”, the proportion of the working-age population being paid a major welfare benefit, was at its lowest rate — 14 per cent — since the early 1990s.
Another measure, the proportion of households getting at least half of their income in the form of government benefits, was also at a record low before the pandemic, at 22.5 per cent.
However, experts consulted by Fact Check noted that lower levels of unemployment had not been the only reason for this shift.
Government policy changes, including the introduction of tougher eligibility rules and obligations tied to some payments, the abolition of certain payments and declining payment rates relative to wages, had also played an important role.
Moreover, in the years leading up to 2020, there had been a significant increase in the number of working-age people not entitled to social security.
This growing cohort included international students, working holiday visa holders and skilled migrants, and an unknown number of New Zealanders whose social security rights were curtailed from the early 2000s.
It also included recently arrived permanent residents, who now face a four-year wait before they can receive government benefits.
Although difficult to quantify precisely, this increase has had the effect of lowering welfare dependency relative to the labour market.
Edited by Ellen McCutchan