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NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn’t happen this week

December 10, 2021 GMT
FILE - A medical staff member prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Tudor Ranch in Mecca, Calif. on Jan. 21, 2021.   On Friday, Dec. 10, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly claiming COVID-19 vaccines are causing a new illness called “VAIDS,” short for vaccine acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
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FILE - A medical staff member prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Tudor Ranch in Mecca, Calif. on Jan. 21, 2021. On Friday, Dec. 10, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly claiming COVID-19 vaccines are causing a new illness called “VAIDS,” short for vaccine acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
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FILE - A medical staff member prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Tudor Ranch in Mecca, Calif. on Jan. 21, 2021. On Friday, Dec. 10, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly claiming COVID-19 vaccines are causing a new illness called “VAIDS,” short for vaccine acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

COVID-19 vaccines don’t cause immunodeficiency syndrome

CLAIM: COVID-19 vaccines are causing a new illness called “VAIDS,” short for vaccine acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

THE FACTS: VAIDS is not a real condition, nor do COVID-19 vaccines cause a syndrome matching this description, an immunotherapy expert confirmed to The Associated Press. Doctors and activists with a history of pushing anti-vaccine misinformation are spreading fear about COVID-19 vaccines by falsely claiming the shots cause a new medical condition. Widely circulating Twitter and Reddit posts falsely identified VAIDS as an emerging condition that is “similar to AIDS but caused by the C19 jabs.” Some social media users kept their posts vague, asking, “What is VAIDS?” Meanwhile, Google searches for the term skyrocketed. A blogger identified only as “Jack” also claimed to have coined the term, writing on Nov. 23 that “sometimes, a situation calls for the creation of a brand new term,” and defining it as the “gradual destruction of the human immune system by vaccines.” In reality, there’s no such thing as VAIDS, and research shows the available COVID-19 vaccines provide recipients with increased protection against the coronavirus. “AIDS is a generalized body-wide compromise of a specific subset of immune cells (mostly CD4+ lymphocytes) caused specifically by infection with the HIV-1 virus,” said Dr. Grant McFadden, director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy at Arizona State University. “There is no vaccine-induced counterpart of AIDS.” Given that billions of people around the world have already been vaccinated against COVID-19, McFadden said, “if such a thing as VAIDS existed, we would have detected it by now.” A search across legitimate biomedical literature found no mention of vaccine acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others shows the COVID-19 vaccines boost the immune response. The mRNA vaccines work by training the immune system to recognize the spike protein on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19, allowing it to generate an immune response, experts say.

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

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Video shows July clash between Patriot Front members and bystanders

CLAIM: Video shows “white supremacists being chased out of DC by teens.”

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THE FACTS: The video circulating on social media on Tuesday shows members of Patriot Front, a group described by the Anti-Defamation League as white supremacist, in Philadelphia last July, not in Washington. On Dec. 4, Patriot Front members did stage a rally in Washington and march down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But social media users miscaptioned a video from the separate Philadelphia incident over the Fourth of July weekend to say it showed pedestrians confronting the group last week. “White supremacists being chased out of DC by teens with cellphones is exactly what I needed to see tonight,” a Twitter user who shared the video on Dec. 5 wrote. The video shows that during the July incident, Patriot Front members held up shields and retreated into trucks from Penske Truck Rental when approached by bystanders. The Associated Press reported at the time that pedestrians clashed with the group, estimated at 150 to 200 people, after it marched for several blocks through Center City wearing khaki pants and face coverings while carrying shields and flags. Police said they were chanting slogans such as “reclaim America” and “the election was stolen.” Penske Truck Rental addressed the video on their Twitter account on Dec. 4. “This footage is from a previous event in Philadelphia, which we strongly condemned at that time, and we continue to strongly condemn it. Penske stands firmly against racism. It is our current understanding that no Penske vehicles were involved in today’s event in Washington, D.C.”

