Jake West was a seemingly healthy 17-year-old when he collapsed during high school football practice in Indiana and died of sudden cardiac arrest. A video widely shared online falsely suggests COVID-19 vaccination is to blame, weaving headlines about him into a rapid-fire compilation of news coverage about athletes collapsing.
The vaccine played no role in West’s death — he died from an undiagnosed heart condition in 2013, seven years before the pandemic began.
The video is just one example of many similar compilations circulating on the internet that use deceptive tactics to link vaccines to a supposed wave of deaths and illness among the healthiest people, often athletes, a claim for which medical experts say there is no supporting evidence.
The clips inundate viewers with a barrage of stories and headlines delivered without context, some translated from other languages and offering few details people can check on their own.
They are highly effective at spreading misinformation using a strategy that sows doubt and bypasses critical analysis, capitalizing on emotion, according to Norbert Schwarz, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Southern California.
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“It’s designed to foster that feeling that the vaccines may be risky,” Schwarz said. “You’re doing that with material that seems real, because it is real. All of these events actually happened, they just have nothing to do with the vaccines.”
The nearly four-minute montage that included West’s story originated on “The HighWire,” an online talk show hosted by Del Bigtree that is popular among the anti-vaccine community, and gradually became magnified via social media.
It takes the viewer through more than 50 cases of medical emergencies in rapid succession while eerie music plays and a beating heart pulses in the background, ending with somber images of medics and teammates rushing to fallen athletes.
For West’s family members, who have worked to raise awareness about sudden cardiac arrest through their Play for Jake Foundation, seeing his story co-opted in the service of spreading anti-vaccine misinformation has been distressing. His mother, Julie West, questioned whether those behind the videos ever considered the feelings of parents.
“My tragedy of losing my son is always upsetting, and to think that somebody would use that for their gain is very upsetting,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling to me that there are people out there like that that want to spread or have their own agenda.”
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Virus Q&A: Answers to common questions about COVID-19 vaccines, travel and more
Do at-home COVID-19 tests detect the omicron variant?
Yes, but U.S. health officials say early data suggests they may be less sensitive at picking it up.
Government recommendations for using at-home tests haven't changed. People should continue to use them when a quick result is important.
"The bottom line is the tests still detect COVID-19 whether it is delta or alpha or omicron," says Dr. Emily Volk, president of the College of American Pathologists.
Government scientists have been checking to make sure the rapid tests still work as each new variant comes along. And this week, the Food and Drug Administration said preliminary research indicates they detect omicron, but may have reduced sensitivity. The agency noted it's still studying how the tests perform with the variant, which was first detected in late November.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said the FDA wanted to be "totally transparent" by noting the sensitivity might come down a bit, but that the tests remain important.
There are many good uses for at-home tests, Volk says. Combined with vaccination, they can make you more comfortable about gathering with family and friends.
If you've been exposed to a person who tested positive but you don't have symptoms, a rapid test five days later can give a good indication of whether you caught the virus. It can also help if you're not sure whether your runny nose or sore throat is COVID-19.
But consider the context when looking at results. If you feel sick after going out to a nightclub in an area with high infection rates, for example, you should look at a negative result from an at-home test with a little more skepticism, Volk says.
Following up with a PCR test is a good idea, she says. Those tests are more accurate and are done at testing sites and hospitals.
Can my pet get COVID-19?
Yes, pets and other animals can get the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but health officials say the risk of them spreading it to people is low.
Dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, otters, hyenas and white-tailed deer are among the animals that have tested positive, in most cases after contracting it from infected people.
While you don't have to worry much about getting COVID-19 from your pets, they should worry about getting it from you. People with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 should avoid contact with pets, farm animals and wildlife, as well as with other people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"If you wouldn't go near another person because you're sick or you might be exposed, don't go near another animal," says Dr. Scott Weese at Ontario Veterinary College.
Not all infected pets get sick and serious illness is extremely rare. Pets that show symptoms typically get mildly ill, the CDC says.
Some zoos in the U.S. and elsewhere have vaccinated big cats, primates and other animals that are thought to be at risk of getting the virus through contact with people.
This particular coronavirus most likely jumped from animals to humans in the first place, sparking a pandemic because the virus spreads so easily between people. But it does not easily spread from animals to people. Minks are the only known animals to have caught the virus from people and spread it back, according to Weese.
Three countries in northern Europe recorded cases of the virus spreading from people to mink on mink farms. The virus circulated among the animals before being passed back to farmworkers.
How easily animals can get and spread the virus might change with different variants, and the best way to prevent the virus from spreading among animals is to control it among people, Weese says.
Is travel safe during the pandemic?
As the holidays approach, is it safe to travel during the pandemic? (AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)
It depends. It can be safe if you're fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but officials say people who haven't gotten the shots should delay travel.
