Radio 4 programme featured Covid vaccine misinformation

19 November 2021
What was claimed

A whistleblower has described how Pfizer made up results about injuries and deaths during vaccine trials. This has been published in the British Medical Journal.

Our verdict

While it is true that the BMJ did publish an article about concerns raised by a whistleblower who was previously employed by a company running some of Pfizer’s Covid-19 trials, it did not include allegations that the company had made up results about deaths.

What was claimed

An Israeli study found that natural immunity was better at protecting people from Covid-19 than the vaccine.

Our verdict

An Israeli research paper did find that immunity from prior infection may be more effective at protecting a patient from Covid-19 than vaccination. However, the study also found that a combination of natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity was even more effective.

What was claimed

“Real scientists” are trying to stop the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines.

Our verdict

It is true that several scientists have argued that the vaccine rollout should be halted. However, their claims have been widely fact checked during the pandemic, and have been associated with dangerous misinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines.

What was claimed

Lots of scientists think vaccines kill more people than they save.

Our verdict

We don’t know which scientists are being referred to, but Covid-19 vaccines have saved vastly more lives than they have cost.

On 16 November, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a live episode of the programme You and Yours, which invited listeners to call in and discuss why they were hesitant about taking the Covid-19 vaccines. 

The discussion was led by presenter Winifred Robinson, who was joined by Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor of cellular biology at the University of Reading. 

Dr Clarke was on hand throughout the programme to offer medical advice to callers, and countered some of the false claims made about the vaccines during the conversation. 

Part way through the conversation a caller, who initially described his sister’s concerns about the vaccines as a nurse, began to repeat several common pieces of misinformation that we’ve seen multiple times throughout the course of the pandemic. 

Due to the live nature of the broadcast, Ms Robinson said she was unable to check his claims in real-time and Dr Clarke did not comment on his claims, which meant the misinformation was broadcast unchallenged to a large audience. 

A BBC spokesperson told Full Fact: “This was a live show and the presenter repeatedly stated it was not possible in the moment to address each of the particular caller’s claims live on air, and the conversation was brought to a close swiftly. 

“Dr Simon Clarke and other callers were referred to throughout the programme to provide more factual information.”

We’ve addressed some of the key claims made by the caller. 

A Pfizer whistleblower did not claim that the company had made up results about deaths and injuries during vaccine trials

The caller claimed that his sister believed the British Medical Journal (BMJ) had published an article describing the account of a whistleblower, who supposedly said the pharmaceutical giant had “made up a load of results [about] injuries and deaths” during Covid-19 vaccine trials. 

It is true that the BMJ did publish an article in early November raising concerns about alleged malpractice at some of the testing sites. However, this article does not contain anything about concerns that Pfizer had “made up” results about deaths and injuries from the Covid-19 vaccines. 

The closest relevant information Full Fact could find was part of the article which listed concerns the whistleblower raised with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the company carrying out the vaccine trials. One of these concerns was that there was a “lack of timely follow-up of patients who experienced adverse events”. The whistleblower also claimed that vaccines were not being stored at the correct temperatures, laboratory specimens not being properly labelled and staff were being targeted for raising concerns. 

The BMJ article did not include a comment from Pfizer, but a spokesperson for the company told Full Fact: “Pfizer has a robust quality management system in place for all aspects of our clinical trials, as they are the foundation of our commitment to patient safety and the integrity of our trials.  We take all concerns raised very seriously and thoroughly investigate them, and when necessary, take swift action to address challenges or issues.

“We are disappointed by the recent article published in the British Medical Journal... and are concerned that this reporting will undermine confidence in a vaccine that has been given to hundreds of millions of people worldwide.”

Natural immunity from Covid-19 infection is much riskier than the vaccine 

The caller also claimed his sister thought natural immunity (from Covid-19 infection) was better than immunity given by the vaccine, and evidenced these beliefs with results from a recent study in Israel. 

As we have written before, an Israeli research paper does suggest that people who had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 with the Pfizer vaccine were about six times more likely to test positive for the virus than people who had caught it before, but not been vaccinated.

This does not mean that the research paper found that natural immunity was necessarily better than immunity involving vaccination. In fact, it suggested that the group with the highest level of protection were those who had been infected and received a single dose of the vaccine. This suggests that people are still much more protected against Covid-19 if they get vaccinated, whether they’ve caught it before or not.

Infection is also much more dangerous than vaccination. Professor Charles Bangham, Chair in Immunology at Imperial College London, previously told Full Fact: “The risks of infection are much greater than the risks of the vaccine. So it’s much safer, in almost all circumstances, to have the vaccine. There’s no question about that. ”

It’s important to note that this research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and it has been published with a note that clearly states its findings should not be used to guide clinical practice. 

Some scientists calling for the vaccine rollout to be stopped have been fact checked for spreading misinformation 

During the call, the individual is asked what advice he would give to another caller who works in healthcare and was hesitant about getting the Covid-19 vaccine before eventually having it. 

He tells her to “listen to the real scientists” who are trying to stop the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines, and lists several names including Robert Malone, Luc Montagnier and Mike Yeadon. 

Ex-Pfizer scientist Mike Yeadon became a prolific anti-lockdown campaigner during the Covid-19 crisis, and we have fact checked his misleading claims on several different occasions.  

Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier, who led the team that first identified HIV, has previously raised questions about the Covid-19 vaccines, however false claims wrongly credited to him have previously gone viral in online communities opposed to Covid-19 vaccinations. 

Among these is the claim that Mr Montagnier said people vaccinated against Covid-19 would die within two years. There is no evidence he said this. 

Robert Malone describes himself as the inventor of mRNA vaccines (which include some Covid-19 vaccines) and has previously suggested their rollout was rushed. His self-identification as the inventor of mRNA technology has been disputed because the creation of mRNA vaccines drew on the work of hundreds of people.  

No evidence that a large number of scientists think the vaccines kill more people than they save

During the programme the same caller also claimed that “lots of scientists actually think [the vaccines] kill more people than they save”.

This assertion is very vague, and it’s impossible to know exactly who he was referring to by “lots of scientists”.

Regardless, there’s no evidence to suggest that this claim is true. Up to the end of September 2021, the Office for National Statistics reports a total of nine deaths in England and Wales involving the Covid-19 vaccines, of which five were deaths “due to... COVID-19 vaccines causing adverse effects in therapeutic use”.

Whereas the UK Health Security Agency and researchers at the University of Cambridge have estimated that, in England alone, “127,500 deaths and 24,144,000 infections have been prevented as a result of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, up to 24 September”.

In short, the vaccines have prevented vastly more deaths than they have caused. 

It has been claimed many times that the Yellow Card reporting system shows there have been deaths following Covid-19 vaccinations. As we have written previously, this is not evidence that these deaths were caused by Covid-19 vaccines.

Public health officials have identified a possible link between the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and extremely rare instances of a type of blood clot occurring alongside a low level of platelets. Up to 3 November 2021, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has received Yellow Card reports of 425 cases of these specific blood clots in the UK following vaccination with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, 73 of which were fatal.

The latest data shows that all three vaccines in use in the UK are more than 90% effective against the Delta variant in preventing hospitalisation and death. 

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