A lie is half way round the world before the truth has its boots on and on Sunday a fake news report that claimed that the first coronavirus vaccine trial human volunteer had died spread rapidly online.
The link to the fake news was posted on Facebook group pages that opposed vaccination.
It took the volunteer herself Elisa Granato, one of two people injected on the first day of Europe's first clinical trial last week in Oxford, England, to scotch the claim. She spend the day telling family that she was victim of a disinformation war ranging around the pandemic.
“I’m very much alive, thank you,” the microbiologist said in a video posted by the BBC. “I’m having a cup of tea.”
On close examination the report, like most attempts at fake news was relatively unsophisticated and easily spotted by the trained eye. The article on Dr Granato’s ‘death’ contained grammatical, spelling errors and non-existent experts.
Researchers established a connection with Macedonian sites that operate as "click-bait," creating sensationalist headlines to earn advertising revenues from platforms like Google and Facebook.
When it was detected the British Cabinet Office’s new rapid response unit, set up to tackle a range of fake news, swung into action. Communications experts know that fast reaction is required before something goes viral and becomes an established ‘truth’ on social media.
The Department for Health and Social Care stepped in to say it was “completely untrue”.
It wasn’t until Dr Granato posted the short clip of herself alive and well that social media went quiet. Undoubtedly it will not be long before the next major contrived vaccination story appears.
Meanwhile the enormous effort to find a vaccine continues with the government giving almost £50 million available for researchers at both Oxford University and Imperial College London.
People will need to be patient for a vaccine, with a viable one unlikely to be ready for at least 12 months, according to Chris Witty, England’s chief medical officer.
In that time many more stories of questionable veracity are to be expected.
Those who oppose any form of immunisation have inevitably latched on to the coronavirus pandemic for their campaign opposing vaccination jabs.
The so called ‘anti-vaxers’ are understood to fear that their conspiracy theories will be fatally undermined once a Covid 19 vaccine proves effective by returning the world to normality. The anti-vaxers believe that vaccinations cause a range of childhood illnesses despite the weight of scientific evidence against them. But their views are dangerous. Anti-vaccination groups were last year identified by the World Health Organisation as one of the top ten global health threats.
Social media fake news reporting can have a very serious and dangerous impact that can lead to loss of life.
In Britain the anti-vax alliance took hold after a research doctor fabricated results to suggest that the triple ‘Measles Mumps Rubella’ vaccine caused childhood autism. Dr Andrew Wakefield’s flawed 1998 study was supported by at least one major British newspaper and resulted in significant drop off in vaccination from 92 per cent to below 80 per cent, well below the threshold needed to get ‘herd immunity’, the minimum number of inoculations needed for effective protection. The numbers of measles cases subsequently rocketed from 56 to 1348 in the following decade with two confirmed deaths.
Far worse happened in the South Pacific island of Samoa where anti-vax campaigner again repeated the false autism claim and others that saw a collapse of vaccination from 90 per cent of children to 31 per cent. By December last year this had led to 4,000 infections and 60 deaths among a population of just 200,000. The government put the country in lockdown to enforce mass inoculation.