GB News interview features misleading claims about Covid-19 and vaccines

14 April 2022
What was claimed

A Polish study has found that mRNA vaccines may be damaging brain cells and immune systems.

Our verdict

This study is a pre-print, which means it has not been peer reviewed or published through a scientific journal. The website hosting the paper specifically warns the media not to report the results as conclusive.

What was claimed

Covid-19 didn’t cause excess mortality, but there has been a huge uptick in the number of deaths in the middle aged and young since the start of the vaccine rollout.

Our verdict

Covid-19 caused a huge spike in excess mortality in England and Wales, with almost 98,000 excess deaths recorded between January 2020 and July 2021. Between the start of the vaccine roll-out and the end of 2021, deaths due to causes other than Covid-19 were above the five-year average. There is no evidence this was directly caused by the Covid-19 vaccine.

What was claimed

There were 2,000 excess deaths in New Zealand while the vaccine was being rolled out.

Our verdict

There were 34,932 deaths in New Zealand in 2021. This is around 2,200 higher than the five-year average from 2015 to 2019. There is no evidence the rise in deaths was caused by vaccines, and statisticians have attributed the rising death rate to the country’s ageing population.

What was claimed

Obesity is more a determinant of how you're going to handle Covid than anything.

Our verdict

Studies have shown that weight is an important underlying risk factor for serious Covid-19 infections. However, age is the biggest predictive factor for serious illness.

An interview broadcast by GB News, and watched more than 250,000 times across Facebook and YouTube, makes a number of inaccurate claims about Covid-19 and vaccines. 

The segment on 23 March, presented by the author and television presenter Mark Steyn, featured Dr Guy Hatchard, a self-described “international advocate of food safety and natural medicine”.

The claims from both Mr Steyn and Dr Hatchard include incorrect statements about excess mortality, Covd-19 risk factors and vaccine effectiveness. We have selected these claims to check in detail, but a number of other unsubstantiated statements were also made during the interview.

The website TCW, (formerly The Conservative Woman), which we have fact checked many times throughout the pandemic for sharing false information about the virus and the vaccines, has also published a transcript of the interview on its website. Dr Hatchard has written extensively about Covid-19 for the website in the past.

We contacted both GB News and Dr Hatchard for comment but did not receive a response. 

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Quoted study specifically states it shouldn’t be reported in the press as conclusive

Mr Steyn began the interview by briefly discussing a study carried out by Polish researchers, which he claims found that “mRNA vaccines may be damaging brain cells and immune systems.” 

The study is published on bioRxiv, a website which hosts unpublished preprints focused on life sciences. The first notice on the webpage for the study Mr Steyn refers to states: “bioRxiv posts many COVID19-related papers. A reminder: they have not been formally peer-reviewed and should not guide health-related behavior or be reported in the press as conclusive.” 

Dr Peter English, retired consultant in communicable disease control, former editor of Vaccines in Practice magazine and past chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, told Full Fact: “It was not an in vivo [inside a living organism] study, and caution is always required in making conclusions about real-world effects based only on in-vitro studies.

“The introduction explains that it is plausible that some mRNA vaccine might get through the ‘blood-brain barrier’. I did not, however, find anything about the concentrations of vaccine in neurological tissues.”

Dr English added that in vaccination, only a very small dose is given and most of the vaccine effect is thought to happen close to the site of the injection. Any vaccine that spread into the bloodstream would be extremely diluted, and the blood-brain barrier would limit the amount that could get through to the central nervous system—meaning any amount of vaccine that did make it to the nervous system is likely to be extremely small. 

He continued: “As an epidemiologist and clinician, rather than a laboratory scientist, I would be inclined to ignore this paper as meaningless until and unless people with appropriate expertise were to flag it up otherwise.”

On GB News Mr Steyn did not mention this research was a preprint or any of these important caveats during his brief presentation of the research or in the following segment. Dr Hatchard, who wrote about the same study for TCW where he does point out some of these research limitations, failed to mention them to Mr Steyn.  

Excess deaths rose by 14% in England and Wales in 2020

Mr Steyn claimed there was no excess mortality in 2020 because most of the people who died were over the average life expectancy in countries like the UK.

His claim about excess deaths during the pandemic, as official data clearly shows, is false. ‘Excess deaths’, or ‘excess mortality’ means the number of deaths in excess of normal levels. For example, if an average of 10,000 people per month had died between January 2015 and March 2019, but 12,000 people had died in January 2021, that would mean there had been 2,000 excess deaths. 