— The Associated Press

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No, Switzerland has not approved a ‘suicide capsule’

CLAIM: Swiss regulatory agencies have formally approved the Sarco capsule, a mobile, 3D-printed chamber for carrying out assisted suicide.

THE FACTS: The device — which is still a prototype — has not been approved for use by any Swiss agencies. The machine’s creator, Philip Nitschke, says he did not seek such approval because he believes his organization does not need it under current legal guidelines. SwissMedic, the national authorization agency for drugs and medical products, confirmed to the AP that it had not approved the Sarco capsule and had not heard of it until it gained widespread media attention recently. That attention came after a story about the first-of-its-kind device designed as a vehicle for assisted suicide led to a flurry of false information. The article that inspired much of the coverage used language in its headline that many people incorrectly interpreted to mean the device has been authorized in Switzerland, when it has not. Nitschke says the Sarco capsule is a 3D-printed pod that, when activated by the user, becomes flooded with nitrogen until it fatally reduces the oxygen levels inside. There are currently two prototypes of the product, which are not being offered for sale or use. Nitschke has said a third prototype could be operational in early 2022. SwissInfo published a Q&A with Nitschke this week under the headline: “Sarco suicide capsule ‘passes legal review’ in Switzerland.” It was revised Wednesday to say: “Sarco suicide capsule hopes to enter Switzerland,” alongside a corrective editor’s note. But the correction came after the information was picked up by numerous media outlets that used language similar to the original headline. In some cases, stories and social media posts went even further, saying the device had passed formal regulatory approval in Switzerland, and was approved by medical or legal agencies. Assisted suicide is allowed in Switzerland under certain conditions. Nitschke said his nonprofit, Exit International, never pursued approval because it obtained outside legal opinion from a senior consultant who determined it did not need formal authorization or licensing to use the device. EXIT, an established organization currently offering assisted dying services in Switzerland, says it has questions about Sarco and the legal opinion obtained by Exit International, which is unaffiliated with their group. “EXIT does not see ‘Sarco’ as an alternative to the physician-assisted suicides that EXIT carries out in Switzerland,” EXIT Vice President Jürg Wiler wrote in an email. Nitschke said that while there may be dissenting legal opinions, a final decision may only be reached if someone were to bring a case to court after the machine has been used.

— Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in Atlanta contributed this report with additional reporting from Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva.

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News report on anti-vaccine kissing protests is fake

CLAIM: The German newspaper Deutsche Welle, or DW, published a report about recent protests in which thousands of people gathered to kiss each other in opposition to COVID-19 vaccines.

THE FACTS: There’s no evidence large crowds of people in Germany are locking lips in public to show their disdain for COVID-19 vaccines, despite a mock article claiming as much on Facebook and Twitter. An image circulating on social media claiming to show the article is doctored, and an accompanying photo of couples kissing in public was captured years before the pandemic. “German anti-vaccine protests outrage public health officials as thousands gather to kiss each other,” read the fake headline. A photo alongside the headline showed dozens of couples kissing in a crowd. But an internet search finds no article matching this description in DW’s archives, nor in any other credible news outlet. The photo in the post has been circulating online for at least a decade. The image, credited to the European Pressphoto Agency in 2011, shows couples taking part in a “World Kiss Marathon for Education at a square in Santiago, Chile,” according to a caption from the agency. A spokesperson for DW did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

— Ali Swenson

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EU leader has not called to scrap the Nuremberg Code

CLAIM: Ursula von der Leyen, the chief of the European Union’s executive arm, has called for eliminating the Nuremberg Code.

