CoronaCheck is RMIT ABC Fact Check’s weekly email newsletter dedicated to fighting the misinformation infodemic surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.
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This week, we investigate claims spreading worldwide that Sydney students died after receiving Pfizer vaccines at a mass vaccination hub.
We also look at flyers full of misinformation that are turning up in letterboxes around the country, check out a slick video promoting misleading stories of adverse vaccine effects and scrutinise US President Joe Biden’s claims regarding the situation in Afghanistan.
Mass vaccination of NSW students sees misinformation go global
As NSW continues to notch record numbers of COVID-19 cases, young people in designated “hot spots” have been prioritised for vaccination, with more than 20,000 year 12 students from Sydney’s west being inoculated at the Qudos Bank Arena.
The push to vaccinate students has coincided with a barrage of misinformation online.
In one glaring example, the death of a year 12 Chatswood student was this week seized upon by anti-vaccine activists who shared a letter from the school’s principal announcing the death, alongside claims the student had received the Pfizer vaccine.
“So many teenage boys are being diagnosed with myocarditis after being jabbed, and tragically [the student] has had his life taken away,” one Facebook post read.
On messaging app Telegram, some users suggested a “suppression order” was in place “so that [the student’s] recent Pfizer jab cannot be mentioned in the school’s letter, nor in the media”.
According to the school principal, however, the student “was not vaccinated”, nor was he eligible for vaccination.
“St Pius X College is not located in one of the Sydney metropolitan [local government authorities] of concern and there has not been any vaccination program offered to our year 12 students by the NSW government at this point,” John Couani said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.
“Despite the clear communication from the College, there have been many insensitive and grossly inaccurate reports on social media,” Mr Couani wrote, adding that the student had also tested negative for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, a viral video arising in the US and shared on Facebook by Australian users including former One Nation senator Rod Culleton, claimed that “two children [were] dead after being inoculated in a mass of 24,000 kids that were ushered into a sports arena to take the jab in the absence of any adults”.
According to Stew Peters, the host of the online show featured in the video, an unnamed Australian ex-military official of 41 years’ service had “personally confirmed” that, of the 24,000 “children” who were “herded” into Qudos Bank Arena, two had died.
Fact Check has found no evidence to support this claim.
According to the latest COVID-19 vaccine safety data issued by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), all seven deaths linked to COVID-19 vaccination in Australia have been associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The year 12 students inoculated at Qudos Bank Arena, most of whom would have been between the ages of 16 and 18, received the Pfizer vaccine.
Additionally, the youngest vaccine-related death confirmed by the TGA was that of a 34-year-old woman.
As for whether the students were “ushered into a sports arena to take the jab in the absence of any adults”, fact checkers at Snopes recently rated such claims as “false”.
“Those claims constituted not only an embellishment and exaggeration, but were a fundamental misrepresentation of an announcement made by public health officials,” Snopes concluded.
Vaccine video goes viral despite misleading message
A 12-minute video purporting to shine a light on victims of adverse side-effects emanating from COVID-19 vaccines has amassed hundreds of thousands of views online and prompted requests from readers for Fact Check to investigate.
The video, released as part of a campaign titled “Our Voices Matter”, features interviews with people claiming to have suffered adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines, or to have had family members who died after vaccination.
However, as misinformation researchers at First Draft discovered, at least one of the case studies doesn’t square with official health data.
In one interview, a woman identified only as “Kirsti” claims her 52-year-old husband died from “sudden onset myocarditis” after receiving the Pfizer vaccine.
According to the TGA’s vaccine safety reports, as mentioned above, there have been no confirmed deaths linked to the Pfizer vaccine in Australia.
The administration has noted, however, that as of August 22 it had received “235 reports of suspected myocarditis [inflammation of the heart muscle] and/or pericarditis [inflammation of the membrane around the heart] following vaccination” with the Pfizer vaccine.
“These reports reflect the observations of the people reporting them and have not been confirmed as having been caused by the vaccine,” the latest vaccine safety report states. “Some events may be coincidental and would have happened anyway, regardless of vaccination.”
