CoronaCheck is RMIT ABC Fact Check’s weekly email newsletter dedicated to fighting the misinformation infodemic surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.
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In this week’s CoronaCheck, we investigate a slew of misinformation that has spread following the Federal Government’s announcement that Australia would be receiving 1 million doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from Poland.
We also look into a claim that a breastfeeding infant died after his mother was vaccinated, and get to the bottom of a suggestion from Senator Matthew Canavan that the UN wants to limit red meat consumption to 14 grams per day.
Misinformation rife as Pfizer doses arrive from Poland
The Federal Government this week announced it had secured an additional 1 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine from Poland after the European country’s vaccination rate slowed and its government announced plans to resell its surplus of vaccines.
At a news conference on Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the rollout of the additional Pfizer doses would prioritise young people living in parts of Greater Sydney most affected by the NSW COVID-19 outbreak, with remaining doses to be distributed across other states and territories on a per-capita basis.
Online, however, the announcement was met with a deluge of misinformation as people questioned the quality of the incoming vaccines.
According to one Facebook user, the vaccines were “close to use-by” while another person took to Twitter to characterise the doses as “out-of-date Polish vaccines that have fallen off the back of a truck”.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) told Fact Check the vaccines arriving from Poland had been manufactured in Belgium and had an expiry date of November 30, 2021.
“The TGA has completed the standard batch release process for these doses,” the spokesman said.
“The TGA can confirm the doses are the same in identity, composition, strength and purity as the doses purchased through Pfizer Australia.”
Meanwhile, a post from a popular Facebook page, Victorians for satirical memes, linked the announcement of the additional vaccines to a BBC article on counterfeit Pfizer doses found in Poland.
According to the BBC story, which was published in April, no one in Poland was administered the fake vaccines, which were seized by authorities at a man’s apartment.
“Poland’s health minister … stressed that the risk of counterfeit doses appearing in official circulation was ‘practically non-existent’,” the BBC reported.
Adding to speculation around the quality of the vaccines, some Facebook users questioned why Poland would offload jabs when less than 50 per cent of its own population was fully vaccinated.
However, Poland has grappled with high rates of vaccine hesitancy, with an opinion poll conducted before the country’s vaccine rollout began in December 2020 finding that 47 per cent of Polish people were more scared of potential side effects from the vaccine than of COVID-19 itself.
Additionally, Michał Kuczmierowski, of the Polish Government Strategic Reserves Agency, told Polish media that the country had been considering reselling vaccines “from the very beginning”.
According to Polskie Radio, the country’s national broadcaster, Poland had ordered a total of around 100 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines, despite having a population of only 38 million.
“Under contracts signed with the European Commission, Poland has at least 4 million doses available for resale outside the country,” Polskie Radio reported in July.
No evidence to suggest breastfed babies are at risk from vaccinated mothers
A claim that a breastfed infant died after their mother received a COVID-19 vaccine has been spread via a misinformation-riddled pamphlet delivered to Australian letterboxes.
According to the pamphlet, which was sent to Fact Check by a concerned ABC reader, “breast milk from COVID jabbed mums can be toxic” and had resulted in the death of a baby.
The pamphlet appears to have been authored by global COVID-19 conspiracy theorists The White Rose, a group with close to 40,000 members on messaging app Telegram and whose name is taken from that of the German non-violent resistance group active during the Nazi regime.
A QR code on the pamphlet links to a report contained in the US Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) outlining the death of a baby on March 20 whose mother, it said, had received the second dose of a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine just three days earlier.
The details contained in the report, which was made on April 4, mirror a story of an alleged infant death shared widely online in March.
At that time, a comment from a Facebook user known as “Caitlyn RN” told of a woman named “Lyndsi” who received the second dose of a Pfizer vaccine at work and whose breastfeeding baby was the next day “covered in a head-to-toe rash”.
“By that night he was inconsolable and declining so they went to the ER,” the Facebook comment continued. “Baby was diagnosed with thrombocytopenic purpura and elevated liver enzymes.
