Article inaccurately claims that coronavirus vaccine by Oxford researchers caused animal test subjects to develop COVID-19

CLAIM
"Bill Gates’ shoddily-hastened vaccine has been determined to make all animal test subjects get COVID-19 when exposed to the virus"
DETAILS
Cherry-picking: The article selectively highlights the finding that viral genetic material was isolated from vaccinated monkeys, but fails to report that vaccinated monkeys were protected from developing viral pneumonia, a common COVID-19 complication.
Misleading: The article refers to the Oxford group’s vaccine as Bill Gates’ vaccine, suggesting that Gates has a direct hand in vaccine research and development. While Bill Gates does contribute funding to COVID-19 vaccine efforts, he is not a scientist, nor does he have any medical or scientific credentials, and therefore is not qualified to conduct vaccine research and development.
KEY TAKE AWAY
Preliminary results from small-scale animal studies suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine developed by Oxford researchers may protect against viral pneumonia after infection with the novel coronavirus. However, the researchers also detected viral genetic material in nasal passages in vaccinated monkeys, leading scientists to caution that the vaccine may provide only partial protection and may not prevent virus shedding and its spread to unvaccinated individuals. Financial backing for the production of the Oxford vaccine has come from several sources other than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, including the U.K. government.

FULL CLAIM: "Bill Gates’ shoddily-hastened vaccine has been determined to make all animal test subjects get COVID-19 when exposed to the virus"

SUMMARY


This article, published in late May 2020, received more than 280,000 views on Facebook and more than 24,000 interactions on social media. The article makes numerous claims about Bill Gates and the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine being developed by Oxford University researchers. Its circulation has been aided primarily by Facebook groups that oppose vaccines and those known to promote conspiracy theories.

The Oxford vaccine is being tested in the first SARS-CoV-2 vaccine trial conducted in the U.K. Its design is based on a recombinant viral vector that contains genetic material encoding the spike protein of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). The spike protein is what enables the virus to enter cells and establish an infection. The viral vector, which is a nonreplicating form of a chimpanzee adenovirus (called ChAdOx1), was developed at Oxford’s Jenner Institute and was chosen for its safety and ability to induce a strong immune response in humans, as shown in early clinical trials for another coronavirus vaccine against Middle East respiratory syndrome.

When the vaccine is injected, the vector enters cells in the body and causes them to produce the spike protein on their surfaces. This in turn triggers the body to mount an immune response against these proteins, including producing antibodies. When the body encounters the actual virus later, it can quickly mount a defense against the virus due to previous exposure to the spike protein, thereby protecting against infection.

One of the primary claims in the article is that “Bill Gates’ shoddily-hastened vaccine has been determined to make all animal test subjects get COVID-19 when exposed to the virus”.

Firstly, this statement indicates that the vaccine caused animal test subjects to develop COVID-19 upon exposure to the virus. This is inaccurate.

Secondly, the phrase “Bill Gates’ shoddily-hastened vaccine” implies that Gates had a direct hand in vaccine research and development, and that Gates is in charge of decisions regarding the vaccine development timeline. In reality, Gates’ foundation has simply pledged funding for the manufacturing and distribution of a successful vaccine. False associations between Gates and vaccines are a common theme in viral health misinformation about vaccines, and many other fact-checking organizations have found such claims to be inaccurate.

Gates is not a scientist, nor does he have any medical or scientific credentials, and therefore he is not qualified to personally conduct vaccine research and development. Financial backing for production of the Oxford vaccine has come from the U.K. government, which has contributed £65.5 million, and two charities, the Norwegian Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi, which have contributed £750 million. Both charities are supported in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Further, Gates has no control over the timeline for vaccine development, which primarily depends on the progress of the vaccine in clinical trials. This process is governed by national health authorities such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, not by private individuals.

The article also claims that the vaccine “failed to prevent the coronavirus among any of its rhesus macaque monkey test subjects, all of which became positive.” This statement lacks context about the scientific findings and is likely to be misinterpreted to mean that the vaccine did not induce protection against COVID-19 at all.

As reported in a preprint of the animal trial by Oxford researchers[1], the vaccinated animals did not develop pneumonia even after they were infected with SARS-CoV-2. Pneumonia is a common complication of COVID-19 and a significant contributor to COVID-19 related deaths, as this previous review by Health Feedback discussed.

In the preprint, the researchers reported that “viral loads in [bronchoalveolar] fluid and lung tissue of vaccinated animals were significantly reduced, suggesting that vaccination prevents virus replication in the lower respiratory tract.” It also reported that viral genomic RNA could still be detected in the noses of both unvaccinated and vaccinated animals. This has caused concern among other scientists that the vaccine is only partially protective and may not prevent people from shedding the virus and spreading it to others, as reported in Nature and Forbes.

However, one caveat of this finding is that the researchers used an exceptionally high dose of SARS-CoV-2 to ensure that the animals would be successfully infected, and they also pointed out that this “likely does not reflect a realistic human exposure.”

In addition, scientists explained in this Nature news article that the Oxford study did not determine whether the virus detected in the nose was still infectious. While they could not rule out the possibility that there was an ongoing infection in vaccinated animals, they also pointed out that the genetic material could have come from virus particles that were already inactivated by the monkeys’ immune response, or from residual virus administered by the researchers during infection. As such, the detection of viral genetic material in the nasal passages alone does not indicate that the vaccine failed to induce protection in the vaccinated individual, nor that the genetic material was infectious.