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), excess deaths from all causes were 14% above the five-year average in England and Wales in 2020. 

Further analysis by the ONS shows that between the week ending 3 January 2020 and 2 July 2021, there were 97,981 excess deaths in England and Wales. 

The ONS has said: “There have been suggestions that the coronavirus pandemic has led to the deaths of many ‘vulnerable’ people who would have otherwise been expected to die in the following days, weeks or months.

“However [...] while there is some evidence of this so-called ‘mortality displacement’ among older age groups – it does not account for the significant excess mortality seen since the beginning of the pandemic.

“In fact, we are yet to see any evidence that deaths in those aged under 65 or in private homes would have likely occurred over the following weeks or months, as deaths in these age groups and settings continue to be well above normal levels.”

This clearly indicates that Covid-19 did not only kill people who were already likely to die very soon. 

Excess deaths following the vaccine roll-out

Mr Steyn claimed there was a “huge uptick in deaths of the middle aged and the young” since the vaccine roll-out began.

It’s unclear exactly how Mr Steyn is defining these terms. But between the start of the vaccine roll-out and the end of 2021, the number of deaths in England and Wales among all middle-aged (using 65 as an upper age limit) and younger age groups who were eligible for vaccination was higher than the historic average.

This is still the case after removing those deaths caused by Covid-19 itself.

However, that doesn’t mean that vaccines were behind these excess deaths.

It’s been suggested that the delayed effects of Covid-19 itself and people having poorer health due to not being able to access healthcare during the pandemic, may be behind some of these excess deaths.

An ageing population might mean that some of these deaths in excess of the 2015 to 2019 average would have been expected anyway.

Also it’s important to note that these deaths registered after the start of the vaccine roll-out may have taken place before the roll-out began.

Death registrations, especially those which required an investigation, were heavily delayed during lockdowns, and this may have caused a rise in death registrations as the country’s lockdown restrictions were eased from March 2021.

Information about deaths where Covid-19 vaccines are mentioned on the death certificate are included in the monthly mortality statistics for England and Wales, collected by the ONS. According to these figures there have been 29 deaths where adverse events related to Covid-19 vaccines are mentioned on the certificate, and 23 where they have been identified as the underlying cause.

No evidence rise in deaths to expected levels in New Zealand had anything to do with vaccines

Dr Hatchard claimed during the interview that New Zealand had seen 2,000 excess deaths during the vaccine rollout. 

According to official death statistics published by the New Zealand government, the country saw 34,932 deaths in 2021. This is around 2,200 higher than the five-year average from 2015 to 2019, which saw an average of 32,722 deaths each year. . 

There is no evidence that the rise in deaths in 2021 had anything to do with the Covid-19 vaccination rollout, which began in New Zealand in February 2021.

According to New Zealand’s most recent safety report on Covid-19 vaccines (correct as of 28 February 2022) there have been 156 deaths reported following administration of the Pfizer (Comirnaty) vaccine. Of these, 89 were found to be unlikely related to the vaccine, 51 were unable to be assessed due to insufficient information, 14 were under investigation and two deaths were deemed to be likely due to vaccine-induced myocarditis, awaiting confirmation from a coroner. 

Age is the biggest underlying factor for risk of dying of Covid-19

Mr Steyn claimed that obesity is one of the most serious underlying conditions for Covid-19, adding: “If you’re 40 pounds overweight… that’s more a determinant of how you’re going to handle Covid-19 than anything.” 

Weight has long been discussed as a significant underlying factor for Covid-19, and the NHS lists “severe obesity”—a body mass index (BMI) of over 40—as a condition which could mean someone is at high risk from the virus.  

A major study of 6.9 million people in England found a positive association between increasing BMI and admission into intensive care units due to Covid-19. 

However, it is inaccurate to claim that obesity is “more a determinant of how you’re going to handle Covid than anything”, as Mr Steyn claimed. 

As the British Heart Foundation states on its website, age is the biggest underlying risk factor for dying of Covid-19. 

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control states: “The risk of severe outcomes increases sharply with increasing age, even after controlling for other potential confounding factors, including sex and underlying conditions.” 

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After we published this fact check, we contacted GB News to request a correction regarding these claims.

GB News did not respond. 

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