Covid vaccine misinformation resurfaces after China's winter surge in respiratory illnesses

Social media posts have falsely claimed that children vaccinated for Covid-19 in China were more vulnerable to a surge in respiratory illnesses last winter. Health experts and public health authorities told AFP that there was no evidence to support the claim, nor was there evidence that Covid-19 vaccination weakens a person's immunity to other viruses. They stressed Covid vaccines are safe and effective.

"What is the difference compared to previous years? The only difference is that these children had received two doses of the vaccine last year," reads a post shared on X on November 25, 2023 written in simplified Chinese.

"Therefore, this is not only a pneumonia infection, but also a symptom of the side effects of the Covid vaccine, which has led to a decrease in the child's immunity!"

The post -- which has more than 34,000 views -- includes a television clip brodcast on October 18, 2023 by Jiangsu Television, a provincial TV channel in China.

Text overlaid on the broadcast translates to English as: "Is Mycoplasma pneumonia a side effect of Covid vaccines?"

Screenshot of the false post, taken on December 25, 2023

The original clip -- without the overlaid text -- was posted on the TV channel's Weibo account. The newsreader can be heard saying in Mandarin: "Since October, there has been a significant increase in children with mycoplasma pneumonia infections."

She adds that at least one hospital in Nanjing was operating at full capacity as a result of the surge.

AFP reported on the situation in China in November after the country's National Health Commission reported a rise in respiratory illnesses, mostly in children.

Chinese authorities attributed the rising cases to the end of Covid restrictions, the arrival of the cold season, and the circulation of known pathogens including influenza, mycoplasma pneumonia, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes Covid. 

On November 23, the World Health Organization (WHO) said no unusual pathogen or symptoms had been recorded in the north of the country, citing evidence provided by the Chinese authorities. 

Similar posts falsely linking Covid vaccines to the surging cases were also shared on Facebook and Gettr.

'No evidence'

Health experts and authorities told AFP there was no evidence that the surge in respiratory illnesses in China was linked to Covid vaccination, or that people vaccinated for SARS-CoV-2 had a weakened immune system.

"Mycoplasma pneumonia can cause fairly severe infections in young children and elderly, there is no evidence behind the claim that severe Mycoplasma pneumonia is a side effect of the vaccine," Siddharth Sridhar, clinical assistant professor with the Department of Microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, told AFP on December 15, 2023 (archived link). 

He went on to say there was "no evidence" that Covid-19 vaccines weaken a person's immune system, making them vulnerable to other diseases. AFP has previously debunked the false claim here, here and here.

Raina MacIntyre, professor of global biosecurity at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said to AFP on December 15, 2023: "Covid vaccines are safe and effective, and the side effect profile is well understood." (archived link).

William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in the United States said that to date, none of the vaccine safety monitoring systems around the world had observed any connection between Covid vaccines and weakened immune systems in individuals (archived link). 

"None of the vaccine safety surveillance systems has picked up a signal linking Covid vaccines to a weakened or diminished immune system that would predispose vaccine recipients to any infections, including those caused by Mycoplasma pneumonia," he told AFP on December 15, 2023. 

Mycoplasma pneumonia infections occur "year-round in many different climates worldwide", with epidemics every few years, according to an article published in The Lancet (archived link).

Schaffner said: "The increases in mycoplasma infections that have been reported are part of the expected, usual increase in such infections that are seen every year."

AFP previously debunked misinformation that falsely linked mycoplasma pneumonia to Covid-19 vaccines here.

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