Misleading: The posts implied several claims that had been recently rehashed online, including that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a lab, face masks are ineffective, and infection-induced immunity is “better” than vaccine-induced immunity. However, those claims are based on partial information and misinterpreted results from scientific studies that don’t support them.
FULL CLAIM: “We were right about “them faking COVID-19 numbers”; COVID-19 vaccines and control measures “didn’t work… …but natural immunity did”; “the jab causes heart issues”; “COVID escaped from a lab in China”
In late February 2023, posts and memes stating “we were right about everything” and listing several COVID-19-related topics went viral on social media platforms. Almost identical iterations of the list circulated widely on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, receiving more than 400,000 interactions, according to social media analytics tool CrowdTangle.
Some of the posts contained explicit claims on common subjects of COVID-19 misinformation, such as “COVID escaped from a lab in China”, or that COVID-19 vaccines, face masks, and other control measures “didn’t work… …but natural immunity did”, and “the jab causes heart issues”.
Many of the posts also accused “the government” or public health authorities and figures, including the World Health Organization and Anthony Fauci, an immunologist and former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to the U.S. president until 2022, of lying or being “wrong” about these topics.
Some other posts were more ambiguous but contained the same themes, like the origin of SARS-CoV-2, “natural immunity”, face masks, lockdowns, COVID-19 statistics, and ivermectin. By juxtaposing the terms in the list with the message “we were right” and they “were wrong”, these posts conveyed the idea that public authorities can’t be trusted and that previously debunked claims about the COVID-19 pandemic had been finally proven to be true.
However these posts are misleading at best, as they imply several false, unsupported, and misleading claims about the origin and management of the COVID-19 pandemic that sometimes border on conspiracy theory. Below, we will analyze some of the most repeated themes in the list.
Claim 1 (Inaccurate):
“We were right about them faking COVID-19 numbers”
This likely refers to earlier claims that the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths had been artificially inflated or overcounted. Health Feedback reviewed several of those claims and found them to be inaccurate and based on an incorrect understanding of COVID-19 PCR testing and mortality reporting.
Claim 2 (Inaccurate and Misleading):
“Vaxes didn’t work”; “The jab causes heart issues”
Although COVID-19 vaccines don’t prevent 100% of infections, they still help limit the spread of the virus by reducing the likelihood of getting infected and transmitting the virus to others. But vaccine effectiveness isn’t constant. Due to waning immunity and the emergence of newer, more infectious variants, COVID-19 vaccines have become less effective over time, particularly against infection. However, claims that COVID-19 vaccines “don’t work” are inaccurate because the vaccines remain highly protective against severe disease and death, which is their main purpose.
Even if the vaccines are now losing effectiveness, they certainly played a critical role in the first years of the pandemic. A 2022 study by researchers at the MRC Center for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at the Imperial College London published in The Lancet estimated that the first year of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign prevented 19.8 million COVID-19 deaths. In April 2022, a report published by the non-profit organizations Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that 100% vaccine coverage in the U.S. could have prevented 234,000 additional lives.
Any medical intervention can cause side effects, and COVID-19 vaccines are no exception. However, overwhelming evidence from clinical trials and safety monitoring indicates that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Overall, the risk of serious side effects following COVID-19 vaccines, including heart inflammation, is extremely small when compared to the risk of suffering heart inflammation and other complications from the disease.
Contrary to widespread claims, no evidence suggests that COVID-19 vaccines increase the risk of pregnancy and fertility problems, cancer, sudden death, or death. In fact, some studies found an association between COVID-19 vaccination and a lower risk of all-cause mortality compared to unvaccinated people[5,6].
Claim 3 (Unsupported):
“We were right about ivermectin”
Based on a few preliminary or flawed studies, this antiparasitic medication was promoted as a safe and effective COVID-19 treatment without evidence. However, many large, robust clinical studies, including one trial testing high doses of the drug and published in JAMA in February 2023, haven’t found any positive effect of ivermectin in reducing SARS-CoV-2 infection, COVID-19 hospitalization, and mortality.
On 26 February 2023, the Washington Post reported that the group Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance, which previously promoted ivermectin for COVID-19, was now touting it for treating other respiratory infections, again without clinical data supporting this use.
Claim 4 (Misleading):
“natural immunity is more effective” than vaccination
Some of the terms listed in the posts have been used as a dog whistle by anti-vaccine groups, denialists, and conspiracy theorists throughout the pandemic. A dog whistle is a term or phrase aimed at communicating a specific message (often socially unacceptable) to a certain group of people, usually in-groups, but that appears otherwise unremarkable or incomprehensible to outsiders, enabling the person using the dog whistle to more easily avoid criticism.
One such example is the term “natural immunity”, which refers to the immunity gained through infection. While this term has been widely used with a neutral meaning in scientific contexts, it has become a central talking point of the anti-vaccine narrative. Describing infection-induced immunity as “natural”, evokes in some people the idea that this type of immunity is “good” or harmless, as opposed to that gained through “artificial” vaccination, which is “bad” or dangerous.
This is known as the appeal to nature fallacy, which is the incorrect belief that something natural is always better than something unnatural. However, this argument is misleading in two different ways. Firstly, both types of immunity, from infection and vaccination, are natural as it is your own body which generates the immune response. Secondly, natural doesn’t necessarily mean harmless, and there are plenty of examples of natural substances that can be toxic or even lethal to people.
