CoronaCheck is RMIT ABC Fact Check's weekly email newsletter dedicated to fighting the misinformation infodemic surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.
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In this week's CoronaCheck, we debunk claims linking the outbreak of Japanese encephalitis to the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine and investigate suggestions that Centrelink payments will be tied to COVID-19 vaccine status.
We also get to the bottom of Russian propaganda involving US biolabs in Ukraine, and announce RMIT FactLab's new partnership with Meta.
No, Japanese encephalitis cases are not linked to the Pfizer jab
A Pfizer document outlining potential adverse events following vaccination for COVID-19 is again being shared online as anti-vaxxers incorrectly link the report to an Australian outbreak of Japanese encephalitis.
One claim, shared as a caption overlaid on an image of the Pfizer document, alleges that "there is NO Japanese encephalitis" and that news reports about an outbreak were "cover stories" designed to "distract you from the real cause".
Covered in CoronaCheck in detail last week, the Pfizer document contains a list of so-called "adverse events of special interest" (AESIs). That list includes a number of different types of encephalitis, which is an inflammation of the brain.
Notably, however, the list of AESIs does not include Japanese encephalitis, which, as University of Queensland virologist Jody Peters explained, is specifically caused by the Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV) which is spread via mosquitoes.
According to news reports, widespread flooding in eastern Australia had exacerbated the spread of JEV which, in rare cases, can cause serious illness and death.
In an email, Dr Peters told Fact Check that Japanese encephalitis was diagnosed "through measuring antibody levels to JEV in a blood sample, or from cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)".
"A person will only contract Japanese encephalitis following the bite from a Japanese encephalitis virus-infected mosquito."
Additionally, as Fact Check has explained previously, AESIs listed in the Pfizer document had not necessarily been conclusively linked to the Pfizer vaccine.
As the report itself states, the list includes "events of interest due to their association with severe COVID-19 and events of interest for vaccines in general", and incorporates pre-existing lists compiled by a number of different "expert groups and regulatory bodies".
In Australia, just five cases of encephalitis have been reported to the Therapeutic Good Administation's Database of Adverse Event Notifications (DAEN) in relation to the around 37 million doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine administered so far.
It should be noted, however, that anyone can make an unverified report to the DAEN and, according to the TGA, "an adverse event report does not mean that the medicine is the cause of the adverse event".
'No plans' for Centrelink payments to be made conditional on COVID-19 vaccination
There is no evidence to suggest either of the major political parties are planning to strip Centrelink payments from people who refuse COVID-19 vaccines, despite widespread claims to the contrary.
According to a post uploaded online by Cairns News (a site which regularly publishes COVID-19-related misinformation), Centrelink was "actively working" on a plan to stop unvaccinated people from claiming the Family Tax Benefit, old age pension and unemployment benefits.
The post, which attributes the information to a Centrelink worker, claims the measure would come into effect in August, after the federal election.
But Fact Check could find no evidence for such a plan, which was also strenuously denied by a spokeswoman for Health Minister Greg Hunt.
"These claims are false," the spokeswoman said in an email.
"As the Minister has said previously, Centrelink recipients will not be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine to receive payments. The Government has no plans to change this."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services (DSS) added that the eligibility criteria and mutual obligations necessary for receiving Centrelink payments did "not consider an applicant's COVID-19 vaccination status".
Currently, the Family Tax Benefit (FTB) and Child Care Subsidy (CCS) payments are the only types of Centrelink support that are contingent on vaccination status: in both cases, children of the parents receiving the payment must be up to date on vaccinations "in accordance with the age appropriate childhood schedule".
This schedule does not include the COVID-19 vaccine; a child's COVID-19 vaccination status does not affect eligibility for either of these payments.
The DSS spokeswoman told Fact Check it was "important to stress the Government has no plans to make COVID-19 vaccination status an eligibility criterion for any social security payments".
Also, Fact Check could find no evidence to suggest that Labor had plans to make Centrelink payments dependent on COVID-19 vaccination.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has spawned hundreds of false, out-of-context and misleading claims, but one has proved particularly pervasive: a conspiracy theory alleging that US-owned biolabs in Ukraine are the real reason for Russia's war.
