True or not? Increasingly tough to get through minefield of Covid-19 misinformation

The unending stream of data, research papers, anecdotes, as well as misinformation has led to confusion, and worse, vaccine hesitancy.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - As a science reporter covering the Covid-19 pandemic, much of my daily work revolves around interviewing experts to sort out fact from fiction, and credible theories from flawed conclusions.

The unending stream of data, research papers, anecdotes, as well as misinformation has me constantly knocking on their doors for answers. Elsewhere, it has led to confusion, and worse, vaccine hesitancy, where inadequately informed people confuse and ultimately dissuade others from taking their jabs.

For instance, the Telegram group SG Suspected Vaccine Injuries Channel, where people can submit suspected side effects from the vaccine, is growing, with more than 4,200 subscribers so far. Among the wild claims posted is one that ingredients in the mRNA vaccines cause magnets to stick to some vaccinated individuals.

This has been debunked by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which says mRNA vaccines do not contain ingredients capable of producing an electromagnetic field. All Covid-19 vaccines are in fact free of metals such as iron, nickel, cobalt, lithium, and rare earth alloys, as well as any manufactured products such as microelectronics, electrodes, carbon nanotubes, and nanowire semiconductors.

Some subscribers do attempt to correct the misinformation and other experts and researchers have spoken up as well.

In a Facebook post on June 7 to debunk allegations that he said had caused him sleepless nights, senior infectious diseases specialist David Lye from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) called out claims, such as those by private cancer specialist Oon Chong Jin, who said the Pfizer vaccine "is useless now and obsolete in the presence of mutations".

Associate Professor Lye - and other experts who are routinely interviewed for this paper - say this is simply not true.

Questionable theories are harder to refute when they are shared by credible people of authority, such as doctors, who may cite seemingly persuasive research that to the untrained eye, will appear fairly solid. Even with a science degree, I find it challenging to poke holes in their conclusions.

But it is to be expected that answers will not always be straightforward or even definitive on a subject like Covid-19, where so much is still being discovered.

This also means the nature of the misinformation has evolved since the start of the pandemic, Professor May O. Lwin from Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information told me.

Early on, falsehoods were easy to dismiss, like the claim by former US President Donald Trump that Covid-19 would fade into nothing, even as cases and deaths climbed. Over time, however, as the pandemic dragged on and layers of complexity were added, sorting truth from untruth, or even half-truths, became complex.

Data was not always interpreted soundly by scientists, let alone laymen. A classic example is the claim made by Dr Geert Vanden Bossche, a Belgian virologist, that vaccines could result in more potent Sars-CoV-2 variants, in the same way that antibiotics create resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic resistance is a consequence of natural selection - bacteria which have mutations survive the drugs designed to kill them and pass these traits to their offspring, leading to a fully resistant generation. Extend this understanding to vaccines, and in theory, it does make good sense, infectious disease expert Paul Tambyah said.

But science grounded in theory alone is insufficient. A highly efficacious vaccine that results in high levels of neutralising antibodies will not give time for the virus to stick around, mutate and create variants. If the vast majority of the global population is vaccinated, the chances of mutations happening will be small. And the current vaccines that employ mRNA technology - such as the Pfizer and Moderna jabs - can be quickly repurposed to tackle new variants.

Real world data from the scientific journal Nature also shows that the mutation rate of the virus is sluggish: The virus typically accumulates only two single letter mutations per month in its genome - a speed which is half that of influenza and one-quarter that of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The total length of the Sars-CoV-2 genome is roughly 30,000 letters long.

With such half truths populating the Internet, it is little wonder misinformation spreads. Furthermore, the amount and speed of information that has flowed from this one disease is unprecedented, Prof Lwin said. The public, and even those studying the virus, have to navigate, decipher and respond to rapidly evolving sets of information - which may not always be consistent - on numerous platforms.

In addition, Covid-19 has become a highly emotive issue, Prof Lwin noted. Her research team, which has tracked sentiment on social media since the start of Covid-19, has seen a large volatility of emotions across countries. "I believe that the emotive environment creates conditions for people to be misled and to attract less rational responses from some segments," she said.

What then can we do to ensure that we are well-informed by science, and not misled?

First, as consumers and users of social media, we should be careful and responsible with what we share. Simply slowing down and thinking through something before hitting the "send" button is a worthy habit.

Second, details like checking the timestamp of an article, the context in which it was written as well as whether it is corroborated by other sources, can help us determine the veracity of the material. If still in doubt, it is better to check in with a friend who has some knowledge on the matter instead of forwarding that piece of information to all your chat groups.

Third, look to reliable information from sources such as Singapore's Health Ministry, the World Health Organisation, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, US CDC website, and peer reviewed journals.

When all else fails, trust these scientists and health authorities rather than subscribers to social media, who do not need to be responsible for millions of lives, and thus feel no accountability to anyone for the theories they so willingly pass along.