26 September 2023

Investigation: A group of doctors spreading misleading claims about COVID-19 vaccines

Annie Lab looks into an anti-vaccine group that has frequently disseminated misinformation about COVID-19 since February.

A group dubbed as ‘repeat offender’

A group that calls itself “Doctors for COVID Ethics” has been questioning the safety of COVID-19 vaccines since February this year. To date, the group of “doctors and scientists from 30 countries” has more than 22,600 followers on Twitter.

But many of their vaccine-related claims have been debunked by fact-checking organizations around the world.

In March, for example, the group was called out as one of the “repeat offenders” of spreading vaccine misinformation by the Virality Project, a coalition of six U.S. research institutions including Stanford University.

Meanwhile, the Digital Communications Network, an international network of 6,000 professionals, published a list of “famous doctors and their dangerous disinformation” including Sucharit Bhakdi, one of the founding members of the Doctors for COVID Ethics.

Bhakdi describes himself as a professor emeritus of medical microbiology and immunology at the Johannes Gutenberg University (JGU) of Mainz on the group’s website.

However, in October 2020, the university issued a statement clarifying that it has not granted emeritus positions since 1978. The statement went on to say Bhakdi “is a retired professor and was not granted membership rights to the JGU and its University Medical School upon his retirement.”

It also said:

… his views regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, which we consider misleading, if not wrong, are not in accordance with the views of the University Medical Centre Mainz and the Institute of Medical Microbiology and Hygiene. Thus we distance ourselves on crucial points from the views held by Prof. Bhakdi.

Bhakdi has been quoted many times in the claims made by the Doctors for COVID Ethics and others but fact-checkers around the world have found them misleading or false:

  • In November 2020, Bhakdi claimed in an interview that vaccination cannot decrease death rates of COVID-19. This claim has been debunked by Teyit, a Tukish fact-checking website.
  • In April 2021, Bhakdi claimed that COVID-19 vaccines would “decimate the world population”. This claim has been debunked by USA Today.
  • In June, Bhakdi made another claim that antibodies developed from vaccination do not protect against infection of the lung, which has been debunked by the Journal in Ireland.
  • In July, Bhakdi claimed in a 17-minute video that herd immunity has already been achieved and that the second shot of the COVID-19 vaccines is unnecessary. This video has been debunked by MyGoPen in Taiwan.

Another founding signatory of the group, Michael Palmer, distributed a course outline at the University of Waterloo describing COVID-19 as a “fake emergency” in September 2020.

The Dean of Science at the university then issued a statement saying that “the University of Waterloo respects the academic freedom of our faculty to express their opinions. This [Palmer’s] representation is not, however, shared by the University of Waterloo or the Faculty of Science.”

New false claim: Danish study does not indicate vaccination is unnecessary

Annie Lab looked into a claim the Doctors for COVID Ethics made in an article published on June 29. It said a study conducted by Danish researchers shows vaccination is unnecessary because those infected with COVID-19 have developed antibodies.

The group’s own tweet on this article gained more than 490 likes and 750 retweets. Like in the previous claims, the article quoted Bhakdi. It said the study’s findings indicate vaccinations pose “risks of immune auto-attack” and “life-threatening side effects in those previously infected.”

This claim is false.

Screenshot of the summary of Bhakdi’s meeting address.

The Danish study mentioned in the article is titled “SARS-CoV-2 elicits robust adaptive immune responses regardless of disease severity.” SARS-CoV-2 is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

It was conducted by researchers from Aarhus University Hospital and Aarhus University.

Research paper “SARS-CoV-2 elicits robust adaptive immune responses regardless of disease severity” mentioned in the false claim.

Annie Lab communicated with Stine Nielsen, the leading author of the paper, and she said the study does not deem COVID-19 vaccination either unnecessary or dangerous.

“We show that the participants have antibodies and a CD8 T-cell response, after they recover from SARS-CoV-2 infections,” she said. “However, we cannot from this data say anything about the protective properties of this response.”

Nielsen also said, “it is an incorrect interpretation to imply that the response shown in the paper renders vaccinations unnecessary.”

Clinical virologist Siddharth Sridhar at the Department of Microbiology of the University of Hong Kong also said this finding does not imply vaccination is unnecessary.

“The immune system works by mounting a multi-pronged response against any invading pathogen. It is essentially a battle between the virus and the host,” he said.

“Unfortunately, many people, particularly the elderly, mount qualitatively poor and abortive responses to the virus which leads to severe infection and death.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the degree of antibodies of people who were infected with COVID-19 varies from person to person.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA), an EU agency in charge of evaluating, monitoring, and authorizing medicine in the European Union, has also been refuting the claims made by the Doctors for COVID Ethics.

The group has sent a few open letters to the EMA concerning the safety and risks of the COVID-19 vaccines. EMA’s latest response can be found here.