A series of claims warning about the dangers of COVID-19 vaccination.
These claims are mostly false.
A misleading video by US-based physician, Steven Hotze, has gone viral. In it, he warns against taking the COVID-19 vaccines and touts the use of alternative drugs to combat the virus. He also makes a number of other claims to encourage people to “just say no” to COVID-19 vaccination.
Amidst ongoing vaccine hesitancy worldwide, Faqcheck Lab interviewed Dr Suhazeli Abdullah, a family physician with Malaysia’s Ministry of Health; and Dr Amar-Singh, a medical consultant and researcher, to debunk and clarify the claims.
COVID-19 vaccines are not gene therapy
The first erroneous claims Hotze made revolve around the technology used to create the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, known as mRNA. In it, Hotze said that the mRNA vaccines have the ability to change the recipient's DNA, making it a dangerous “gene therapy” rather than a vaccine.
“What he is saying in theory is not backed by scientific evidence,” said Dr Suhazeli. “It does not affect our chromosomes in our body, our cells, which is what he is theorising here.”
Dr Suhazeli elaborated that a DNA is made up of two strands, and that an mRNA vaccine takes a single inactivated strand from the virus to teach the body to detect and combat the infection.
“mRNA is just a strand of DNA, while DNA is a double strand. The single strand cannot affect the human gene, and when it enters our body… it will dissolve.”
Dr Amar-Singh agreed. He added that these mRNA vaccines are no more dangerous than “traditional” vaccines.
“These mRNA vaccines have an effect similar to conventional vaccines. They help produce the same antibodies and cellular immunity that 'traditional' COVID-19 vaccines do, only more efficiently.”
No vaccine is 100% effective
In the video, Hotze tells viewers: “If you are immune to a disease, you can be exposed to it without becoming infected. The so-called COVID-19 vaccine does not provide any individual who receives the vaccine with immunity to COVID-19, nor does it prevent the spread of the disease.”
To this claim, Dr Amar-Singh pointed out that no vaccine is 100% effective in stopping a virus. The vaccines that have been developed are shown in both real world [BBC, The Lancet] and clinical trials to be highly effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19.
“There is good data out now, especially from healthcare staff, that many who are vaccinated do not get the illness compared to unvaccinated persons, hence they have immunity.”
No long-term animal or human studies, claims Hotze
“Actually this is one of the claims by Hotze that are totally false,” Dr Suhazeli countered.
He acknowledged the speed at which the vaccine was developed and approved has caused much concern, fueling vaccine hesitancy.
Vaccines normally take three to four years to be approved for use, he explained. In the case of COVID-19, animal testing for vaccines happened after China released data on the virus in early 2020.
But as the Associated Press reported, “due to the urgent need for a vaccine, Pfizer and Moderna were approved to test their vaccines on animals, mainly mice and macaques simultaneously while they were conducting Phase 1 trials on humans”.
Not long after the animal tests were conducted, Phase 1 tests began with some 50 participants, which later grew to 300 participants in the Phase 2 trials.
Dr Suhazeli considered Pfizer’s Phase 3 trial comprehensive as it involved “a lot of people”, with more than 43,000 participants.
Aside from the large pool of participants, Dr Suhazeli said other factors also led to the vaccine’s swift development, such as new technologies and access to funds. The pressing demand for vaccines accelerated the process, he added.
“By now (as of early May 2021), we have over 151 million cases globally. So a lot of people have been able to step up and volunteer to become participants in the Phase 3 studies… the mRNA is done synthetically. It is quick… and funds were provided quickly, unlike other vaccines where funding was scarce.”
The resulting quick development and approval of the vaccine has saved countless lives since, said Dr Suhazeli.
No evidence that taking vaccine will make virus infections worse
Hotze also claims in the viral video that recipients of mRNA vaccines risk making COVID-19 infections worse by causing what is known as an antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE) reaction.
He said: “In other words, if you come down with a coronavirus infection after receiving your experimental gene therapy, then you may have a much worse case than if you had never had this therapy. Many experts are predicting a surge of life-threatening infections, inflammatory disorders and deaths in the coming months for those who have received this treatment.”