Elsewhere in the video, the interviewer says that “thousands of people around the world have had their immune system attack nerve cells after the vaccine, causing inflammation, numbness, muscle weakness and difficulty walking”.
According to First Draft, these symptoms match the TGA’s description of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), which the regulator has investigated as a possible adverse reaction to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“Following an investigation, the TGA, along with other international drug regulators, have so far been unable to establish a clear link between GBS and Vaxzevria (AstraZeneca),” the TGA said in its latest vaccine safety report.
“As a precautionary measure, a warning statement about GBS has been added to the Product Information. This is in response to rare cases following vaccination in Australia and internationally.”
The video also references reports made to the TGA of hundreds of deaths following vaccination.
However, while the number of these deaths has risen to almost 450, just six have been linked to rare blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, while one involved another rare condition, immune thrombocytopenia.
As Fact Check has previously pointed out, the vast majority of these deaths were people 75 years and older.
“Analysis [of these reported deaths] includes comparing expected natural death rates to observed death rates following immunisation as well as in-depth reviews of the patient histories,” the TGA noted in a recent media statement.
Print flyers spread COVID-19 misinformation
A popular anti-lockdown activist has claimed to have delivered thousands of pamphlets challenging official public health advice on the virus to mailboxes across Australia.
The activist, who calls his campaign Operation Bullet Train, admitted he asked his “foot soldiers” to leave flyers in mailboxes in order to get around online “censorship”.
“The whole point of Operation Bullet Train was so that we could reach the wider community in a completely legal and safe way,” he said on Telegram.
“We understand censorship is rife and we are being shadow-banned on social platforms, so we needed a smarter way to get to people.”
Operation Bullet Train’s six downloadable flyers each sport a QR code that directs users to the website of the “Covid Medical Network Australia”.
The group claims to be comprised of “senior medical doctors and health professionals who are concerned with the health impacts of the lockdowns used in response to the SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks in Victoria and across Australia”.
According to an ABC report in February, the TGA warned the group against publishing material supporting unapproved COVID-19 treatments in breach of consumer law and the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code.
The ABC noted then that the network’s directors were listed as Melbourne doctors Eamonn Mathieson, Will Edwards and Mark Hobart, though a staff member at Dr Edwards’ clinic told the ABC he had left the group.
As for the misinformation contained in the pamphlets, one Operation Bullet Train flyer claims that wearing cloth masks is “associated with significant increased risk of contracting a viral respiratory infection”.
However, the document cited by the network as evidence for the claim, a July 2020 fact sheet published by the Australian Infection Control Expert Group (ICEG), offers a far more nuanced explanation of the facts.
According to that document, a study of healthcare workers in Vietnam did indeed find that respiratory infection rates were higher among workers wearing cloth masks than those not wearing any mask.
The ICEG noted, however, that “moisture retention, prolonged use, reuse without washing and poor filtration of cloth masks may have resulted in increased risk of self-contamination and infection”.
The ICEG added that while there were no randomised controlled studies of cloth masks in community settings, anecdotal accounts provided evidence that cloth masks could be effective.
Another flyer, meanwhile, directs readers to a video produced by the US-based Children’s Health Defense, a website known for publishing COVID-19 conspiracy theories and headed by prominent anti-vaccine activist Robert F Kennedy Jr.
Fact Check has previously reported on COVID-19 misinformation flyers distributed by Australian businessman and politician Clive Palmer, whose false claims about vaccine safety resulted in a rebuke from the TGA.
More recently, anti-lockdown group The White Rose, which takes it name from a non-violent resistance group active in Nazi Germany, distributed flyers wrongly claiming that a breastfed infant had died after their mother received a COVID-19 vaccine.
Why Gladys Berejiklian was wrong to claim Sydney’s lockdown was the “harshest” in Australia
With cases of COVID-19 continuing to rise in NSW, Premier Gladys Berejiklian has used her daily news conferences to repeatedly defend the severity of Sydney’s restrictions.
“These are the harshest measures any place in Australia has ever faced,” she said during a media conference on July 29, 2021.
The premier repeated the claim on August 5: “I want to stress this point, that we have the harshest lockdown conditions that any state in Australia has seen.”
