CoronavirusCovid-19FactCheck.org

Indiana Doctor Piles On Bogus COVID-19 Claims in Viral Video

 

SciCheck Digest

In a viral video, an Indiana physician baselessly claimed that the COVID-19 vaccines, which have been shown to be safe and effective, “fight the virus wrong and let the virus become worse than it would with native infection.” He also incorrectly said no vaccine prevents infection and contended that people previously infected with COVID-19 do not benefit from vaccination, despite studies that suggest otherwise.

 


Full Story

A cascade of false and misleading claims undercutting public health guidance about COVID-19 has been widely circulating on social media.

The video, viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube alone, features an Indiana doctor urging his school district to eschew guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On July 27, the CDC cited the highly contagious delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 when it recommended that everyone — students, teachers, staff and visitors — wear a mask inside schools, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC has also emphasized the importance of vaccination in getting students back to in-person classes.

“Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the CDC’s guidance. “Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.”

But, at an Aug. 6 meeting of the Mt. Vernon Board of School Trustees, Dr. Daniel Stock claimed that the CDC and other government health agencies “don’t bother to read science” before making their recommendations.

Stock, who runs a direct primary care practice that sells vitamins and supplements online, then launched into a roughly six-minute recitation of some popular but dubious claims about COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, in an effort to persuade the school board to forgo public health guidance. We’ll address some of his major points below, most of which we’ve debunked before.

The social media accounts that have shared the viral versions of this video are political, not medical or scientific. For example, Sebastian Gorka, a one-time aide to former President Donald Trump and host of a conservative podcast, shared the video with his 1 million followers on Twitter and posted a version that was viewed 1.8 million times on Instagram. FactCheck.org reached out to Stock for comment, but did not receive a reply.

Misleading Claim on Face Masks

In addressing the use of face masks, one of the most common targets for COVID-19 misinformation, Stock told the board: “So, things you should know about coronavirus and all other respiratory viruses — they are spread by aerosol particles, which are small enough to go through every mask, by the way.” Stock cited studies contained on a flash drive given to the school board. It’s unclear what studies Stock is citing; he did not return our call for comment, and the school district declined to provide us with a copy of the flash drive contents.

When we wrote about a similar claim in April, J. Alex Huffman, an aerosol scientist at the University of Denver, explained to us that “there is a wide distribution of particle sizes emitted when people breathe, speak, sing, or cough, but the range is anywhere from tens of nanometers to hundreds of microns. Most of these, even after evaporation, are easily removed by good masks.”

The aerosols and droplets that carry the virus get blocked as air tries to pass through the mask fibers — as Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who studies airborne disease transmission, have explained in the journal Med.

“Masks work by blocking or filtering out viruses that are carried in aerosols,” the authors wrote. The “air must curve as it flows around individual, tightly packed fibers of the material, like a race car swerving around cones of an obstacle course. As the air curves, the aerosols it carries cannot make the sharp bends and therefore slam into the fibers, or they come too close to the fibers and stick to them.”

As we’ve explained, there have been a number of studies, particularly in labs, showing that face masks can help reduce transmission — though such studies do have their limitations. Also, the material, layers and fit of a mask all factor into how effective it is.

It’s worth noting that masks are not considered to be foolproof — but instead one measure to help limit the spread of COVID-19. For more information on the research surrounding face masks, see our SciCheck story “The Evolving Science of Face Masks and COVID-19.”

No Support for Immune Enhancement Claim

Stock claims the COVID-19 vaccines “fight the virus wrong and let the virus become worse than it would with native infection.” He blames outbreaks of COVID-19 on “antibody-mediated viral enhancement,” a “condition done when vaccines work wrong, as they did in every coronavirus study done in animals on coronaviruses after the SARS outbreak and done in respiratory syncytial virus.”

As we’ve explained before, that issue — known as antibody-dependent enhancement of disease, or ADE — occurs when a previous infection or vaccination generates antibodies that don’t neutralize the virus but instead enhance the virus’ ability to infect cells, which can lead to a worse illness instead of preventing it.

