SciCheck Digest

Scientists are still learning about the omicron variant’s ability to spread or cause severe illness and the effectiveness of the current COVID-19 vaccines in fighting it. But a Facebook post misleadingly claims to list seven “symptoms” of the new variant, then suggests they are caused by the vaccines. The list actually refers to complications of COVID-19. Two of the listed conditions are rare adverse events associated with the vaccines.

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Less than a week after the World Health Organization classified a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and designated it by the Greek letter omicron, officials reported the first confirmed case in the U.S.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House briefing on Dec. 1 that the patient, who had been vaccinated but had not yet qualified for a booster, had experienced minor symptoms and was improving while self-quarantining in California.

By Dec. 5, omicron cases had been found in 15 states in the U.S. Confirmed cases also had cropped up in Europe, Israel, Australia and Canada.

As we have reported, scientists have cautioned that while there are reasons to be concerned about omicron, it’s not yet known whether the variant is more likely than others to spread easily or cause severe disease.

On Dec. 5, appearing on CNN, Fauci said: “Thus far, it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it. But we really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness, comparable to delta.”

But a tweet posted on Nov. 28 misleadingly suggested that omicron’s “symptoms” are actually caused by the COVID-19 vaccines.

The post lists “Some of the symptoms for the Omicron Variant” as “Heart failure, Arrhythmia, Heart inflammation (Myocarditis/Pericarditis), Blood clots, Strokes, Peripheral Nerve Damage, Multi Organ Failure.” The post then misleadingly states: “Omicron sounds like the complications from a certain experimental drug, doesn’t it?”

There have been very rare cases of heart inflammation and blood clots associated with certain COVID-19 vaccines, as we will explain later. But there is no evidence that the vaccines cause any of the other listed conditions. All seven “symptoms” are complications of COVID-19 – which is why public health officials have said that the benefit of vaccines far outweigh the risks.

The post, which was shared widely on Facebook, appears to have borrowed its content from the website of the Canadian organization Alberta Nationals, which describes itself on its Twitter account as a “grassroots movement promoting the diaspora of the unvaccinated to Alberta, separation from Canada & nationalization of oil & gas.”

A Nov. 28 article on the website claimed “the symptoms listed of the new Omicron Variant of Coronavirus” includes “a number of heart-related complications … including heart failure, arrhythmias, heart inflammation, and blood clots.”

The article also made the baseless claim that “bureaucrats are already using the Omicron Variant to disguise the rapid increase in sudden and unexplained cardiac deaths in the vaccinated; just as they did with the Delta Variant.”

Complications of COVID-19

The ill-effects listed in the Facebook post and the online article are not “symptoms” but complications that have been known to develop in those sickened by COVID-19, Ian Musgrave, a molecular pharmacologist/toxicologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, told us in an email.

COVID-19 complications have included arrhythmia, strokes, peripheral nerve damage and multi-organ failure, Musgrave said, adding “some [are] more common than others.”

“It is early days in the spread of the omicron variant … so we are not sure if it (omicron) will have the same complication range as the other variants,” Musgrave said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says based on current information, the omicron symptoms mirror those of the alpha and delta variants. They include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea.

Side effects that might appear in the first days after a COVID-19 vaccination include pain, redness and swelling in the arm where one got the shot, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever and nausea.

Two of the conditions listed in the Facebook post have been associated with COVID-19 vaccines, however.

As we’ve reported, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been linked to an increased risk of rare blood clots combined with low levels of blood platelets, primarily in women ages 18 to 49. As of Nov. 24, the condition, which is known as thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, has been confirmed in 54 cases, including six deaths, after more than 16.4 million doses of the J&J vaccine.

There is also emerging evidence that the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines may very rarely cause inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or of the surrounding lining (pericarditis), particularly in male adolescents and young adults.

As of Nov. 24, the agency says there have been 1,949 preliminary reports of either condition in people 30 years of age or younger following immunization with any COVID-19 vaccine. The bulk of the reports, which were submitted to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System and do not necessarily mean the vaccine caused the problem, involved the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and were more common among males and after the second dose. “Through follow-up, including medical record reviews, CDC and FDA have confirmed 1,071 reports of myocarditis or pericarditis,” the CDC says.

Health officials have emphasized that the potential vaccine-related myocarditis and pericarditis cases are rare and the benefits of vaccination still outweigh the risks.

An Israeli study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found COVID-19 to be associated with 11 additional cases of myocarditis per 100,000 people, while the Pfizer vaccine was associated with an extra 2.7 cases per 100,000 people.

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 FactCheck.org’s 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.

Sources

Antonelli, Michaela, et al. “Risk factors and disease profile of post-vaccination SARS-CoV-2 infection in UK users of the COVID Symptom Study app: a prospective, community-based, nested, case-control study.” The Lancet. 1 Sep 2021.

Barda, Noam, et al. “Safety of the BNT162b2 mRNA Covid-19 Vaccine in a Nationwide Setting.” New England Journal of Medicine. 25 Aug 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “First Confirmed Case of Omicron Variant Detected in the United States.” 1 Dec 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What You Need to Know About Variants.” Updated 1 Dec 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Possible Side Effects After Getting a COVID19 Vaccine.” Updated 24 Nov 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “CDC Recommends Use of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine.” Updated 15 Nov 2021.

Centers for Disease Control Prevention. “Myocarditis and Pericarditis After mRNA COVID-19 Vaccination.” Updated 12 Nov 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Post-COVID conditions.” Updated 16 Sep 2021.

FactCheck.org. “How safe are the vaccines?” Updated 29 Nov 2021.

Fauci, Anthony. Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Interview on CNN. 5 Dec 2021

Fauci, Anthony. Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. White House Briefing. 1 Dec 2021.

Musgrave, Ian. Molecular pharmacologist/toxicologist and senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Email to FactCheck.org. 4 Dec 2021.

Piper, Elizabeth and Toby Sterling. “Omicron variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers.” Reuters. 28 Nov 2021.

Reuters. “Omicron variant found in at least 15 U.S. states — CDC Chief.” 5 Dec 2021.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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