A healthcare worker prepares a jab of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine at the Springs Train Station outside of Johannesburg, on August 25, 2021. ( AFP / PHILL MAGAKOE)

South African heart surgeon uses webinar to spread Covid-19 vaccine misinformation

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A BitChute video featuring South African cardiothoracic specialist Dr Susan Vosloo sharing her views on Covid-19 and vaccines during an online meeting has circulated widely on social media. In the clip, Vosloo makes a string of false allegations about the disease and reiterates previously debunked myths about Covid-19 vaccines. AFP Fact Check looks at her various claims.

The Facebook post, which has been shared more than 620 times since it was published on August 13, 2021, includes a 16-minute video of a webinar hosted on BitChute and attended by Vosloo and other participants.

A screenshot of the webinar video, taken on August 18, 2021

During the meeting, Vosloo alleged that getting vaccinated was riskier than catching the novel coronavirus.

Since the video became public, she has faced criticism from the country’s medical establishment, but also found support among conspiracy groups and anti-lockdown campaigners for her stance on Covid-19.

Who is Dr Susan Vosloo?

Vosloo made history in South Africa when she became the country’s first female cardiothoracic surgeon, performing her first heart transplant at the age of 33.

She currently has a practice at the Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape Town. Following her appearance in the webinar, the privately-owned Netcare hospital group distanced itself from Vosloo’s anti-vaccine views.

“The sentiments as expressed in the contents of the video are in complete contradiction to the unrelenting endeavours of Netcare, our clinical colleagues, healthcare workers and others to try and curb the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic,” the statement from Netcare reads.

“Given the grave implications of the comments made by Dr Vosloo and the potential deleterious impact on both national and global efforts to curb Covid-19, Netcare completely dissociates itself from Dr Vosloo’s anti-vaccination message.”

The South African Heart Association, representing cardiovascular practitioners in South Africa, also responded to Vosloo, saying “there is clear scientific evidence for the use of vaccinations to reduce the risk of both hospitalisation and death in Covid-19 infections and with the benefit of vaccination far outweighing its risk”.

AFP Fact Check examined several of the false claims made by Vosloo.

Benefits outweigh risks

According to Vosloo, health risks linked to the vaccine outweigh the risk of getting the virus.

Yet there have been no deaths linked to Covid-19 vaccines in South Africa, according to the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA).

SAHPRA’s announcement on August 20, 2021, followed an investigation into the deaths of 32 people who had been inoculated since the official national vaccination roll-out between May 17, 2021, and July 31, 2021.

“Investigations for 32 death cases have been completed and causality assessment concluded, of which 28 were coincidental to vaccination. This means that these deaths were not related/linked to the vaccination.”

Four cases were “unclassifiable” because there was either inadequate or no information available about the case.

South Africa’s Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism investigated the monitoring process here.

SAHPRA updated the information on September 1, 2021, concluding that 30 of them were coincidental and that there was insufficient information to make a conclusion on the other two deaths.

On August 18, 2021, National Immunisation Safety Expert Committee member Professor Hannelie Meyer said data currently suggests that less than 10 percent of those vaccinated will experience side effects like headaches, fever and chills.

“[These] don’t pose a potential risk to the person, and it’s part of the body’s immune response. It’s also important to note that it’s not the same in all people. These events are mild. They happen within the first couple of hours … and they hardly ever need any management,” Meyer said in a government-issued statement.

“When we look at the adverse events that we have received so far in the system, they are quite few, with just over 2,000, compared to the doses that have been administered so far, which is about 9.5 million as of [August 17, 2021],” said SAHPRA’s vigilance manager, Mafora Matlala.

“The benefits of these vaccines actually do outweigh the risks that may be out there,” Matlala added.

Prevention of death

Vosloo also claimed that Covid-19 vaccines do not prevent death.

Not so, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“All Covid-19 vaccines approved for emergency use listing by WHO have been thoroughly tested and proven to provide a high degree of protection against serious illness and death,” reads the WHO website.