Fact Check this week found Ms Berejiklian to be wrong.
While some of Sydney’s rules were harsher than those tried elsewhere, at the time of Ms Berejiklian’s claim, many were less strict.
In the eight Sydney council areas subject to the toughest rules, there was no nightly curfew like that imposed in Victoria, nor was there a daily time limit on exercise or playground closures, as has been the case elsewhere.
In fact, Sydneysiders could still go fishing or play a round of golf, activities that were banned in Queensland and Victoria, and even in the city’s most restricted areas, residents could make in-person visits to their local hardware store, unlike in Victoria and Tasmania.
Those who lived alone could also nominate a regular visitor to their home. Queensland and the Northern Territory did not make this concession.
Victoria, South Australia and Queensland all restricted attendance at schools and daycare to vulnerable children and those of essential workers, while Sydney imposed no explicit criteria on which children could attend in-person.
At least four states also banned visits to second homes, whereas NSW carved out an exemption for this that applied even to the eight council areas under the most severe restrictions.
On the other side of the ledger, NSW was the only state that forced essential workers to get tested regularly for COVID-19 if they wanted to work outside their council area and imposed harsher restrictions on those who could attend funerals.
Certainly, Sydney’s construction ban was strict, but no stricter than similar bans in South Australia and the Northern Territory.
And while fines for breaching the state’s rules were nothing to scoff at, those in the Northern Territory, for example, were up to six times higher.
The NSW government has since tightened the rules for its most locked-down areas.
These changes included a nightly curfew, time limits on exercise and the closure of hardware stores, measures that had been tried in other states.
From Washington, D.C
With evacuation efforts in Kabul going down to the wire, US President Joe Biden has kept fact checkers busy with a number of claims about the situation in Afghanistan as well as Washington’s involvement.
Fact checkers at PolitiFact found, for instance, that Mr Biden’s claim that Al-Qaeda was “gone” from Afghanistan to be false.
“A UN report in June said that al-Qaida is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces in the range of several dozen to 500 persons,” the fact checkers noted, adding that a report by the Inspector General to Congress concluded that the Taliban maintained a relationship with the terrorist organisation and provided it safe haven in Afghanistan despite publicly denying its presence.
PolitiFact also found Mr Biden to be “half true” when he said that the US had “already issued several thousand special immigrant visas” to Afghan translators when he came to office in January.
According to the fact checkers, while 6,430 special immigrant visas had been granted to Afghans between January and July, most were issued to family members of Afghans who had worked for Americans and a backlog of 18,000 applications of Afghan workers remained.
FactCheck.org, meanwhile, found that Mr Biden had overstated the size of the Afghan military when he suggested that there were 300,000 troops in the country who had been trained by the US.
“About a third of the ‘300,000 troops’ includes members of the Afghan National Police, which is responsible for civil policing, including such tasks as enforcing curfews, according to Defense Department documents,” FactChek.org noted.
That finding was backed by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, which awarded Mr Biden three “Pinocchios” for the claim.
“The president is including police forces, which are not part of the military and have often heightened insecurity with their tactics,” the Post reported.
“Even among the active military, there is high turnover and only a small core of professionals which could be expected to fight professionally against the Taliban.
“In other words, the number is not 300,000 — and probably not even 30,000.”
In other news: Adam Bandt says house prices are rising by $1,200 a day. Is he correct?
Greens leader Adam Bandt has claimed house prices are rising by $1,200 a day, warning that younger workers have been locked out of the housing market.
“House prices are going up $1200 a day,” Mr Bandt said in a tweet on July 30. “Great for property investors, a disaster for every casual worker with smashed savings.”
Fact Check this week found that claim to be overreach.
While his claim accords with the average daily increase in the median house price in Sydney, the situation in the rest of the country is different.
For the eight out of 10 Australians who do not live in Australia’s largest city, prices on average are rising at less than half that pace.
Depending on the measure used — and the timeframe applied — median house prices for Australia’s eight capital cities are rising at an average daily rate of between $465 and $576, and at lower rates in areas outside the state capitals.
Edited by Ellen McCutchan, with thanks to Jude Ellison