But ADE hasn’t been an issue in the animal studies and clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccines — not to mention their real-world rollout.

The phenomenon in question was indeed seen in a vaccine trial in the 1960s against respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. Regarding vaccine work on previous coronaviruses, a 2012 study found that vaccine candidates for the coronavirus behind the SARS outbreak of 2003 caused mice to develop eosinophilia — a high count of a type of white blood cells — when exposed to the live virus. Similar issues were encountered in mice tested with a vaccine candidate for MERS, another disease caused by a coronavirus.

That’s why vaccine experts publicly discussed the need to be cognizant of potential enhancement issues when COVID-19 vaccine research got underway in early 2020.

“Antibody-dependent Enhancement was one of the questions of concern before development and testing of vaccines,” Dr. Walter Orenstein, associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center, told us in an email. “But if anything, the data show just the opposite. Breakthrough infections are milder in general to infections in the unvaccinated, particularly around hospitalizations and deaths.”

The vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 continue to be among those not fully vaccinated, as a recent analysis of state-level breakthrough infection data by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows. (Of course, as we’ve explained, when more and more of the population becomes vaccinated, the proportion of cases among vaccinated individuals will also rise.)

In proposing that the vaccines worsen disease, Stock also makes the false claim that the July outbreak of COVID-19 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, was somehow due to the vaccines.

“That is why you are seeing an outbreak right now,” he said. “75% of people who had COVID-19-positive symptom cases in Barnstable, Massachusetts, outbreak, were fully vaccinated,” he added, to applause.

Later, he iterated his claim, saying, “This vaccine was supposedly going to make all this go away, but it suddenly managed to make an outbreak of COVID-19 develop in the middle of the summer.”

But there is no evidence that when outbreaks occur that they’re because of or made worse by vaccination. On the contrary, experts say the vaccines are doing their job, keeping outbreaks from otherwise being more severe.

Here, Stock is distorting the findings of a paper published on July 30 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which found that 74% of the 469 people included in the study who were infected with the coronavirus after being in Provincetown in the first half of July were vaccinated.

As we have previously explained, however, the 74% is misleading without more context, and doesn’t mean that the vaccines don’t work. That’s because even with a very effective vaccine you still expect some COVID-19 cases in vaccinated people — and the proportion of cases among the immunized can be high if much of the population has been vaccinated.

“The 74% needs to be put in the context that a very high proportion of the people exposed were vaccinated,” William P. Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told us. “It suggests that in the absence of vaccination the outbreak would have been much larger.”

While the Provincetown outbreak has garnered a lot of news coverage, it’s far from the only outbreak of COVID-19 in the country, as Stock incorrectly implies. COVID-19 cases are on the rise across the U.S. as the highly contagious delta variant has spread, but particularly so in places with low vaccination rates. Only a tiny fraction of people who have been vaccinated have died or fallen seriously ill from COVID-19, according to federal and state data.

Some Vaccines Do Reduce Infection and Transmission

Stock also falsely claimed that “no vaccine … ever stops infection” and that vaccines do nothing for transmission, citing an outbreak of mumps in the National Hockey League in 2014.

“No vaccine prevents you from getting [an] infection,” he said. “You get infected, you shed pathogen. This is especially true of viral respiratory pathogens. You just don’t get symptomatic from it. So you cannot stop spread, you cannot make these numbers that you’ve planned on get better by doing any of the things you’re doing.”

It’s true that most vaccines aren’t able to prevent infection. But as we’ve written, that’s not a reason to skip vaccination, since the vaccines still work to protect against disease, which is their primary purpose.

And it’s false to claim that no vaccines prevent infection or that vaccines can’t stop the spread of diseases. Some vaccines, such as those for the measles, hepatitis A and human papillomavirus, or HPV, can prevent infection since they trigger sterilizing immunity, which is when antibodies glom onto a pathogen and remove it before it has a chance to enter cells and set up an infection.