Regardless of vaccination status, all travelers should keep taking precautions like avoiding indoor, unmasked crowds, says Dr. Keith Armitage, an infectious disease expert at Case Western Reserve University.
"The delta variant has really brought us back to an earlier time in the pandemic," he says.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says not to travel if you're sick, or if you tested positive for COVID-19 and your isolation period isn't over yet — even if you're fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated people who decide to travel should get a COVID-19 test one to three days before travel and three to five days after returning.
All travelers must still wear masks on trains, planes and other indoor public transportation areas, the agency says.
Airlines say plane cabins are low risk since they have good air circulation and filtration. However, there is no requirement for vaccination or testing before domestic flights, and passengers can remove their face masks while eating or drinking.
Hotels aren't risky for the vaccinated as long as they wear masks around strangers, Armitage says. More fraught are family gatherings with unvaccinated individuals, particularly for those who are older or have health problems.
Health experts suggest looking at the case levels and masking rules in the place you are visiting before you travel.
Why can't some COVID-19 vaccinated people travel to the US?
Why can't some COVID-19 vaccinated people travel to the US? (AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)
Because they might not be vaccinated with shots recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the World Health Organization.
When lifting overseas travel restrictions in November, the U.S. required adults coming to the country to be fully vaccinated with shots approved or authorized by the FDA or allowed by WHO.
Among the most widely used vaccines that don't meet that criteria are Russia's Sputnik V vaccine and China's CanSino vaccine. Sputnik V is authorized for use in more than 70 countries while CanSino is allowed in at least nine countries. WHO still is awaiting more data about both vaccines before making a decision.
Vaccines recognized by the FDA and WHO undergo rigorous testing and review to determine they're safe and effective. And among the vaccines used internationally, experts say some likely won't be recognized by the agencies.
"They will not all be evaluated in clinical trials with the necessary rigor," said Dr. William Moss, executive director of the Johns Hopkins International Vaccine Access Center.
An exception to the U.S. rule is people who received a full series of the Novavax vaccine in a late-stage study. The U.S. is accepting the participants who received the vaccine, not a placebo, because it was a rigorous study with oversight from an independent monitoring board.
The U.S. also allows entry to people who got two doses of any "mix-and-match" combination of vaccines on the FDA and WHO lists.
Are COVID-19 boosters the same as the original vaccines?
Are COVID-19 boosters the same as the original vaccines? (AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)
Yes, COVID-19 boosters use the same recipe as the original shots, despite the emergence of the more contagious delta variant. The vaccines weren't tweaked to better match delta because they're still working well.
The vaccines work by training your body to recognize and fight the spike protein that coats the coronavirus and helps it invade the body's cells. Delta's mutations fortunately weren't different enough to escape detection.
The increased protection you might get from a booster adjusted to better match the delta or other variants would be marginal, says Dr. Paul Goepfert, director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Manufacturing doses with a new formula would have also delayed the rollout of boosters.
Moderna and Pfizer are studying boosters tweaked for the delta and other variants to be ready if one's ever needed. Health authorities would have to decide if and when a vaccine formula swap would be worthwhile.
"What we don't know," Goepfert noted, "is if you have a delta vaccine compared to the regular vaccine, does it actually work better in preventing transmission or asymptomatic infection?"
The U.S. has authorized booster doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for certain people, and a few other countries also are using boosters of those shots or other COVID-19 vaccines.
Can at-home COVID-19 tests make gatherings safer?
Can at-home COVID-19 tests make holiday gatherings safer?(AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)
Yes, combined with vaccination, home test kits for COVID-19 can add a layer of safety and reassurance by providing on-the-spot results during this second year of pandemic holidays.
"We will be using rapid tests to doublecheck everybody before we gather together," says Dr. Emily Volk, president of the College of American Pathologists, who is planning a holiday meal with six vaccinated family members. "We'll be doing it as they come in the door."
Home kits are not as accurate as the PCR tests done in hospitals and at testing sites, Volk says. But they have the advantage of giving results within minutes instead of days.
Testing kits are available at drugstores without a prescription, and a box with two tests typically costs about $25. Swabs, testing solution and instructions are included.
Adults and teens can test themselves. An adult can test a child as young as 2. How-to videos on product websites can be helpful.
Most tests require swabbing about a half inch inside both nostrils, so it may tickle but doesn't hurt. You will get a positive result if the test detects a viral protein in your sample.
Home tests will miss some infections and in rare cases mistakenly indicate an infection. One popular test misses around 15 out of 100 infections — these are called "false negatives" — and gives a false positive result in about 1 in 100 people who aren't infected.
Test shortages were widely reported during the last COVID-19 surge, but new options have recently hit the market and major manufacturers such as Abbott Laboratories have ramped up production.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers other tips on ways to enjoy the holidays safely. Vaccination remains the best way to protect against the coronavirus.
How will the world decide when the pandemic is over?
