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: An at-home rapid test that can detect both the coronavirus and influenza A and B is proof that COVID-19 and flu are the same disease.
THE FACTS: The flu and the coronavirus are distinct viruses, and the product in a photo circulating on social media tests separately for each. U.S. COVID-19 cases have again spiked in tandem with influenza. But in recent days, some social media users have pointed to a photo of an at-home test kit that can detect influenza A and B and COVID-19, incorrectly suggesting it shows that the coronavirus pandemic is just another wave of seasonal flu. But the kit in the photo tests for each virus separately, and medical experts confirmed they are distinct viruses that are detected differently. Instructions for the test show it comes with a cartridge that contains two “specimen wells,” one to check for COVID-19 and the other to check for influenza. Users are instructed to swab their nostrils, insert the swab into a test liquid, then put drops of the liquid into each well. Different lines will show up on the test strip in each well depending on what the user tests positive for. The test, sold under the name Fanttest, has been approved by the agency that regulates medical therapies for use in Australia, but it is not available in the U.S. Thomas Denny, a professor of medicine and chief operating officer of Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute, said rapid antigen tests are developed by using a “recombinant protein” that mimics a specific virus. Before such tests are authorized for use, they are measured for sensitivity and specificity, Denny said. Specificity refers to ensuring the tests provide positive results for the given virus, and not for samples from uninfected people or those infected with a different virus. It’s common for antigen tests to check for multiple things simultaneously, said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, chief virologist at Texas A&M’s Global Health Research Complex. The proteins usually targeted by COVID-19 and flu tests, respectively, “have nothing in common,” making a two-in-one antigen test possible. In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized a triple testing kit for COVID-19, influenza A and B and RSV, but those results must still be processed at a lab. It is possible to be infected with both COVID-19 and the flu simultaneously.
— Associated Press writer Graph Massara in San Francisco contributed this report with additional reporting from Angelo Fichera in Philadelphia.
CLAIM: The COVID-19 vaccines “are a gene therapy, NOT a vaccine.”
THE FACTS: The COVID-19 vaccines do not change a person’s genes, as gene therapy does, experts say. False claims that the vaccines alter humans’ DNA have circulated since before their debut in late 2020. In recent days, social media posts have shared a claim that the vaccines are “gene therapy” — which involves modifying a person’s genes to treat or cure a disease. The posts point to a clip of Dr. Robert Malone — a vocal critic of the COVID-19 vaccines who did early research on mRNA technology — speaking about the shots at an event in early December. In the clip, Malone is asked whether the vaccines are actually a form of gene therapy. “As I’ve said repeatedly, it came out of a gene therapy research program,” Malone responds. “These and the adenoviral vectors are absolutely gene therapy technology applied for the purpose of eliciting an immune response.” A tweet sharing the clip claimed: “The shots are a gene therapy, NOT a vaccine.” But Dr. Louis Picker, a professor and associate director of the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at Oregon Health & Science University, said there are major differences between the vaccines and gene therapy. “The point of gene therapy is to go in and change the actual coding in the DNA of a person’s cells.” Picker said gene therapy is “very different than just injecting RNA in a carrier that is designed to be picked up, expressed and elicit an immune response.” The COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna use mRNA to instruct cells to make a protein from the coronavirus and trigger an immune response. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a modified adenovirus, a cold virus, to elicit an immune response. But none of the vaccines can alter humans’ DNA. Michael Barry, a Mayo Clinic researcher who studies gene therapy and vaccines, said in an email that tools used for those vaccines have a relationship to gene therapy technology — but that does not mean the vaccines are actually gene therapy. Specifically, lipid nanoparticles, used to transport the mRNA in the vaccines, stem from a tool developed originally for gene therapy, he said. The adenovirus vectors used in the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine were also previously researched for gene therapy. “Gene therapy intends to provide long-lasting protein expression to fix a broken gene and its broken protein,” Barry added. “Vaccines intend a short burst of protein expression to stimulate the immune system.” Malone did not return a request for comment.
— Angelo Fichera
CLAIM: The European Union is working to create a “personal carbon credit” system in which individuals pay directly for the greenhouse gases they produce.
THE FACTS: Spokespersons for the EU’s legislative and executive offices say there has been no consideration of setting up such a system. Social media users have been spreading false claims about new developments announced this month regarding the EU’s climate change efforts. Many of the users are sharing a conservative website article claiming the regional trade bloc has taken the “first steps” toward imposing a “personal carbon credit system” in which every citizen will have to pay for their carbon emissions. But European leaders have proposed no such requirements on individual citizens nor are they considering it, according to officials and experts. “There has been no decision to set-up a personal carbon credit system’,” Thomas Haahr, a spokesperson for the European Parliament, the legislative arm of the 27-member union, wrote in an email. Ana Crespo Parrondo, a spokesperson for the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, concurred, providing a list of about seven items the two sides have agreed upon on for its “Fit For 55” legislative package, which is meant to help the region reach its target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030. Among them is a deal reached this month to revise regulations for the energy and industrial sectors. The agreement would speed up the phase-out of free allowances under the emissions trading system for the industries in order to encourage companies to aggressively cut the pollutants they release into the atmosphere. It would also extend the emissions system to the transportation and building sectors, a move that would likely raise the price of gasoline, natural gas and other fossil fuels. In addition, the two sides agreed to develop a tax on foreign companies seeking to import products that don’t meet the region’s climate-protection standards. Sanjay Patnaik, an expert in EU climate change policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said the trade bloc has been focused on these kinds of industry-wide regulations, not ones directly imposed on individuals. Michael Pahle, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, agreed, adding that the likelihood of companies passing on higher fuel costs to consumers from the planned emissions regulations isn’t the same as implementing a personal carbon credit system.
— Associated Press writer Phil Marcelo in New York contributed this report.
CLAIM: Hooters is shutting down and rebranding.
THE FACTS: The posts are misrepresenting a 2017 article that discussed some U.S. locations closing between 2012 and 2016, as well as changes the company made to its menu and decor more than a decade ago. A misleading claim spread on social media Wednesday that Hooters, the restaurant famous for its scantily-clad waitresses, is shutting down and rebranding due to changing millennial tastes. But Stephen Brown, a Hooters spokesperson, told The Associated Press that the casual dining chain has no plans to change up its image. “There is no validity to this story,” he wrote in an email, adding, “Our concept is here to stay.” The company also refuted the claim via one of its Twitter accounts. In a follow-up post, the Twitter account that first spread the false claim cited an August 2017 article from Complex, which discussed some locations closing and menu changes in prior years, but did not say the entire chain was closing nor rebranding as the posts suggest. The Complex article discussed a report that there had been a 7 percent drop in Hooters locations from 2012 to 2016. It also noted that the chain updated its menus and decor in 2012 “in an attempt to attract younger patrons and female customers,” and earlier that year had opened a new chain called Hoots, which features Hooters’ popular chicken wings without waitresses in tight tops. The article simultaneously discussed a then-new study from Pornhub that found its millennial users were less likely to search for breast-related terms. But while the article tied the two things together, the study had nothing to do with the restaurant, nor the changes that had been made before its release.
— Associated Press writer Melissa Goldin in New York contributed this report.