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False claims circulate about Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis

January 13, 2023 GMT
FILE - In this Sunday, Nov. 17, 1991 file picture, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, center, is greeted by Atlanta Hawk's Dominique Wilkins before the start of the Hawks' game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the forum in Inglewood, Calif. It was Johnson's first appearance at the Forum since announcing his retirement from the NBA because he had tested positive for the AIDS virus. On Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, The Associated Press reported on false claims that Johnson contracted HIV from a contaminated Hepatitis B vaccine. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
FILE - In this Sunday, Nov. 17, 1991 file picture, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, center, is greeted by Atlanta Hawk's Dominique Wilkins before the start of the Hawks' game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the forum in Inglewood, Calif. It was Johnson's first appearance at the Forum since announcing his retirement from the NBA because he had tested positive for the AIDS virus. On Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, The Associated Press reported on false claims that Johnson contracted HIV from a contaminated Hepatitis B vaccine. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

CLAIM: Magic Johnson contracted HIV from a contaminated Hepatitis B vaccine as part of a study run by Dr. Anthony Fauci decades ago.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The Lakers legend has said he believes he contracted the virus from unprotected sex. Johnson didn’t comment on the latest claims, but in the past has credited Fauci, who had been a leading researcher when AIDS first emerged, with helping him cope with his diagnosis, which prompted him to retire from the NBA.

THE FACTS: Social media users are sharing a video claiming that contaminated vaccines were the reason the Hall of Fame basketball player contracted HIV, the virus that causes the immune system-damaging disease AIDS.

The clip, which features an interview with a scientist opposed to vaccinations, is widely circulating as unfounded claims about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines continue to proliferate following the on-field collapse of Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin earlier this month.

“Why did Magic Johnson test positive for HIV?” the scientist wrote in an Instagram post that included the 37-second video. “Because Fauci’s gain of function study used a contaminated Hepatitis B vaccine. Targeting the susceptible then & now!”

No evidence was provided in the video to support the allegations being made.

The post, which also includes the hashtags #DiedSuddenlyNews, #truth and #Vaccines, has been viewed more than 17,200 times as of Friday.

Alexia Grevious Henderson, vice president for Magic Johnson Enterprises, confirmed in an email that the five-time NBA champion has long said he believes he contracted the virus from unprotected sex.

“I am certain that I was infected by having unprotected, sex with a woman who has the virus,” Johnson wrote in an article for Sports Illustrated in November 1991, shortly after revealing the diagnosis that would force his early retirement at the age of 32. “The problem is that I can’t pinpoint the time, the place or the woman. It’s a matter of numbers. Before I was married, I truly lived the bachelor’s life. I’m no Wilt Chamberlain, but as I traveled around NBA cities, I was never at a loss for female companionship.”

Johnson has also never mentioned any link to the hepatitis B vaccine or any other inoculation, nor has he blamed Dr. Fauci for his condition, Grevious Henderson confirmed. In fact, he’s credited Fauci and other prominent AIDS researchers for helping him come to terms with his diagnosis early on.

“They helped me understand that I had to take my meds,” Johnson said during an appearance on The View last year in which he thanked Fauci specifically. “I had to be comfortable with my new status, make sure I kept a positive attitude, and keep working out, and so I’ve been doing that. Here I am 30 years later.”

Before he was the face of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fauci led research that eventually transformed HIV into a manageable chronic disease.

The longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in recent years, also led efforts to develop a cure for hepatitis B, a virus that can also be transmitted through sexual contact like HIV. Fauci and spokespersons for his former agency didn’t respond to emails seeking comment Friday.

On Nov, 7, 1991, Johnson stunned the sports world when he announced his immediate retirement from basketball after testing positive for the then-largely unknown virus.

He returned to the league two more times before retiring for the final time in 1996.

Now 63, Johnson has become a high-profile advocate for HIV awareness and prevention. Medication has also helped keep his HIV at an undetectable level and he has never developed AIDS.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.