A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out. Here are the facts:
CLAIM: COVID-19 only spikes during election seasons.
THE FACTS: There is no connection between rising COVID-19 cases and the electoral process, epidemiology experts say. Since the first U.S. case was confirmed in January 2020, the virus has spiked near the end of the year, but also during summer, nowhere near major elections. But some on social media are falsely claiming the virus is a tool to control election outcomes. “Some won’t figure out the Mysterious Connection between The Coronavirus & The Election!!!” reads a caption on one Instagram post. “It’s Called Election Interference by Mail In Ballots & the Machines. Wake-Up America.” But elections do not dictate when COVID-19 spikes. “There’s no biologically plausible or credible reason why spikes would be linked with election seasons,” Dr. Emily Smith, an epidemiologist and assistant professor of emergency medicine and surgery at Duke University, wrote in an email to the AP. “Surges are due to increases in cases, which are related to human behavior. So reduced masking and vaccination rates are associated with case increases. Not election seasons.” Although there is no formal definition of a spike, it can be characterized as the peak of a consistent increase in cases, said Dr. Janak Patel, director of the department of infection control and healthcare epidemiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The U.S. has seen rises in COVID-19 cases that coincide with election seasons in November — but they have also occurred during the summer, according to Patel. Data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention shows that the largest spike occurred the week ending Jan. 8, 2022, when 30.5% of reported COVID-19 tests came back positive. By contrast, cases had been decreasing in the lead-up to the off-year election on Nov. 2, 2021, a few months prior. Cases did spike close to the 2020 presidential election after they began rising in September of that year, but the 2022 midterms were a different story. After a peak with a 14.2% positivity rate the week ending July 23, cases went down leading up to the election on Nov. 8. “I haven’t seen any particular timing with elections,” Patel said. “And people campaign for elections throughout the year.” It is unclear whether the current pattern of COVID-19 waves will continue, or why it has occurred thus far, since the virus hasn’t been around long enough for scientists to know for sure, according to Patel. While COVID-19 hospital admissions are currently rising — there were 18,871 for the week ending Sept. 2 — they’re a far cry from past peaks, like the 44,000 weekly hospital admissions in early January, the nearly 45,000 in late July 2022, or the 150,000 admissions during the omicron surge of January 2022.
— Associated Press writer Melissa Goldin in New York contributed this report.
CLAIM: The U.S. accidentally sent Ukraine $6 billion in military aid.
THE FACTS: The claim misinterprets an announcement by a Pentagon spokesperson in June that the agency had overestimated the value of weapons it sent to Ukraine over the past two years by $6.2 billion. That meant more could be sent in the future without asking Congress for additional funds, not that billions of dollars had been sent in error. A recent episode of comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast has resurfaced the erroneous claim. In a clip circulating online of the Sept. 7 episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience,” Rogan states that the U.S. “accidentally sent” $6 billion to Ukraine. Rogan made the comment during a conversation with former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard about the government’s response to the recent wildfires in Maui. But Rogan, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, misconstrued the Pentagon’s June statement. Sabrina Singh, a spokesperson for the agency, said during the June press conference that the Pentagon had overestimated the value of weapons it sent to Ukraine since the start of the war by $6.2 billion, resulting in a surplus for future security packages. A detailed review of the accounting error found that replacement costs, rather than book value, were used to calculate the value of equipment pulled from Pentagon stocks for Ukraine, according to Singh. The Pentagon initially stated that it had overestimated the weapons’ value by at least $3 billion. Final calculations showed there was an error of $3.6 billion in the current fiscal year and $2.6 billion in the 2022 fiscal year, which ended last Sept. 30. Singh added that the $6.2 billion was “just going to go back into the pot of money” that’s been allocated for future withdrawals of Pentagon equipment. The Pentagon this month announced a new $600 million package of long-term aid to Ukraine, which will provide funding for an array of weapons and other equipment. The assistance comes from money previously approved by Congress. President Joe Biden has requested $21 billion more in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine in the final months of 2023.
— Melissa Goldin
CLAIM: Bill Gates is backing efforts to cut down 70 million acres of trees in order to fight global warming.