Many other vaccines that aren’t able to produce sterilizing immunity nevertheless can reduce transmission because vaccinated people typically shed less virus, for example, making them less contagious.

And in fact, there is evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines do reduce infection and transmission, although not completely — hence the recommendation from public health officials to continue to take some precautions, particularly when transmission levels in the community are high or if you or those around you are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

For example, as the CDC outlines in its scientific brief on vaccination, subsequent data from some of the vaccine clinical trials and multiple studies of real-world effectiveness suggest that immunization reduces asymptomatic infection.

One study from the U.K., published in June in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that household transmission was 40% to 50% lower from infected vaccinated people than from infected unvaccinated people. More than 90% of the vaccinated people in the study had received only one dose of a two-dose vaccine.

The CDC recently changed its guidance on masking for the vaccinated in light of the delta variant, based in part on findings from the Provincetown outbreak showing that, at the time of diagnosis, infected vaccinated and unvaccinated people harbored similar amounts of viral RNA.

But as we’ve noted, viral RNA is not the same as infectious virus, and it’s unlikely that infected vaccinated people would be as contagious as their unvaccinated peers. Even if they are, vaccinated people would still be less likely to spread the virus, since they’re less likely to be infected in the first place.

Throughout his speech, Stock was also focused on saying that “no one can make this virus go away,” contrasting the situation to that of smallpox, which was eradicated more than 40 years ago.

But this is neither news, nor is it relevant to the main purpose of vaccination, which is to get the current pandemic under control with the fewest lives lost. Scientists have suspected for some time that the coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, would not just “go away,” as we wrote in May 2020.

Studies Do Show a Vaccination Benefit for Previously Infected

Contrary to Stock’s claim that people who recovered from COVID-19 “get no benefit from vaccination at all,” studies show the COVID-19 vaccines provide an immunity boost to those who previously recovered from an infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

For instance, a study by U.K. researchers published Aug. 10 in the journal Science Translational Medicine found that two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in previously infected individuals increased the immune response to variants of the coronavirus, including the beta and gamma variants. The researchers evaluated blood samples from 45 health care workers who had been fully vaccinated, comparing a group that had a previous infection with the novel coronavirus with a group that had no evidence of a past infection.

The authors noted that past studies had found a single vaccine dose can improve the immune response of previously infected people. (We wrote about such studies here.) But this research found that natural infection followed by a two-dose regimen of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine increased antibody concentration and neutralization of the gamma and beta variants at a comparable level as to the original virus.

“Our data provide compelling evidence that neutralizing potency and breadth is further increased following a vaccine boost, and this effect is even greater if the vaccine recipient has had prior infection with SARS-CoV-2,” the study said.

In the video, Stock said that studies on his flash drive “show that people who have recovered from COVID infection actually get no benefit from vaccination at all. No reduction in symptoms, no reduction in hospitalization. And suffer 2-4 times the rate of side effects if they are subsequently vaccinated.” It’s unclear to what studies Stock is referring.

A group called Hancock County Patriots listed several studies in an online posting about Stock’s remarks. Among those studies, one would be relevant to this issue, but it doesn’t support Stock’s claim.

That study, published on July 14 in Cell Reports Medicine, evaluated 254 COVID-19 patients over several months, finding that most mounted broad immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 for up to 250 days. The researchers, from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and Emory University in Atlanta, didn’t evaluate the impact of vaccination on those patients. They did say the findings suggested that individuals could mount a rapid immune response if they were exposed to COVID-19 again or vaccinated.

An early version of the paper, posted in April before peer-review, included this sentence: “Thus, recovered COVID-19 patients are likely to better defend against the variants than persons who have not been infected but have been immunized with spike-containing vaccines only.” But that sentence was removed before the paper was published, and the lead author of the study told PolitiFact.com that the sentence had been taken out of context.

