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Claims mislead about COVID-19 vaccines’ effectiveness against omicron

December 29, 2021 GMT

CLAIM: COVID-19 vaccines don’t provide protection against the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. While it’s true that people who are vaccinated can still get infected with omicron, early research has shown that the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death stemming from the new variant.

THE FACTS: A video clip circulating on social media shows Dr. Robert Malone, a frequent critic of the COVID-19 vaccines who has researched mRNA vaccine technology, stating that the shots don’t protect people from omicron. The comments were made during a Dec. 17 interview with Laura Ingraham, a Fox News host, on her show the “The Ingraham Angle.”

“Omicron blows right through the vaccines and through the triple jabbed,” Malone said. “Omicron is very, very infectious and the data are already in that both the double and triple vaccination is not protecting you from omicron.”

The interview segment garnered more than 550,000 views on Facebook by late Tuesday and was widely shared on Twitter. Social media users repeated Malone’s claim that the COVID-19 vaccines, particularly boosters, don’t provide protection against the omicron variant.

But the claim is misleading, infectious disease experts say. Preliminary research has shown that while mRNA vaccines are less effective at preventing infection from the omicron variant, the shots are still very effective at preventing severe illness and death.

“It’s misleading. It implies that there is no benefit to boosting in the face of omicron and that is not true,” Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Associated Press. “And it also implies that there is no benefit in the face of omicron to being vaccinated and that’s also not true.”

Beyrer said the evidence is “very clear” that vaccines, along with vaccine boosters, are “effective against omicron in preventing serious disease, hospitalization and death.”

A preliminary analysis of data from South Africa showed that while people who got two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were only 33 percent less likely to get infected than unvaccinated people during the nation’s omicron surge, they still had a 70 percent lower risk of hospitalization. The data has not been peer-reviewed and did not include people with booster shots.

Both Pfizer and Moderna have also announced initial findings that booster shots of their vaccines provide good protection against omicron.

Allison Bartlett, an associate professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in infectious diseases in children, said there is a “growing body of data” showing that the vaccines are protective against the worst outcomes caused by the omicron variant.

She pointed to preliminary modeling produced by researchers in the U.K. that predicted that boosters of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines would provide significant protection against hospitalization and death caused by omicron. The modeling has not been peer-reviewed.

“Vaccination is not foolproof against any infection or any mildly symptomatic infection,” Bartlett said. “If your expectation is that a vaccine completely prevents any disease at all, I think you’re going to be disappointed. If you want to not die, you should get vaccinated.”

Natascha Tuznik, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of California, Davis, said that while Malone’s comments aren’t “completely inaccurate,” they omitted a “lot of information” that could mislead people or reenforce some people’s existing beliefs that the vaccines aren’t effective.

She said that while “there’s a growing body of preliminary research to suggest that most of the COVID-19 vaccines offer little to no defense against infection from omicron,” the initial research also shows that mRNA vaccines do “protect against” hospitalization and death caused by omicron.

Much is still unknown about the omicron variant, including whether it causes more or less severe illness. The U.K. Health Security Agency released data last week showing that people who contracted omicron were less likely to go to a hospital emergency department compared to a person infected with the delta variant. However, the agency also warned that the analysis is “preliminary and highly uncertain.”

Malone did not respond to the AP’s request for comment.

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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.