THE FACTS: There is no plan to cut down 70 million acres of trees. The U.S. Forest Service has a ten-year plan to reduce the risk of wildfires across millions of acres of forests in the American West through a combination of controlled burns, selective tree culls and other forest management strategies. Gates, separately, is among the investors in a company proposing to help thin out California’s densely packed forests and bury tree remains in Nevada. But many social media users are sharing a video that features a woman speaking in front of a screenshot of a story on a website known to publish fake or misleading content. “Bill Gates Pushes Plan to Chop Down 70 Million Acres of Trees to ‘Fight Global Warming’,” the story headline reads. “How is this green? the woman on the video says incredulously to the camera. “How is this helping the planet?” In actuality, the Microsoft founder is among the lead investors in Kodama Systems, a startup company seeking to selectively remove trees from dense, wildfire-prone forests in California and bury their remains across the state line in Nevada. Gates, through his Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which invests in companies developing technology and other innovative solutions to global warming, is among a group of funders that have committed $6.6 million to the company, according to a December press release. “These claims are false,” Alex Reid, a spokesperson for Gates, wrote in an email. Kodama spokesperson James Sedlak similarly rejected the claims, noting that the 70 million acres cited in the posts misrepresent a figure cited in a Forbes article about the company. The July article states the U.S. Forest Service aims to “thin” some 70 million acres of densely packed forest in the American West in order to mitigate the risk of severe wildfires. “As written, this does not mean cutting down all trees in those acres and was subsequently misconstrued, likely leading to the narrative that came across your radar,” Sedlak wrote in an email. What the Forest Service and Kodama are actually seeking to do is known as “ ecological forest thinning,” in which certain, at-risk trees are culled from dense patches of forest in order to allow mature ones to thrive, he explained. Merritt Jenkins, the company CEO, said it hopes to focus on a remote part of the Eastern Sierra Mountains in California, cutting down relatively small trees that can’t easily be turned into lumber. But instead of burning the unusable trees, as typically happens in thinning efforts, the company would take the remains and bury them at an arid site in Nevada, he said in a phone interview Wednesday. The goal would be to avoid the costly and harmful effects of burning, while also preventing decay, a process that also releases carbon into the atmosphere, Jenkins explained.
— Associated Press writer Philip Marcelo in New York contributed this report.
CLAIM: A new study by Australian researchers shows that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine caused vaccine acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or “VAIDS.”
THE FACTS: VAIDS is not a real condition, experts say. The co-authors of the study say their work is being misrepresented and doesn’t show that the vaccine is harmful to the immune system. The false claim is spreading as U.S. health officials recommend most Americans receive an updated COVID-19 vaccine. “Pfizer’s COVID Vaccine Causes VAIDS in Children, Study Proves,” reads the headline of a widespread blog post. A post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, sharing the blog post relayed a quote from it, claiming: “‘Finally, we have scientific confirmation that vaccination against COVID-19 causes a marked decrease in immunity to heterologous pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi.’ A condition known as ‘VAIDS’ vaccine-induced AIDS.” The blog post references a study published in August in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, “BNT162b2 COVID-19 vaccination in children alters cytokine responses to heterologous pathogens and Toll-like receptor agonists.” But that study’s findings are being misrepresented. Dr. Andrés Noé, a co-author of the study and researcher at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia, pointed to a statement the authors published responding to such claims. “It has been brought to our attention that our recently published study is being misinterpreted and misused to claim that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous,” the statement reads. “Our research does not provide any evidence to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines are harmful to the immune system of children or adults. In particular, it is incorrect to suggest that our study results show that COVID-19 vaccines ‘suppress the immune system.’” The study examined blood samples from children one month and six months after receiving a Pfizer vaccine and observed changes in what’s known as “cytokine production” by immune cells when encountering various pathogens, the authors explained. They noted, however, that such responses “are only one facet of the body’s combined immune response and we do not know how long they last.” The study did not look at what the changes mean in the real world or determine whether they’re harmful or helpful. Dr. Matthew Laurens, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Center for Vaccine Development who was not involved in the study, concurred that it doesn’t show the vaccine is dangerous or leading to immune system problems. “On the contrary, they suggest that vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 may provide protection against other infectious diseases, something that would have to be examined in another study,” he said in an email. “These ‘off-target’ effects of vaccination are viewed as beneficial, not as a risk.”