Masking the facts about face coverings for protection during coronavirus pandemic
CoronaCheck is RMIT ABC Fact Check’s weekly email newsletter dedicated to fighting the misinformation infodemic surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.
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Controversial federal MP Craig Kelly is back on our radar this week after he, and other politicians, shared a dodgy study on the effectiveness and supposed dangers of masks.
We have also taken a look at a claim made by Prime Minister Scott Morrison regarding Australia’s vaccine rollout, and we report on how American fact checkers highlighted a number of inaccuracies from US President Joe Biden as he announced a series of new gun control measures.
With life mostly back to normal in Australia and masks mandated in just a few situations, misinformation surrounding face coverings had remained the resolve of only the most ardent COVID-19 conspiracy theorists.
In recent days, however, a number of prominent Australians, including federal MP Craig Kelly, Queensland senator Malcolm Roberts and former federal MP David Leyonhlem, have taken to social media to spruik an article supposedly outlining evidence that masks are “useless” and “actively damaging to individual health and social wellbeing”.
Claiming to have been censored by “lefties”, Mr Kelly said he had argued for months that masks were dangerous.
“Only now is the truth coming out about the devastating damage that may have been caused by failing to consider the evidence!,” Mr Kelly tweeted.
According to Senator Roberts, the article amounted to a “victory” for Mr Kelly, who had been “ahead of the pack” on the issue.
Published by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), the article shared by the three men claims that “esteemed scientists” associated with the group had been censored when speaking out on the danger of masks.
“This is not surprising given that masks have become dogma — a visible symbol of compliance and fealty to the medical/political agenda that elevates the coronavirus above all else,” the AIER wrote.
In making the argument against masks, the AIER cited an article, published by the journal Medical Hypotheses, which is described as a “devastating analysis of the harms caused by widespread, universal masking”.
Written by Baruch Vainshelboim, the journal article concluded that masks were ineffective at reducing human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and that the wearing of masks had been demonstrated to have “substantial” adverse health effects.
“These include hypoxia, hypercapnia, shortness of breath, increased acidity and toxicity, activation of fear and stress response, rise in stress hormones, immunosuppression, fatigue, headaches, decline in cognitive performance, predisposition for viral and infectious illnesses, chronic stress, anxiety and depression,” Dr Vainshelboim wrote.
According to the AIER, Dr Vainshelboim works “in the Cardiology Division, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System/Stanford University”, in California.
American writer Naomi Wolf, whose public war of words with Minister for Energy Angus Taylor made headlines in Australia over a number of days in late 2019, also drew attention to Dr Vainshelboim’s article, resulting in a ban from Twitter.
In a series of tweets, Dr Wolf claimed her mentioning of “a Stanford mask study proving the lack of efficacy of masks” had led to her being locked out of her account.
But the article in question is not all it is cracked up to be.
And while both the AIER and Dr Wolf linked Dr Vainshelboim to the prestigious Stanford University, a spokeswoman for the university told Fact Check that the study was not “a Stanford study”.
“The author’s affiliation is inaccurately attributed to Stanford, and we have requested a correction,” the spokeswoman said via email.
“Stanford University has never employed Baruch Vainshelboim.
“Several years ago (in 2015), he was a visiting scholar at Stanford for a year, on matters unrelated to this paper.”
Furthermore, the findings of Dr Vainshelboim are disputed by experts.
Speaking to PolitiFact, Benjamin Neuman, a biology professor at Texas A&M University and chief virologist of its Global Health Research Complex, said the list of “adverse effects” of mask-wearing included in the article were “generally discredited hypotheses that have been tested and disproved”.
“This seems to be a piece of deceptive writing from what appears to be a non-expert,” Dr Neuman commented. “It isn’t science.”
As PolitiFact found, claims that mask wearing caused hypoxemia (a below-normal level of oxygen in the blood) and hypercapnia (too much carbon dioxide in the blood) had been found to be false by multiple fact-checking organisations.
Additionally, PolitiFact discovered that many of the studies cited by Dr Vainshelboim relate to the effects of N95 respirator masks worn by healthcare workers but not typically used by the wider public.