THE FACTS: Speaking at a press conference, von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, did not call for scrapping the Nuremberg Code, a set of ethical research principles intended to protect people from involuntary experiments and abuse. In fact, she never mentioned it. She called on EU countries to consider making COVID-19 vaccines mandatory. Critics of vaccine mandates have repeatedly claimed that such policies violate the Nuremberg Code, but experts have told The Associated Press that is incorrect, because the COVID-19 vaccines aren’t experimental. False claims began appearing around von der Leyen’s comments last week, when several conservative blogs published posts featuring the inaccurate assertion in their headlines. The claim then spread onto social media, with users linking to the articles or posting screenshots, and the posts continued to circulate widely over the weekend. But video of the Dec. 1 press conference in Brussels shows von der Leyen never mentioned the Nuremberg Code at all, nor was she asked about it by reporters at the event. Video shows that von der Leyen discussed the importance of vaccination to combat the omicron variant, and said EU member countries should consider mandatory vaccinations. When a reporter asked for her position on Greece’s recent announcement that it will mandate the vaccine for people over the age of 60, von der Leyen replied: “This is pure member state competence, therefore in respect to that, it’s not me to give any kind of recommendation.” Asked about the false claims, a spokesperson for the European Commission pointed to the video of von der Leyen’s comments on Greece in the press conference, and reiterated that any decision to enact vaccine mandates would be up to individual European countries. Legal and medical ethics experts told the AP last week that the Nuremberg Code is intended to protect people from involuntary experiments and abuse. The code, which was written in 1947, stems from a military tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, where Nazi scientists who conducted heinous experiments on inmates in concentration camps were prosecuted after World War II. In contrast, the COVID-19 vaccines, which have already undergone clinical trials, are not experimental. Similarly, vaccine mandates don’t constitute experiments.

— Associated Press writers Karena Phan in Sacramento, Calif., and Josh Kelety in Phoenix contributed this report.

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‘Christmas card’ attributed to Trump is fake

CLAIM: Image shows former President Donald Trump’s Christmas card.

THE FACTS: The image has been edited. The photo of Trump was taken at a state banquet at Buckingham Palace in 2019, but was altered in a crass way and placed next to a Christmas message. Social media users on Monday shared the bogus Christmas card purportedly released by Trump. The fabricated card states “Merry Christmas: From the Winter White House December 2021,” and shows Trump in a tuxedo in front of a nativity scene, underneath Santa Claus’s sleigh and reindeer. It shows all of Trump’s children except for Barron, leading social media users to question why Barron wasn’t included on the card. But the image has been edited to add phallic elements in a way that mocks Trump. The original image was from a press photo taken at Buckingham Palace on June 3, 2019. A comparison between the two pictures shows Trump’s dress shirt and tuxedo coat were edited to make their edges look more round. Santa’s sleigh and reindeer are suggestively placed to look like they are shooting from his head. A representative for Trump did not return a request for comment.

— The Associated Press

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Posts cite old interview to falsely claim BioNTech CEO isn’t vaccinated

CLAIM: Video shows that the CEO of BioNTech, Dr. Ugur Sahin, will not take the COVID-19 vaccine that his firm developed with Pfizer.

THE FACTS: Social media posts are misrepresenting an interview that Sahin gave in December 2020. He received the vaccine the next month, a company spokesperson confirmed. Social media users shared the year-old interview from the news outlet Deutsche Welle to erroneously claim that the CEO of the German biotechnology firm, which developed a COVID-19 vaccine with Pfizer, won’t receive the vaccine. “Dr Ugur Sahin CEO of BioNTech and inventor of the BIO N TECH Pfizer jab refuses to take the jab for safety reasons,” stated one widely shared tweet that cited the December 2020 video. But that interview took place early on, just as the vaccine rollout began. Answering a question about why he was not yet vaccinated, Sahin said that he was “legally not allowed to take the vaccine at the moment” and later explained that he was not in a priority group at that time to receive the vaccine. Sahin also said it was “more important for us that our coworkers and partners get vaccinated. Our goal is to produce more than 1.3 billion doses in 2021, and that can only be done if we can really continue to work 24/7, without any interruption, and we need to ensure that we protect the coworkers and our team members from COVID-19 infection because that would mean interruption and delay.” A BioNTech spokesperson told The Associated Press that the claims about Sahin’s vaccination status were “wrong” and that he received his first two doses in early 2021. The spokesperson pointed to an interview that Sahin did with The Times of London in September, in which the CEO said he and his wife — Özlem Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer — “got our shots at the end of January this year.”

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

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