According to that theory, the US supposedly owns and operates a number of clandestine bioweapon labs in Ukraine where deadly pathogens are being manufactured. Russia, of course, is the hero in this story, invading its neighbour in order to destroy the labs and stop a new pandemic from being unleashed.
The theory has no basis in reality, but that hasn't stopped Russia from going so far as to raise the conspiracy at a meeting of the United Nations, nor have the facts prevented Chinese state media from propagating the story.
But where did this claim originate? It's not what you might think.
According to Ben Collins, a misinformation reporter at NBC News, Russia did not initially use the biolab theory as justification for the war until weeks after the invasion of Ukraine.
"'Biolabs' weren't a talking point until Russia's first line of propaganda — about Zelensky being a 'Nazi' — failed spectacularly," Collins tweeted earlier this week.
Rather than beginning life as Russian propaganda, Collins said, the biolabs theory actually seemed to have spread from a Twitter thread posted by the account of a QAnon adherent.
"Once [the] post took off among right-wing influencers, it was everywhere on the English-language far right," Collins said, adding that "Russian propaganda finally had its line that resonated with the global far right".
In the US, the theory was bolstered when the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, told a congressional hearing that "Ukraine has biological research facilities which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian troops, Russian forces, may be seeking to gain control of".
But as the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, later clarified, those biological research facilities were not involved in "pursuing biological weapons or nuclear weapons" but rather aided in Ukraine's "biodefense and their public health response".
Indeed, fact checkers found there was no evidence biological weapons were being developed in Ukraine with the aid of the US.
The BBC's Reality Check, for example, explained that while the US did provide funding to public health labs in Ukraine, there was "no evidence that they work[ed] to produce biological weapons".
"In January, the US said its programme does the opposite and in fact aims to ‘reduce the threat of biological weapons proliferation'," the fact checkers said.
They added that US support of the labs was not secret, with details of the country's involvement available on the US embassy's website.
PolitiFact similarly concluded that there were "no US-run biological weapons labs operating in Ukraine".
In other news
RMIT FactLab partners with Meta to fight social media misinformation
RMIT FactLab has signed up to become a third-party fact-checking partner of Meta, joining more than 80 other organisations reviewing viral misinformation on the tech giant's platforms, Facebook and Instagram.
Posts containing potential misinformation flagged by users as well as Meta's own algorithms will be referred to RMIT FactLab, which will review and rate the accuracy of the content before publishing its findings online.
Facebook and Instagram users who share or are about to share content that has been debunked will be alerted to the FactLab findings, and any content rated as false will feature less prominently in users' feeds, thereby limiting its spread.
FactLab director Russell Skelton described the organisation's involvement with the Meta program as a "really important public service".
"If we can play a role in preventing the dissemination of misinformation on social media that has the potential to mislead or harm, then we see that as providing a really critical service," Skelton said.
The partnership has also allowed FactLab to employ six recent RMIT journalism graduates, who will help debunk online misinformation through interviews with primary sources, consulting public data and conducting analysis of media such as photos and videos.
Tanya Plibersek overreaches on religious vilification laws in NSW
After passing through the House of Representatives with the support of Labor, the Coalition's Religious Discrimination Bill — a 2019 election commitment — has been indefinitely shelved, thwarting the plans of the opposition and crossbenchers to amend the legislation in the Senate.
Labor's support for the contentious bill came under scrutiny on a recent episode of the ABC's Q+A program, when a questioner asked Shadow Minister for Education and Women, Tanya Plibersek, how she and her party could support the legislation.
In response, Ms Plibersek noted that "in lots of parts of Australia, people of faith don't have any protection at all".
"Right now in Sydney, if you're a Muslim woman sitting on a train and someone yells at you for wearing a hijab, you've got no protection under the law from that."
But Fact Check this week found that claim to be overreach.
There were no religious vilification laws at either a state or federal level which would protect someone in NSW from vilification as described by Ms Plibersek, but experts told Fact Check other legislation could come into play.
For example, laws governing offensive language in public and behaviour on public transport could offer the woman some protection against the harassment described.
One expert said there was "nothing to stop the use of [offensive language laws] to address public Islamophobic comments".
Edited by Ellen McCutchan with thanks to Siena O'Kelly
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