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False claims circulate around Italian COVID-19 study

May 28, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: Italy discovers through autopsies that COVID-19 is “not a virus, but a bacterium,” which clots the blood. COVID-19 can “easily” be treated with aspirin and blood thinning medicine. 

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Posts circulating on social media misrepresent information from an Italian study of people who died of COVID-19. The study, which examined 100 autopsies, referred to COVID-19 as a virus, not bacterium. COVID-19 does not respond to antibiotics, and anticoagulants can’t treat the infection. Blood clotting is a complication that can happen in patients infected with COVID-19. 

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THE FACTS: The widely-shared post, which includes multiple false claims, misrepresents information from an Italian study in which medical experts performed autopsies on patients with COVID-19. The study, which has not been peer reviewed, found that COVID-19 can cause blood clots that can damage the lungs. 

While the study clearly states COVID-19 is a virus, the post says, “Italy has allegedly discovered Covid is not a virus, but a bacterium.” The post goes on to say that the study was done against a World Health Organization “law” that no bodies be autopsied, which is not accurate. 

The Italian study, conducted by pathologists, refers to COVID-19 as an outbreak caused by a new coronavirus infection. 

“COVID 19 is for sure a virus and antibiotics do not have any effect against this infection,” Aurelio Sonzogni, a pathologist at Ospedale Papa Giovanni XXIII, a hospital in Bergamo, and an author of the report, told the AP in an email. 

“In spite of intensive breath support, many patients showed unclear signs and symptoms, sometimes in conjunction with unexpected complications; so we were asked and stressed to perform post mortem,” he said, explaining the reason for the autopsies.  

Sonzogni said that by performing 100 autopsies, they found that “COVID 19 was able to trigger a damage to blood vessels of lungs and of other organs, leading to diffuse thrombotic occlusions.” Thrombotic occlusions happen when a blood clot forms inside the blood vessels. 

The WHO does not have a rule against autopsies, as the post states. It does offer guidance on performing autopsies on dead bodies infected with COVID-19. According to WHO, autopsies can be performed as long as adequate safety measures are followed. 

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According to AP reporting, it’s not clear how many patients with the virus develop the clots. But studies from China, Europe and the U.S. suggest that they develop in anywhere from 3% to 70% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19. The National Institutes of Health says more research is needed. Patients commonly receive blood thinning drugs for prevention, the AP noted. 

“We have lots of reports that are strongly suggesting that patients with COVID-19 have a lot more clotting particularly in the veins than you would expect,” Scott Kaatz, clinical professor of medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine, told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “We don’t know if it’s something particularly about the disease itself or that some patients get so sick they are prone to clotting.” 

The posts also falsely states, “Ventilators and ICU units were not necessary,” for those infected with COVID-19, and suggest that aspirin and anticoagulants can “easily” treat the virus instead.  

Some doctors are moving away from treating patients using ventilators, but it is because they are seeking new, less invasive ways of treating the virus, according to AP reporting. And while anticoagulants may be used to address blood clots, doctors can’t just treat the infection with blood thinners. 

“Clotting is triggered by many illnesses,” Agnes Lee, medical director of the Thrombosis Program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, told the AP. “We do not use aspirin or anticoagulants to treat infection. That’s not the use for these medications.” 

She noted blood clotting is a complication of COVID-19 and severe infections. “Anticoagulants are treating a complication of the COVID,” she said. 

Another false claim in the post states that Italy is “demanding Bill Gates and the World Health Organization be held accountable for ‘crimes against humanity’ for misleading, misdirecting, and withholding life saving information from the world, which cost the lives of thousands.” The government has made no such demand.

However, in the last few months there have been several conspiracy theories swirling online that target Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft, for his work around vaccines.

On May 14, one politician in the Italian parliament, Sara Cunial, an independent member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, made a speech suggesting that Gates be arrested. She is part of the populist 5-Star Movement, whose founder Beppe Grillo casts doubt on vaccines, pharmaceutical companies and the health industry. 

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536