The article also stated that “Melinda Gates claims that 30 million people will have the vaccine available on a wide-scale by the end of the year.” The article does not provide a working link to the source of this information. A CNBC report states that Melinda Gates “says scientists may find [a] coronavirus vaccine that works by [the] end of [the] year ‘if we’re lucky’”. But Health Feedback was unable to find a record of Melinda Gates claiming that 30 million people will have the vaccine by the end of the year. However, the Gates Foundation is backing health organizations that would distribute the Oxford vaccine to low and middle-income countries if clinical trials demonstrate its efficacy. The vaccine is already in production by AstraZeneca, which has promised 300 million doses to the U.S. by October

The article also misleads readers by misquoting a scientist, Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh. It cited a Forbes report in which Riley purportedly said that “not only did monkeys exposed to coronavirus after being vaccinated all got the virus, they passed it to others as easily as those not exposed.”

Health Feedback reached out to Professor Riley, who clarified that she did not speak to Forbes, and that her remarks regarding the Oxford vaccine were provided to the U.K. Science Media Center on two occasions, which were as follows:

Whilst the vaccine induced neutralising antibodies and vaccinated animals experienced less severe clinical symptoms than unvaccinated animals (good), the neutralising antibody titres were low and insufficient to prevent infection and—importantly—insufficient to prevent viral shedding in nasal secretions (worrying).

May 18, 2020

Three different vaccination studies in nonhuman primates, all published this week, provide broadly similar and generally positive results. An inactivated viral vaccine from China, a DNA vaccine from the U.S.A., and the viral vectored product from Oxford all induce virus neutralising antibodies and reduce disease severity, virus replication, and virus shedding.

Although we have not seen data from human trials yet, with efficacy looking promising in preclinical studies, safety is the next major hurdle. Adverse reactions to vaccination tend to be infrequent but can be devastating for the affected individuals. Large scale trials are essential to properly assess the risk of such severe adverse reactions and it is reassuring to see plans for large phase III efficacy studies prior to rollout of vaccines in the general population. If these vaccines, and others in production, prove to be safe as well as effective, there may be several vaccines vying for access to large scale production facilities.

May 21, 2020

In other words, Riley pointed out potential safety concerns and the possibility that the vaccine may not prevent spread if infectious virus continues to be shed in vaccinated individuals. However, as explained above, it is still uncertain whether the virus shed by vaccinated individuals is infectious. More scientific studies will be needed to answer this question. Contrary to the article’s report, Riley did not say that vaccinated monkeys passed the virus onto others; in fact, such transmission was not tested in the Oxford study. The statement is therefore inaccurate and misleading.

The article was published by an outlet called the Montana Daily Gazette, which was only recently established in February 2020. On its website, it states that the Gazette “promises to shoot straight, get facts right, and always tell the truth, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. Facts, citations, and primary sources are always linked for the reader’s further research.” As this review shows, the outlet did none of these things, at least in the case of this article.

In summary, it is true that the Oxford vaccine trial in monkeys has produced mixed results, and that scientists have warned that these preliminary findings suggest only partial vaccine-induced protection. Scientists have warned that safety should not be sacrificed at the altar of speed during this time of accelerated vaccine development for SARS-CoV-2, as these articles by PNAS and Nature describe.

While there are certainly reasons to approach SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development cautiously, the Gazette article omits important context and cherry-picks findings from the Oxford vaccine animal trials to suggest that the vaccine is ineffective. Furthermore, it also misrepresents a scientist’s comments, leaving readers with the misleading impression that the vaccine’s lack of efficacy and safety have been conclusively determined, when this is not the case.

This is not the first time the Oxford vaccine has been targeted by misinformation; a false claim that a volunteer in clinical trials for the vaccine had died went viral in late April 2020, which Health Feedback covered in this review.

SCIENTISTS’ FEEDBACK


Eleanor Riley, Professor (Immunology and Infectious Disease), University of Edinburgh:
I don’t remember ever having spoken to Forbes Magazine, but I have provided written comments via the Science Media Centre. These comments are then picked up and used by news sources worldwide.

The comments I have released regarding the Oxford vaccine are as follows:

May 18th: “Whilst the vaccine induced neutralising antibodies and vaccinated animals experienced less severe clinical symptoms than unvaccinated animals (good), the neutralising antibody titres were low and insufficient to prevent infection and – importantly – insufficient to prevent viral shedding in nasal secretions (worrying). If similar results were obtained in humans, the vaccine would likely provide partial protection against disease in the vaccine recipient but would be unlikely to reduce transmission in the wider community.”

May 21st: “Three different vaccination studies in nonhuman primates, all published this week, provide broadly similar and generally positive results. An inactivated viral vaccine from China, a DNA vaccine from the USA and the viral vectored product from Oxford all induce virus neutralising antibodies and reduce disease severity, virus replication and virus shedding.

“Although we have not seen data from human trials yet, with efficacy looking promising in preclinical studies, safety is the next major hurdle. Adverse reactions to vaccination tend to be infrequent but can be devastating for the affected individuals. Large scale trials are essential to properly assess the risk of such severe adverse reactions and it is reassuring to see plans for large phase III efficacy studies prior to roll out of vaccines in the general population. If these vaccines, and others in production, prove to be safe as well as effective, there may be several vaccines vying for access to large scale production facilities.”

REFERENCES

   

Published on: 08 Jun 2020 | Editor:

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