“He was hospitalised and began various treatments but continued to decline. He passed away last night.”
The story was also shared by various other social media users and some websites, none of which, according to Snopes, provided the last name of “Lyndsi” or any other identifying characteristics.
“In most instances, users did not cite an original source but simply credited the story to an unnamed friend,” Snopes said.
As for the VAERS report, as Fact Check has previously pointed out, such reports can be made by anyone and are published without verifying whether a vaccine actually caused the adverse reaction.
“Just because a case is listed in the system does not mean that it is authentic or has been validated by medical professionals,” Snopes fact checkers noted in their analysis of the original Facebook claims.
A false VAERS report, they added, was a federal offence punishable by a fine and possible imprisonment.
According to experts, it’s unlikely that the breast milk from a vaccinated mother would pose any risk to an infant.
Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, told Fact Check that most serious adverse events occurring after vaccination did not turn out to be related, but that it was important they were reported so that possible rare side effects could be detected.
“Sadly, we do still lose babies to sudden infant death syndrome with nine or 10 lost every day, on average, in the US,” Professor Bennett said in an email.
“With so many people getting vaccinated at the same time, we will by chance see this coincide with a tragic event.
“If these events are occurring at normal background rates and there is no plausible link back to the mother’s vaccination, then these are ruled out as being vaccine-related.”
Professor Bennett added that breastfeeding mothers vaccinated against COVID-19 had been shown to have protective antibodies in their breast milk, which would be shared with their babies.
Meanwhile, UN children’s agency UNICEF has said breast milk from a vaccinated mother poses little risk to babies, explaining on its website that the COVID-19 vaccine is “not a live virus vaccine and the mRNA does not enter the nucleus of the cell and is degraded quickly”.
“It is biologically and clinically unlikely to pose a risk to the breast-feeding child.”
In a statement issued in December, the US Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine concurred, saying there was “little biological plausibility” that the vaccine could cause harm to a breastfed infant.
“While there is little plausible risk for the child, there is a biologically plausible benefit,” the academy noted.
“Antibodies transferred into milk may therefore protect the infant from infection with SARS-CoV-2.”
TikTok video paints misleading picture of incident involving top NSW cop
A TikTok video purporting to show NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller being served with a writ “on live TV” has been edited to paint a misleading picture of the June 28 incident.
Speaking at a news conference that day, Mr Fuller was interrupted by Sean Alun-David Thomas, who claimed he had previously served Mr Fuller with a cease-and-desist order while attempting to hand the police commissioner a manila folder.
“You were served a notice of cease and desist,” Thomas can be heard saying in the TikTok video as Mr Fuller tells him not to come near.
The video leaves the impression that he was attempting to carry out a legitimate legal process.
But unedited footage of the incident shows that Thomas continued to speak, claiming that he was “the prime creator of this Earth” and God.
“There is no law above my Lord,” Thomas is heard to say. “Are your laws above my Lord?”
Moreover, the apparent cease-and-desist letter Thomas attempted to hand to Mr Fuller was, as news.com.au reported, a homemade document titled “PUBLIC NOTICE 93 DAYS EQUINOX”.
The Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan made waves around the world, prompting a series of dubious claims that kept fact checkers busy.
AP Fact Check found that US President Joe Biden “ignored his own administration’s failures” when he largely blamed Afghans for a “chaotic evacuation” at Kabul’s international airport.
“This is a misleading explanation that skirts the US failure to anticipate and prepare for the rapid fall of the Afghan government,” the fact checkers reported.
“The screenshot is doctored, however, with a falsified caption and a superimposed image of a CNN journalist that originates from a report that aired in Aug. 2020,” Reuters concluded.
“A CNN spokesperson also confirmed to Reuters that the screenshot was not real.”
Over at Newsweek, fact checkers looked into a video supposedly showing people in Kabul coming out of their houses to welcome the Taliban.
“This shows that peoples of Afghanistan are with [the] Taliban,” a tweet featuring the video reads.
According to Newsweek, however, the video was actually filmed in Kandahar, which fell to the Taliban last Thursday and is the “spiritual home” of the group.