Kristen Cohen, a senior staff scientist in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told PolitiFact.com the sentence was a hypothesis, not a definitive finding, in the discussion section. “We did not intend to argue that infected people do not need to get vaccinated or that their immune responses are superior,” Cohen told PolitiFact.

Another study in which Cohen and colleagues at the Fred Hutchinson Center participated, published in Science on June 25, found that vaccination may “offer a valuable boost” to the immune responses against variant viruses of those who had previously been infected.

That study analyzed blood samples from 15 previously infected individuals both before and after one or two doses of the mRNA vaccines, from Pfizer and Moderna, and it analyzed samples from 13 individuals without prior infection after two vaccine doses. It found that a single shot provided the immunity boost for the previously infected. “Our study highlights the importance of vaccinating both uninfected and previously infected persons to elicit cross-variant neutralizing antibodies,” the authors said.

Also, a real-world retrospective study by the CDC in Kentucky found unvaccinated residents who were infected with the coronavirus in 2020 had a 2.34 times higher risk of being reinfected in May and June 2021, compared with those who were fully vaccinated. The study, published Aug. 6 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, said it suggested that “among previously infected persons, full vaccination is associated with reduced likelihood of reinfection, and, conversely, being unvaccinated is associated with higher likelihood of being reinfected.”

The CDC noted this was a study on one state with a short reinfection period and that more research was needed.

It’s possible Stock was referring to an unpublished study, which hasn’t been peer-reviewed, that followed employees at the Cleveland Clinic Health System for five months, beginning on Dec. 16, 2020, the day vaccination against COVID-19 began. It found that none of the 2,579 previously infected workers got COVID-19 again over those five months. The only group that did see an increase in infections were the previously uninfected who remained unvaccinated.

The observations led the authors to conclude: “Individuals who have had SARS-CoV-2 infection are unlikely to benefit from COVID-19 vaccination, and vaccines can be safely prioritized to those who have not been infected before.” But the Cleveland Clinic issued a statement saying it recommended that everyone who is eligible for the vaccine receive it.

The statement noted that researchers don’t know how long the immune system protects against reinfection, that the population in the study was younger and healthier than the general population, and that more research was needed.

Lack of Evidence for Vitamin D, Ivermectin

Stock suggested that an anti-parasitic drug called ivermectin could be used along with supplements to effectively treat COVID-19, a claim similar to one we’ve addressed before.

“I can tell you,” Stock said in the video, “having treated over 15 COVID-19 patients, that between active loading with vitamin D, ivermectin and zinc, that there is not a single person who has come anywhere near the hospital.”

But available data on ivermectin hasn’t shown a benefit in reducing symptom duration, hospitalization or mortality for COVID-19 patients, Dr. David Boulware, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota, told us in an email.

As we’ve explained before, neither the World Health Organization nor the National Institutes of Health has recommended the use of ivermectin in the treatment of COVID-19, and Merck, which manufactures the drug, has similarly noted that there is no “meaningful evidence for clinical activity or clinical efficacy in patients with COVID-19 disease.”

Ivermectin does have antiviral properties, and it’s among a few repurposed medicines that the NIH is studying for use in COVID-19 patients. But the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved it to treat any viral infections to date.

The FDA has, however, warned against the use of veterinary ivermectin since patients have been hospitalized after taking a version of the drug intended for horses as interest in it as treatment for COVID-19 has grown.

Boulware also addressed Stock’s claim about vitamin D, noting that “observational data have limitations.”

It’s true that vitamin D, which is mostly associated with bone health, plays a part in the immune system. But that doesn’t mean it’s a panacea for COVID-19, as we’ve explained before.

“Having a low vitamin D level is associated with bad outcomes in COVID-19,” Boulware wrote. “Vitamin D is also associated with bad outcomes in heart disease, cancer, infections, and all sorts of medical conditions. Unfortunately, supplementing vitamin D does not necessary reverse these bad outcomes. But most people do need for Vitamin D in their diets, and taking Vitamin D at normal doses is likely to be beneficial in general and unlikely to be harmful.”

Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over our editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.

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