“Vaccines provide at least some protection from infection and transmission, but not as much as the protection they provide against serious illness and death.”

Mark Mendelson, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Cape Town, emphasised this point in a video of his own,released to counter Vosloo’s claims

“In South Africa, the Delta variant is circulating, and most recently, research has shown that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that was given to 480,000 healthcare workers in South Africa is 96 percent effective against mortality,” said Mendelson, referring to the Sisonke Programme, which allowed the government to make the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine immediately available to healthcare workers under the auspices of a research programme.

“Similarly, a Pfizer vaccination, which is in two doses, [and] has been rolled out as part of South Africa's vaccination campaign, is not only extremely safe but also highly effective in reducing severe disease, hospitalisation and death,” Mendelson added.

Ingredients not secret

Vosloo alleged that the composition of the vaccines is “largely confidential, like a trade secret” and that there is “absolutely no safety data”.

However, Mendelson refuted this and said the “components of the vaccines, be it Pfizer or others, are well known. They are not a secret, as has been suggested in the circulating webinar.”

The full list of ingredients for the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines are detailed here on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

AFP Fact Check has also debunked numerous false claims about Covid-19 vaccines containing formaldehyde, graphene oxide, aborted foetus cells and magnetic microchips.

As for safety data, the WHO explains that there are strict processes to ensure all Covid-19 vaccines are safe. All data and studies pertaining to the development of each candidate vaccine and their progress from the pre-clinical testing stage to fully phased trials are publicly available via a specially-built vaccine tracker database on the WHO’s website.

Rare neurological issues

Vosloo claimed that Covid-19 vaccines can lead to “severe neurological complications”, stemming from reports about rare occurrences of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) reported in people who received the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine.

“GBS is a rare neurological disorder in which the body's immune system mistakenly attacks nerves located outside the brain and spinal cord,” the European Medicines Agency (EMA) explains on its website.

“Symptoms of GBS range from mild weakness to more severe paralysis. Most people eventually fully recover even from the most severe symptoms, while some may continue to have some degree of weakness”.

Out of 12.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson shot administered in the US, there were 100 preliminary reports of GBS occurring in recipients as of June 30, 2021. Following these reports, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made an update to the vaccine’s label to describe the possible risk for the rare side effect, which may occur within a 42-day period after inoculation.

While the EMA said its safety committee had considered that a causal link between the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine and GBS “is possible”, the FDA in its statement said there was insufficient evidence to prove any association between the two.

AFP Fact Check also debunked articles in May 2021 that claimed a study had found the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech may cause neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Medical experts rejected the study as having no scientific basis, noting the paper was published in a for-profit journal and was written by a doctor with a history of opposing vaccination.

Dr Neil Cashman, a professor of neurology at the University of British Columbia, told AFP Fact Check: “There is absolutely no evidence that RNA vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna) can promote risk of neurodegeneration in humans or test animals.”

Inaccurate infertility claim

Vosloo claimed that Covid-19 vaccines can lead to infertility.

But AFP Fact Check debunked this particular claim made by an American scientist in May 2021.

The CDC recommends Covid-19 vaccination “for all people aged 12 years and older, including people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to get pregnant now, or might become pregnant in the future,” according to its website.

According to the CDC, pregnant and recently pregnant people “are more likely to get severely ill with Covid-19 compared with non-pregnant people”.

In a joint statement in February 2021, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine also said there is no evidence that the vaccines can lead to loss of fertility.

And the WHO’s Dr Soumya Swaminathan tackled the subject in this YouTube video on June 4, 2021.

“There is absolutely no scientific evidence or truth behind this concern that vaccines somehow interfere with fertility, either in men or in women, because… they stimulate an immune response against that particular protein or antigen of that virus or bacteria,” Swaminathan said.