Benchmarking our vaccine rollout
Prime Minister Scott Morrison this month defended the Federal Government over the pace of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, claiming Australia had outperformed Germany, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan at the same stage of their vaccination rollouts.
“It is true that at this stage of our rollout, it is actually better than where Germany was, better than where New Zealand was, better than where South Korea and Japan was, and so I think there will be some important context in the weeks ahead as we see the significant ramp up of the distribution network,” he said.
But RMIT ABC Fact Check found that claim to be misleading.
When Mr Morrison made the claim during an April 6 news conference, Australia’s vaccination program had been underway for 43 days, with a total of 854,983 jabs having been given — equivalent to about 3.4 for every 100 Australians.
That was slightly behind where Germany was 43 days into its vaccination program, but ahead of New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.
Mr Morrison was therefore not accurate when he suggested Australia “at this stage of our rollout” was outperforming all four of the countries he chose to list.
Moreover, by the standards being set by member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Australia’s vaccination program was slow to get started, and has ramped up more slowly.
The OECD’s 37 member nations had delivered an average of 6.2 jabs per 100 people at the 43-day mark of their respective vaccination programs, compared to Australia’s 3.4 doses.
Also, with many countries having started their vaccination programs well ahead of Australia, their progress by April 6 meant an average of 22.4 doses per 100 people had been administered across all OECD nations.
From Washington, D.C.
After yet another spate of mass shootings across the US, President Joe Biden announced a number of new gun control measures including an expansion of background checks, investments in intervention programs for violence-prone communities and the creation of a “red flag” model to be implemented by states.
Fact checkers at CNN’s Fact First dissected Mr Biden’s announcement, and found he made a number of false and misleading claims.
For example, he was incorrect to say that the gun manufacturing industry was exempt from being sued.
Under the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, gun manufacturers cannot be held liable for the use of their products in a crime, the fact checkers noted.
“However, gun manufacturers can still be held liable for (and thus sued for) a range of things, including negligence, breach of contract regarding the purchase of a gun, or certain damages from defects in the design of a gun.”
CNN also found that the President’s claim that background checks were not undertaken when buying weapons at a gun show, even though checks were mandatory at gun stores, was misleading.
“Purchases at gun shows are not exempt from background checks, which are required on purchases from licensed gun dealers whether you are in a gun store, a gun show or anywhere else,” they explained.
“Only purchases from private sellers, whether at a gun show or elsewhere, do not require a background check in most states.”
Mr Biden had also suggested that “red flag” laws — which allow for guns to be taken away from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others — had led to a decrease in the number of suicides. But CNN found that the claim lacked context.
“Research on this subject is limited, some of the available research data is mixed, and suicide rates have increased around the US in the 21st century,” the fact checkers observed.
Anti-vaxxers and autism
While misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines runs rampant on social media, traditional anti-vaxxer messages about childhood vaccines and autism continue to be promoted.
In a recent viral post pushing the widely debunked suggestion, a Facebook poster has claimed that rates of autism have increased “30,000 per cent in 50 years”.
“It’s almost as if it is being injected into children,” the poster stated.
Fact checkers at USA Today found that while rates of autism had increased “immensely” in the last half century, it was not at the rate claimed by the post.
“A comparison of [a] 1966 estimate and [a] 2020 estimate shows the prevalence estimate increased 45-fold (or 4,525%) in that time period,” USA Today said, noting that those figures did not mean that a child today was 45 times more likely to have autism than a child 50 years ago.
“Many studies confirm the increase is due not just to true biology, but rather broader diagnostic criteria and ASD [autism spectrum disorder] awareness and resources.”
The fact checkers recalled an oft-cited 1998 study linking the mumps and rubella vaccine with autism which had later been retracted and its author stripped of his medical licence.
“According to the CDC [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], studies by the CDC and the Institute of Medicine have found that children who receive vaccines do not have a higher chance of developing ASD,” they said.
“The CDC also states that studies of particular ingredients in vaccines have shown there is no correlation between ASD and vaccine ingredients.”
Edited by Ellen McCutchan