The claim that “Natural immunity is more effective” than vaccination had recently made the rounds on social media based on the results of a study published in The Lancet in January 2023. The authors estimated the protection that a past infection offered against SARS-CoV-2 infection and mild or severe disease compared to people who had never been infected using pooled data from 65 previous studies. The analysis concluded that infection-induced immunity “appears to be at least as durable, if not more so, than that provided by two-dose vaccination with the mRNA vaccines”.
But claiming that infection-induced immunity is more effective than vaccination based on the results of this study is misleading. As Health Feedback explained in an earlier review, this claim fails to acknowledge that, unlike vaccination, infection-induced immunity requires exposing the person to the risks of the disease in the first place. Therefore, while both infection and vaccination can induce immunity, vaccination is a much safer way of doing so.
Furthermore, the Lancet study showed that the level of immune protection gained through either infection or vaccination varies depending on the SARS-CoV-2 variants that are dominant. This means that a past infection doesn’t guarantee that the person is well protected against infection with future variants. Several studies showed that vaccination enhances immunity from a previous infection, providing extra protection to individuals who recovered from COVID-19[9,10].
Claim 5 (Unsupported and Misleading):
“Masks we’re [sic] ineffective”
In early February 2023, another scientific publication triggered viral claims that face masks are ineffective at limiting the spread of respiratory infections, including SARS-CoV-2. A Cochrane review published just days earlier reported no impact of mask-wearing in the number of influenza and COVID-19 cases, which many interpreted as to mean that face masks were ineffective.
However, this claim misrepresents the results of the Cochrane review, as Health Feedback explained at that time. While the authors found no effect of mask-wearing in their analysis, they also acknowledged that the individual studies’ variable quality and study designs made it impossible to draw “any firm conclusions”. Therefore, rather than demonstrating that masks are ineffective at limiting respiratory infections as some claimed, the review demonstrated the need for more, larger, and better-designed clinical trials evaluating the effectiveness of face masks.
Claim 6 (Unsupported):
“We were right about the lab leak”
This claim most likely refers to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy updating its assessment of the origins of SARS-CoV-2. This update, first reported by The Wall Street Journal on 26 February 2023, concluded that an accidental laboratory leak in China “most likely” caused the coronavirus pandemic. The agency thus changed its previous assessment from 2021, which concluded “with low confidence that the virus likely jumped from animals to humans naturally in the wild”.
But as FactCheck.org explained, this report doesn’t demonstrate that the virus leaked from a lab but rather that some new intelligence evidence suggests it might have. According to the New York Times, the Department of Energy made this conclusion with “low confidence”, and the intelligence agencies haven’t reached a consensus.
In 2022, two articles published in Science added to the scientific evidence supporting a natural spillover hypothesis[12,13]. However, both hypotheses—the laboratory leak and the transmission from animals to humans—remain under consideration, with no evidence to either prove or disprove any of them.
But regardless of how the virus jumped into humans, its genetic sequence and evolution strongly suggest that SARS-CoV-2 resulted from natural evolution and not from artificial manipulation in a laboratory.
Memes claiming “we were right” about SARS-CoV-2 origin, “natural immunity”, masks, vaccines, ivermectin, and other COVID-19-related topics are based on inaccurate, unsupported, and misleading claims. The implied claims had recently made the rounds online based on cherry-picked, partial information, which doesn’t demonstrate that public health authorities lied.
While the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 continues to be debated, there is no new evidence demonstrating that the virus leaked from a lab or changing the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused billions of infections and more than 6.7 million deaths worldwide. Vaccination remains the safest strategy to gain immunity against the virus, and reliable scientific evidence shows that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective against severe COVID-19 and death.
- 1 – Harris et al. (2021) Effect of vaccination on household transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in England. New England Journal of Medicine.
- 2 – Wu et al. (2023) Long-term effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against infections, hospitalisations, and mortality in adults: findings from a rapid living systematic evidence synthesis and meta-analysis up to December, 2022. JAMA Respiratory Medicine.
- 3 – Watson et al. (2022) Global impact of the first year of COVID-19 vaccination: a mathematical modelling study. The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
- 4 – Patone et al. (2022) Risk of Myocarditis After Sequential Doses of COVID-19 Vaccine and SARS-CoV-2 Infection by Age and Sex. Circulation.
- 5 – Tu et al. (2023) SARS-CoV-2 Infection, Hospitalization, and Death in Vaccinated and Infected Individuals by Age Groups in Indiana, 2021‒2022. American Journal of Public Health.
- 6 – Xu et al. (2021) COVID-19 Vaccination and Non–COVID-19 Mortality Risk — Seven Integrated Health Care Organizations, United States, December 14, 2020–July 31, 2021. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
- 7 – Naggie et al. (2023) Effect of Higher-Dose Ivermectin for 6 Days vs Placebo on Time to Sustained Recovery in Outpatients With COVID-19. A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA.
- 8 – Stein et al. (COVID-19 Forecasting Team) (2023) Past SARS-CoV-2 infection protection against re-infection: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet.
- 9 – Bobrovitz et al. (2023) Protective effectiveness of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection and hybrid immunity against the omicron variant and severe disease: a systematic review and meta-regression. The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
- 10 – Malato et al. (2023) Stability of hybrid versus vaccine immunity against BA.5 infection over 8 months. The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
- 11 – Jefferson et al. (2023) Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. Cochrane Library of Systematic Reviews.
- 12 – Worobey et al. (2022) The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Science.
- 13 – Pekar et al. (2022) The molecular epidemiology of multiple zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2. Science.