Dr Amar-Singh refuted the claims. He said it was a “theoretical possibility” in the early stages of the vaccine’s development, but “extensive real world use of the vaccine” has disproved it.
Dr Suhazeli agreed, adding that “the theory is quite old”. He said these discussions were going on since June 2020 but such concerns remain unfounded more than five months after the vaccines have been in use globally.
“If we look at it from a population-based study, the vaccine is in the market, it has been given to millions of people, there has not been any ADEs like it was theorised.”
What about Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine?
Hotze also claims in the video “it has been demonstrated in studies around the world that the use of Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine can safely prevent and treat the COVID-19 infection."
Both Dr Suhazeli and Dr Amar-Singh disagreed with Hotze’s opinion on hydroxychloroquine. They said multiple clinical studies have disproved the antimalarial drug’s efficacy in treating COVID-19.
Malaysia initially used hydroxychloroquine as an “off-label” treatment for COVID-19. However, the Ministry of Health stopped using it after local data showed that it is ineffective, said Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham in a June 2020 press conference.
He stated that data from “586 Covid-19 patients who were either in Stage 2 or 3 demonstrated that the antimalarial drug did not help improve their condition”. [Codeblue]
As for Ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasite infections in humans and animals, Dr Suhazeli and Dr Amar called for caution, and to allow for results from an ongoing evaluation process before making any decisions on its use.
Dangers of “letting it run its course” and “herd immunity”
In the video, Hotze controversially supports letting the virus run its course through the population to achieve “herd immunity”. While the approach has a scientific basis, Dr Suhazeli said it would be irresponsible of a government to allow the process as it endangers a large portion of the population.
In March 2020, the UK was lambasted by global medical professionals for insinuating the idea of infecting 60% of its population in order to attain herd immunity.
“Theoretically, it can happen. But practically, are we willing to expose our people to it? Even if 80% recover, we obviously don’t want to let the 20% fight for their lives and gamble whether they’re going to live or die,” Dr Suhazeli reasoned.
He explained that not only would Malaysia need more hospitals but it would need to spend exponentially more on healthcare for the large number of sick people, which would cripple the public health system.
Dr Suhazeli warned that “there won’t be enough graves to fit everyone”.
Generating fear and keeping safe
Disinformation can be difficult to spot, especially when presented with layers of truths by a supposed professional in the field to legitimise claims.
Dr Amar-Singh pointed out: “Steven Hotze has a history of making false claims with no scientific basis and has been recognised to promote pseudoscience.”
In July 2020, Hotze’s legal challenge of COVID-19 measures in Texas such as wearing masks, hand-washing and social distancing was rejected by the Supreme Court.
He received a warning letter from the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition of the US Food and Drug Administration, dated 2 December 2020 of promoting unapproved and misbranded products said to be able to cure COVID-19.
Public policy analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia, Harris Zainul, attributed the virality of Hotze’s claims to two main reasons:
Concern over the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, and;
Health authorities emphasising the strong need for widespread vaccination
As a result, he said, hot button issues exist due to “uncorrected perceptions” around COVID-19, and claims around them are easily exacerbated.
Aside from verifying information related to such issues, it is important to check the credibility of the source before sharing content. This helps to prevent disinformation actors from exploiting a crisis to spread untruths.
Xiamen University Malaysia: Siew Tong En, Liu Zihan, Sean Elijah Tan & Dr Jeyasushma A/P Veeriah
University of Nottingham Malaysia: Nur Ain Nabila, Muhammad Farhan Shahmi Abdullah, Joshua Ng, Noor Alia Abrar Bestari Abrar, Tan Zhi Ying & Gayathry Venkiteswaran
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia: Nurul Ain, Seri Haidah, Nur Raihan, Yazlin Yahaya, Ravivarma Muniandy & Dr Sabariah Mohamed Salleh
University of Malaya: Adlin Norafiqah Mohamed, Amin Idham Razalee, Lee Kai Ci, Aq'sa Sumayya Nor Hazalan, Nur Syahmina Aza Azhar & Dr Rosya Izyanie