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Photo showing facial paralysis is falsely linked to COVID-19 vaccine trial

December 17, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: Photo shows Pfizer’s vaccine trial participants that developed facial paralysis. 

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. An image showing three people with facial paralysis is circulating online and is erroneously being connected to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine trials, which documented four cases of Bell’s palsy among people who received the vaccine. The photo was actually taken from a 2019 online manuscript showing the spectrum of what facial palsy can look like. 

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THE FACTS: Recent posts on social media falsely claimed an image of three people with facial paralysis were COVID-19 vaccine trial participants who had reported Bell’s palsy, a disorder that causes paralysis on one side of the face and is temporary for about 70 percent of people. 

The image shows three people against a bright blue background. They have facial paralysis. 

An Instagram user shared the photo with a caption suggesting the people in the photo were trial volunteers: “Four trial participants who received the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine experienced facial paralysis.”

“These are 3 of the 4 volunteers who developed Bells palsy after being vaccinated with the Pfizer covid experimental vaccine. Masks anyone?” a Twitter user, who shared the photo, falsely claimed. 

But the photos are not from the vaccine trials. In actuality, the photos were published in an online manuscript published in April 2019 that displayed the complete spectrum of facial palsy with 60 patient photographs.

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for emergency use after reviewing data from more than 37,000 volunteers who were tracked for two months after receiving shots as part of a clinical trial. 

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And while four people who received the vaccine in the Pfizer trial did report Bell’s palsy, experts say that number of cases is consistent with the general population and there is no definite link at this time suggesting the condition was caused by the vaccine. None of the participants who received the placebo reported the condition.  

In an interview with JAMA on Monday, Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the FDA, said the cases of Bell’s palsy were most likely not caused by the vaccine. 

An FDA briefing on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine published on Dec. 10 noted that “The observed frequency of reported Bell’s palsy in the vaccine group is consistent with the expected background rate in the general population, and there is no clear basis upon which to conclude a causal relationship at this time.” 

Out of 30,000 people who were part of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial, three participants who were vaccinated developed Bell’s palsy, along with one person in the placebo group. “Currently available information is insufficient to determine a causal relationship with the vaccine,” states an FDA briefing document on the Moderna vaccine, which is undergoing the final stages of review.  

The FDA recommends monitoring people who receive the COVID-19 vaccine for possible cases of Bell’s palsy, even though there’s no established link between the vaccine and the condition. 

“I cannot recall a patient with any type of tight correlation to a vaccine,” explained Dr. Jon-Paul Pepper, director of the Stanford Facial Nerve Center, who works with Bell’s palsy patients. 

Dr. Tessa Hadlock, director of the Facial Nerve Center at Massachusetts Eye and Ear infirmary, published the original photos of patients with facial palsy and told The Associated Press on Wednesday she was disappointed to see them circulating in a misleading way. “Somebody took a photograph that I published completely out of context to scare people out of getting the vaccine,” said Hadlock, who specializes in facial paralysis. 

We had dozens of calls yesterday inquiring about the risks of the development of facial paralysis in the setting of receiving the vaccine, which indicates to me that we have a pretty serious public health scare that’s totally unfounded,” Hadlock said. 

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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/195230715813153