“In this case, the Covid vaccine stimulates both antibody response and a cell-mediated immune response against the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

Animal studies

Vosloo falsely claimed that “the animal studies have all been unsuccessful -- although early on there was low mortality -- but as soon as animals were in contact with the natural virus, I think all of them died”.

AFP Fact Check previously debunked a similar claim that pharmaceutical companies had “skipped” animal trials while developing Covid-19 vaccines because the subjects kept dying.

Pfizer-BioNtech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines underwent animal testing, the results of which were released in separate statements.

All three companies reported that the vaccines created an immune response that protected animals against a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

An AFP graphic shows the different Covid-19 vaccine development stages

Animals are typically used at two separate stages in the creation of all vaccines including Covid-19, Kirk Leech, executive director of the European Animal Research Association, told AFP Fact Check in May 2021.

“Studies using mice, ferrets and monkeys initially identify what vaccines are likely to be effective, and then once a vaccine has been developed, animals, usually monkeys, are used to test if the finished product is safe for human trials,” he said. “If safety and efficacy are not guaranteed in the preclinical trials, the study would not proceed.” The Covid-19 vaccines all proceeded to human trials.

Both Leech and Akiko Iwasaki, an immunobiologist at Yale University, said that testing on animals took place during the development of Covid-19 vaccines. But the urgency of the pandemic resulted in some testing on humans and animals being conducted simultaneously for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, they added.

Human trials were approved based on previous testing of mRNA technology on animals that had been shown it to be safe, Leech said, adding: “The collective effort to find volunteers for vaccine trials went forward as a priority, but no corners were cut.”

Iwasaki also said: “There is no data that indicated that any of the vaccinated animals died as a result of vaccination.”

Eva Maciejewski, director of media relations at the Foundation for Biomedical Research, agreed. She told AFP Fact Check that with all three vaccines approved for emergency use by the FDA, “the animals were safe and high levels of immunity after receiving the vaccines” were seen.

Influenza vs Covid-19 deaths

Vosloo downplayed the number of Covid-19-related deaths, saying that flu kills a larger percentage of the South African population each year compared to Covid-19.

In a local context, “it is estimated that approximately 11,800 seasonal influenza-associated deaths occur annually” in South Africa, according to the National Centre for Infectious Disease (NICD).

In comparison, South African tallies on September 1, 2021, showed that 82,496 people have died from Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Overall, 2,787,203 people in South Africa have tested positive for Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Although flu and Covid-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, the viruses that cause them are not the same. Covid-19 is caused by infection with a new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), and flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses.

Influenza data reported to the WHO’s FluNet platform from three Southern Hemisphere countries (Australia, Chile, and South Africa) “showed very low influenza activity during June–August 2020, the months that constitute the typical Southern Hemisphere influenza season”.

Vaccines and gene therapy

Vosloo claimed Covid-19 vaccines are “gene therapy disguised as vaccinations”, a view shared by Steven Hotze, a doctor and conservative activist from the United States that AFP Fact Check has previously debunked.

The mRNA shots against Covid-19 are the first to use the cutting-edge messenger ribonucleic acid technology, which differs from that of other vaccines.

Instead of confronting the immune system with part of a virus in a weakened or deactivated form to build antibodies, it introduces a “blueprint” of the spike protein, part of the virus that the body can then recognise and fight if it encounters it later.

Mendelson agreed, saying in his video that mRNA cannot be incorporated into genetic material because “it's impossible, just doesn't happen”.

The WHO said the mRNA vaccine technology had been studied for more than a decade, including in the development of vaccines for Zika, rabies and influenza.

“mRNA vaccines are not live virus vaccines and do not interfere with human DNA,” the WHO website reads.

Furthermore, the process of translating genetic code into the coronavirus’ protein is carried out in the cytoplasm, not in the nucleus of the cell where DNA is located, María Victoria Sánchez, a researcher at Argentina’s Cuyo Institute of Experimental Medicine and Biology told AFP Fact Check in December 2020.

In the wake of the video, the South African Medical Association filed a complaint against Vosloo with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), as reported here and here.