The week in fake news: This stuff didn’t happen, but it sure went viral on social media

The week in fake news: This stuff didn’t happen, but it sure went viral on social media

A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out. Here are the facts:

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Study didn’t show COVID-19 vaccines ‘hurt’ immunity

Claim: A new study from Moderna and researchers at the National Institutes of Health shows COVID-19 mRNA vaccines “hurt long-term immunity to Covid after infection.”

The facts: A senior author of the study and multiple experts who reviewed the paper for the AP say its findings are being misinterpreted and that Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine offers protection against the disease.

The April paper is a preprint, meaning it hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed and published by a journal. It focuses on how well certain antibody tests work to identify people who’ve had a recent COVID-19 infection despite being vaccinated, in this case with Moderna’s shot.

The COVID-19 vaccines work by inducing antibodies that recognize a specific part of the coronavirus, the spike protein. But the virus contains multiple proteins, and detecting antibodies against one called the nucleocapsid or “N” protein can indicate someone had been infected, whether they were vaccinated or not. The paper used data stored from Moderna’s large-scale COVID-19 vaccine trial, and found fewer vaccinated people who had breakthrough infections had detectable “N antibodies” compared to unvaccinated people who got infected.

But experts say that makes no difference to people’s long-term immunity to COVID-19, contrary to claims online.

“URGENT: The most powerful evidence yet that mRNA vaccines hurt long-term immunity to Covid after infection,” reads the headline of the Substack post by Alex Berenson, an independent reporter who has been critical of the COVID-19 vaccines. He cited the “bombshell study.”

An author of the paper said the suggestion that the paper showed the vaccines were anything but protective was a misreading.

“There is nothing in this paper that suggests the vaccines don’t work,” said Dr. Lindsey Baden, a senior author of the study and an infectious disease researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He added: “What the data show is that vaccinated individuals get infected less and have milder infection, and therefore the footprints of infection are smaller because you have less infection.”

Other experts agreed. “It’s a good thing that you have a reduction in anti-N antibodies because it shows the vaccines are doing their job,” said John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Experts also said it’s not clear that antibodies against the nucleocapsid provide protection against COVID-19, as Berenson suggests. Dr. Daniel Hoft, a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine who specializes in infectious diseases and researches vaccines, said in an email that anti-nucleocapsid-specific antibodies “to date have not been shown to provide any protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection and/or disease.”

In a response to the AP, Berenson cited a study that he suggested shows the importance of such antibodies. Sarah Caddy, an author of the study that Berenson cited and clinical research fellow at the University of Cambridge, noted in an email that the research was done in a mouse and used a different virus, not SARS-CoV-2. Caddy said while she believed N antibodies are important, “we have no idea how important they are relative to spike antibodies. Probably not so much, if the success of the spike vaccines is anything to go by.”

Rama Rao Amara, a professor of microbiology and immunology and associate director of vaccine development at the Emory Vaccine Center, said he and colleagues tested on monkeys a modified COVID-19 vaccine that induced antibodies to the nucleocapsid, in addition to the spike protein. “We didn’t see any evidence that antibodies to nucleocapsid were playing any role in protection,” Amara said.

Baden, the senior author of the preprint, said arguments suggesting that simply having more kinds of antibodies is inherently better aren’t rooted in data — especially when the vaccines’ protection through antibodies to the spike protein had proven effective at reducing illness and death. While Berenson’s post suggests the preprint was “quietly posted,” Baden said the paper is currently undergoing review for publication in an academic journal.

— Associated Press writer Angelo Fichera in Philadelphia contributed this report.

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Identity of Uvalde victim’s relatives fuels conspiracies

Claim: Two different men were identified in TV news interviews as the father of one of the children killed in the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, proof that the shooting was a “hoax.”

The facts: While some reports identified both Angel Garza and Alfred Garza III as the father of Amerie Jo Garza, Angel Garza is her stepfather while Alfred Garza III is her father.

A video circulating online is being used to cast doubt on the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers. The video shows a CNN clip that identifies Angel Garza as the father of 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza. The video then turns to an interview that NBC News conducted with Alfred Garza III. Amerie is identified as Alfred’s daughter.

