Public health misinformation: True and False


Thank you for taking the time to take our survey on public health information and misinformation. As part of the survey, we asked about a number of common theories that are circulating, many of which we knew to be false in part or in full. Because we do not wish to give credence to any misinformation, we have explained these statements here.

We are aware that even explaining why conspiracy theories are false can give credence to these ideas, and we have striven to provide a balanced explanation of the theories without sharing the wildest accusations.

If you arrived to this page without taking the survey, that’s ok. But the survey was only sent to selected individuals as part of the research for the Trust and Governance pillar for our Post-Covid Councils work. If you would like to be alerted to the outcomes of this survey make sure you sign up for our Post Covid Councils updates on Trust and Governance.

Wearing masks

Generally FALSE: Mask wearing can be harmful to your health can because of re-breathing CO2 or your own pathogens

CO2 molecules are much smaller than respiratory droplets that masks are designed to stop and so normal cloth or surgical masks will not cause CO2 levels to rise or oxygen levels to fall. It is safe for most people to wear masks for extended periods of time. Very young children, some people with severe respiratory ailments or people who cannot remove masks on their own should not wear masks. Some people with anxiety may also find wearing a mask intolerable.

Exposure to your own pathogens through mask wearing is no more dangerous than using your own toothbrush. However, masks should be regularly replaced or if re-usable, sanitised, and should not be shared. Like a toothbrush.

Sources: BBC

BAME people and Covid-19

Generally TRUE: Black and minority ethnic people are more vulnerable to Covid-19

According to the Centers for Disease Control in the US: There is increasing evidence that some racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. They cite a range of systemic impacts which may be contributing to these disparities. UK Research and Innovation also explains why there may be disparities.


Children and Covid-19

FALSE: Children cannot be harmed by Covid-19 infections

Children can catch Covid-19, become seriously ill and die from the disease. They are as likely as adults to become infected. However, children are far less likely to have serious complications or die. A study from the BMJ published over the summer says risks to children themselves are ‘tiny’. But some children are more vulnerable than others and underlying health conditions and ethnicity can play a part in increased risk. (See Black and minority ethnic people are more vulnerable to Covid-19)

And while children are not the face of high mortality during this pandemic, there are wider social implications to children’s development and life chances.

Exploitation of vulnerable children

Generally FALSE: Mask wearing and remote schooling can increase children’s vulnerability to exploitation by paedophiles and others who wish to harm them.

While it’s always possible to go down the rabbit hole of identifying increasingly torturous risk pathways, this one springs from anti-maskers grasping at any straw see this Rolling Stone article if you want to go down the rabbit hole. This particular bit of misinformation is derivative or adjacent to the QAnon super-conspiracy. Remote schooling is offers no more risk than any other screen time and for most educational jurisdictions considerably less so.

However, many children’s advocates have expressed concerns about the impact of children not being in school.

China and Covid-19

On balance FALSE: The Chinese government is responsible for creating and spreading Covid-19

The Chinese government does bear some responsibility for suppressing information about the initial spread of Covid-19. It is not clear that earlier transparency would have prevented the spread of the disease, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt. (See Brookings Institute timeline and assessment.)

There is a general consensus that Covid-19 originated in Wuhan, China. There is no evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is manmade and strong evidence through gene sequencing that it arose naturally. The theory that it is a natural virus that escaped from a virology lab in China cannot be easily or completely laid to rest, but other similar viruses have arisen naturally in areas geographically distant to large virus research labs. See Nature’s explanation of the virus’s origin.

Regardless of the origin of the virus, once it reached new territories each corresponding government had the public health responsibility for reducing the transmission of the virus.

A planned pandemic

FALSE: This pandemic was planned to benefit global powers or industries

There is no evidence that the virus itself was man made (see above about China and Covid-19) and governments around the world have gone to great lengths to combat the pandemic (with varying degrees of action and effectiveness). Claims of planned pandemic are associated with ‘umbrella’ conspiracy theory spreaders and often incorporate some or all of the misinformation on this page. The scattergun and comprehensive nature of this school of conspiracies makes it easier to counter elements of the theory rather than the theory as a whole, but some of have certainly tried (see Guardian and LifeHacker). This theory certainly builds on the fact that the US government has not been entirely trustworthy in its response to the pandemic.  Related to this, some individuals have been named as drivers or beneficiaries of the pandemic, some of whom are regularly the target of wild conspiracies which are sometimes anti-semitic in origin.