“Footage from Kabul so far suggests that most people are remaining inside as the Taliban extend control of the city,” the fact checkers said.
IndiaToday, meanwhile, found that a video purporting to show Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president ousted by the Taliban this week, fleeing the country was actually footage from last month when the President visited Uzbekistan.
In other news
Did the UN “rule that we can only eat 14 grams of red meat a day” in order to reach net-zero emissions?
The release of the latest assessment report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) prompted many politicians to sound the alarm on the potentially catastrophic risks to Australia posed by global temperature rises exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius.
But outspoken National Party senator Matthew Canavan voiced a different climate-related concern on Twitter: the future of an Australian dinner staple — the T-bone steak.
“The United Nations has ruled that we can only eat 14g of red meat a day under net zero emissions,” he tweeted.
“That will apparently change the temperature of the globe. So welcome to your future … and eat a steak while you can!”
But there’s just one problem with that — there’s no evidence to suggest that’s an official position endorsed by the UN.
University of Melbourne law professor Jacqueline Peel told Fact Check that any decision reached by the UN would have to be agreed to by the government of the day — of which Senator Canavan is currently a member.
“International law is a horizontal system,” she wrote in an email. “The rules are set by the negotiating countries themselves. Each country has to consent to the rules to be bound by them.”
Moreover, Professor Peel said international climate treaties agreed to at UN summits, such as the Paris Agreement, did not dictate measures at the level of individual national policies.
“Rules are not prescriptive about what climate policies countries adopt. Instead, countries are required to submit ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ which are essentially five-year national plans setting out what actions countries intend to take to contribute to the global climate change response.”.
The IPCC, which assesses the science related to climate change, also confirmed this approach.
“The IPCC does not comment on individual countries’ policies and is not prescriptive and therefore does not make ‘rulings’ so such a statement would not have come from the IPCC,” an IPCC spokesperson told Fact Check via email.
So where did the suggested limit of 14 grams of meat per day originate? Mr Canavan’s reference appears to have come from a report co-published by EAT, a non-for-profit food advocacy group, and medical journal the Lancet.
The report suggests that eliminating, or reducing the consumption of beef and lamb to within 14 grams per day globally, would improve health and environmental outcomes. However, there is no suggestion this position is endorsed by the UN.
Have childcare subsidies increased 77 per cent under the Coalition?
The Minister for Education and Youth, Alan Tudge, argued recently in Question Time that the Federal Government had overseen significant growth in childcare assistance to families.
“We’ve increased childcare subsidies by 77 per cent since we came to office,” he said.
Fact Check this week found Mr Tudge’s claim to be exaggerated.
On a number of measures, Fact Check found that each fell short of a 77 per cent increase during the Coalition’s term in office.
When it came to primary direct assistance for families, departmental annual reports and budget papers showed that between 2012-13 and estimated 2020-21 spending, childcare subsidies were expected to have increased by 63 per cent once adjusted for inflation.
When funding to support the childcare industry was added, overall expenditure was expected to have risen by 71 per cent, in real terms, over the same period.
While this figure is close to Mr Tudge’s claim, industry support in 2020-21 was significantly boosted by temporary emergency COVID-19 payments to childcare providers.
The recent budget estimated that without these one-off payments, overall expenditure for 2021-22 (adjusted for inflation) would come in at 59 per cent above 2012-13 spending. The corresponding pre-pandemic increase to 2019-20 was 43 per cent.
Finally, the Productivity Commission reports on several “per child” measures, including spending per child in approved childcare services, and a broader category of spending per child on early childhood education and care.
On these measures, subsidies increased by 12 per cent and 30 per cent respectively between 2012-13 and 2019-20, the most recent data available.
On the question of whether the Coalition can take credit for these rises in expenditure, experts told Fact Check that increases had less to do with Coalition policy and more to do with growth in the system.
Edited by Ellen McCutchan, with thanks to Jude Ellison, Eiddwen Jeffrey and Sonam Thomas