“THINK WHILE ITS LEGAL,” wrote one Instagram user who shared the video on Saturday. The user included hashtags such as “#Hoax,” “#Fake,” and “#CGi” alongside the video, which was viewed over 13,000 times.

The video also circulated on several other social media platforms, prompting some to suggest that the shooting was staged. But the explanation is much simpler. As the AP reported last week, Angel Garza is Amerie Jo Garza’s stepfather. Carlos Mendoza, Amerie’s uncle, confirmed their relationship to the AP again on Tuesday.

An obituary published online by Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home, which is in Uvalde, also names Angel Garza as her stepfather, while Alfred Garza III is listed as her father.

Hundreds of mourners turned out on Tuesday for afternoon Mass to remember Amerie Jo Garza, the AP reported. Funeral services for the victims will continue over the next two-and-a-half weeks.

— Associated Press writers Angelo Fichera and Josh Kelety in Phoenix contributed this report.

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Video edited to alter Pfizer CEO’s comments on low-cost medicine program

Claim: Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla says the company’s dream is to “reduce the population by 50%” in 2023.

The facts: The video, recorded May 25, is altered to cut Bourla’s statement midsentence, twisting the meaning. A full video of the statement shows he states the goal is to “reduce the number of people in the world that cannot afford our medicines by 50%.”

Days after Bourla spoke at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on May 25, social media users shared the altered video of his remarks. At the event, Bourla announced a new program to provide all of Pfizer’s patented vaccines and medicines — already available in the U.S. and the European Union — at a low cost to 45 of the world’s poorest countries.

In a video of the remarks that the World Economic Forum posted on YouTube, Bourla clearly mentions medication. “I think that it’s really fulfilling of a dream that we had together with my leadership team when we started in ’19. The first week we met in January of ’19 in California to set up the goals for the next five years — and one of them was by 2023, we will reduce the number of people in the world that cannot afford our medicines by 50%. I think today this dream is becoming reality,” he states during the talk.

But in the clip circulating on social media, the second sentence has been deceptively edited to make it appear that Bourla was talking about reducing the world’s population: “The first week we met in January of ’19 in California to set up the goals for the next five years — and one of them was by 2023, we will reduce the number of people in the world by 50%,” he appears to say in the edited video.

The program includes 23 medicines and vaccines that treat infectious diseases, some cancers and rare and inflammatory conditions. The company says it will only charge for manufacturing costs and “minimal” distribution expenses, the AP has reported.

While most of the countries in the program are in Africa, also on the list are Haiti, Syria, Cambodia and North Korea. Keanna Ghazvini, a spokesperson for Pfizer, confirmed in an email that the video circulating on social media was edited.

— Associated Press writer Arijeta Lajka in New York contributed this report.

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Image of Costco gas pump screen was altered

Claim: A digital screen at a Costco gas pump reads, “Don’t blame us. Blame Joe Biden.”

The facts: The image has been manipulated to add the message.

As gas prices soar across the United States, some frustrated Americans are sharing an altered image that falsely suggests the warehouse retail chain Costco is publicly blaming President Joe Biden for fuel costs.

The image shows a digital screen at a Costco gas pump with a total price of nearly $150 for just over 26 gallons of gas. Text on a second screen below the price reads, “Don’t blame us. Blame Joe Biden.” On the lower left corner of the screen, two options appear available for selection: “Yes” and “Yes.” However, this image has been altered. The two “Yes” options at the bottom of the screen and a floating, out-of-place “Yes” near the top of the screen — each almost identical — indicate someone has tampered with the on-screen options, according to Hany Farid, a digital forensics expert and professor at University of California Berkeley’s School of Information.

An analysis of lines and angles in the image also indicates the text on the screen doesn’t belong there, Farid told the AP in an email. “The vanishing point corresponding to parallel lines on the screen, price, and ‘Don’t blame …’ text are inconsistent,” Farid wrote. “This is a common mistake made when manipulating text on a sign because the human visual system is not particularly good at reasoning about this type of perspective geometry.”

Costco posted a statement on Facebook on Tuesday that appeared to reference the fake image. “There have been several reports of scams and manipulated images related to Costco gas stations across various social media platforms,” the statement read. “These are in no way affiliated with or approved by Costco. Thanks to our members for bringing these to our attention.” Costco did not respond to a request for further comment.

— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York contributed this report.

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