A real pandemic?

FALSE: There is no Covid-19 pandemic – or it has been grossly overblown.

There is definitely a pandemic.

It’s harder to definitively counter the claim that it has been overblown. In policy making, there will always have to be a balance between public health and the economy, and honest actors can disagree about whether measures that have been taken strike this balance correctly.  However, claims that cases have been misreported as Covid-19 in order to gain extra funding are unsubstantiated. There have been assertions that NHS doctors are falsifying death certificates to ‘boost’ Covid death rates. This has been countered by NHS doctor David Oliver.  It can be really difficult to fully know how many deaths can be attributed to the virus and how many to other causes related to the pandemic and indeed how many lives may have been saved due to lockdown. Nature has an article which outlines the difficulties of estimating mortality.

5G mobile and Covid-19

FALSE: Technology like 5G mobile plays a role in spreading Covid-19

There is no mechanism by which 5G or indeed any mobile signal technology can spread a virus. 5G conspiracy theories predate the Covid-19 pandemic. Some have claimed that 5G creates a respiratory vulnerability that makes people more susceptible to Covid-19. There is no evidence for that. There are some small risks around exposure to electromagnetic radiation – the radio waves that mobile signals use – but it’s about the same risk as eating pickled vegetables according to this BBC roundup of scientific evaluation of mobile phone signal impact.

Covid-19 vaccine effectiveness

Almost certainly TRUE: A Covid-19 vaccine would not be 100% effective

There are several issues at play here. One is vaccine efficacy, that is how well a vaccine works.  The MMR vaccine (with both doses) has an efficacy of 97% against measles but only 88% against rubella. Influenza vaccines, which change yearly, can have around 50% efficacy rates some years, and this could be the optimistic efficacy range for the novel coronavirus SARS-COV-2 or Covid-19.

However, even vaccines with relatively low efficacy this can afford complete protection for some individuals and with widespread vaccination can have a much bigger impact on the spread of a contagious illness and helping society reach that ‘herd immunity’ where the virus has fewer hosts it can infect and thus fewer vectors of transmission. According to The Lancet “A vaccine that has 50% efficacy could appreciably reduce incidence of COVID-19 in vaccinated individuals, and might provide useful herd immunity. Hence, although efficacy far greater than 50% would be better, efficacy of about 50% would represent substantial progress.”

Even an effective vaccine won’t help us reach herd immunity if not enough people take the vaccine. For example, we have seen a resurgence of measles as vaccination rates have declined. However, a safe and reasonably effective vaccine is likely to be an important part of returning to ‘normality’.

Vaccines used to harm

FALSE: A Covid-19 vaccine will be used to spread harmful technologies or illnesses

This is a new variation of an older conspiracy theory, much older. Anti-vaccination conspiracies have been spreading rapidly through the Internet before the pandemic.

One conspiracy theory is that a vaccine will be used to inject microchips which will somehow collect data from us or control us. The idea that a microchip could feasibly be injected through a needle is patently ridiculous just based on the size of the objects. It’s been debunked widely: BBC, Reuters

Vaccines can have side effects and some people are allergic to some of the inactive ingredients in vaccines. You can never completely rule out vaccine contamination. Nor can you rule out catching the disease itself if a live virus vaccine is used. A recent polio outbreak in Sudan has been linked to the oral version of the polio vaccine which uses a weakened form of the live virus  – this riskier version is sometimes used when balanced against other health risks or difficulties in administering injections, such as lack of trained staff.

However, vaccines are some of the safest and most effective medicines we have. Read about vaccine importance and safety from the NHS. And the CDC has provided a reminder of all the killer and disabling diseases that we used to suffer from that have now been largely eradicated thanks to vaccines. So long as a Covid-19 vaccine has been sufficiently regulated, tested and scientifically reviewed by respected authorities, then it should be safe and reasonably effective (see above about vaccine effectiveness).