There's no clear-cut definition for when a pandemic starts and ends, and how much of a threat a global outbreak is posing can vary by country.
"It's somewhat a subjective judgment because it's not just about the number of cases. It's about severity and it's about impact," says Dr. Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization's emergencies chief.
In January 2020, WHO designated the virus a global health crisis "of international concern." A couple months later in March, the United Nations health agency described the outbreak as a "pandemic," reflecting the fact that the virus had spread to nearly every continent and numerous other health officials were saying it could be described as such.
The pandemic may be widely considered over when WHO decides the virus is no longer an emergency of international concern, a designation its expert committee has been reassessing every three months. But when the most acute phases of the crisis ease within countries could vary.
"There is not going to be one day when someone says, 'OK, the pandemic is over,'" says Dr. Chris Woods, an infectious disease expert at Duke University. Although there's no universally agreed-upon criteria, he said countries will likely look for sustained reduction in cases over time.
Scientists expect COVID-19 will eventually settle into becoming a more predictable virus like the flu, meaning it will cause seasonal outbreaks but not the huge surges we're seeing right now. But even then, Woods says some habits, such as wearing masks in public places, might continue.
"Even after the pandemic ends, COVID will still be with us," he says.
The AP is answering your questions about the coronavirus in this series. Submit them at: FactCheck@AP.org.
A guide to the named coronavirus variants
Coronavirus variants: Here's what we know
Omicron, the newest coronavirus variant, is also the quickest to be labeled a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because of its seemingly fast spread in South Africa and its many troubling mutations.
But it has a long way to go to take over from Delta, the variant that dominates all over the world. And the long list of variants that at first frightened the world before falling off the map can be a reminder that viruses are unpredictable.
Here's a look at the named coronavirus variants.
What is a 'variant of concern'?
WHO designates coronavirus variants as either variants of concern — meaning they look dangerous enough to bear close scrutiny and continual updates — or as variants of interest, or variants under monitoring. Only five currently meet the definition for variants of concern: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron.
The first sample of the Omicron or B.1.1.529 lineage was taken Nov. 9, according to WHO. It got noticed because of a surge of cases in South Africa.
"This new variant, B.1.1.529 seems to spread very quick!" Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa's Center for Epidemic Response & Innovation, and a genetics researcher at Stellenbosch University, said on Twitter.
Also, genetic sequencing showed it carried a large number of troubling mutations on the spike protein — the knoblike structure on the surface of the virus that it uses to grapple onto the cells it infects.
Some of those mutations were already recognized from other variants and were known to make them more dangerous, including one called E484A — a slightly altered version of a mutation called E484K that may make the virus less recognizable to some antibodies — immune system proteins that are a frontline defense against infection and that form the basis of monoclonal antibody treatments.
It also carries a mutation called N501Y, which gave both Alpha and Gamma their increased transmissibility. Just last week, Scott Weaver of the University of Texas Medical Branch and colleagues reported in the journal Nature that this particular mutation made the virus better at replicating in the upper airway — think in the nose and throat — and likely makes it more likely to spread when people breathe, sneeze and cough.
Like Delta, Omicron also carries a mutation called D614G, which appears to help the virus better attach to the cells it infects.
"Early evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people who become infected with the Omicron variant can spread the virus to others. All FDA-approved or authorized vaccines are expected to be effective against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths," the CDC says on its website.
"The number of mutations per se does not mean that the new variant will cause any problems; although it may make it more likely to look different to the immune system," Dr. Peter English, former chair of the British Medical Association's Public Health Medicine Committee, said in a statement.
What worries scientists is the number of mutations affecting the spike protein. That's because most of the leading vaccines target the spike protein. Vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and other companies all use just small pieces or genetic sequences of the virus and not whole virus, and all of them use bits of the spike protein to elicit immunity. So a change in the spike protein that made it less recognizable to immune system proteins and cells stimulated by a vaccine would be a problem.
So far, there's no evidence this has happened but there is no way of knowing by looking at the mutations alone. Researchers will have to wait and see if more breakthrough infections are caused by Omicron than by other variants.
The other fear is that the mutations might help make the virus less susceptible to monoclonal antibody treatments. However, WHO says it's unlikely these mutations would affect other Covid-19 treatments, including antiviral drugs in development and the steroid dexamethasone.
The Delta variant of coronavirus is the dominant lineage in the US and much of the world. The Delta variant accounts for 99.9% of cases in the US, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Also known as B.1.617.2, it is clearly more transmissible than other variants, but it is still unclear if it causes more severe disease.
It quickly took over from the B.1.1.7, or Alpha, variant in most countries.
Delta also carries a cluster of mutations on the spike protein. It can also evade the immune system, which may mean people who have been infected once with an older variant may be more likely to catch it again. It also eludes the effects of a monoclonal antibody treatment called bamlanivimab, made by Eli Lilly and Company, but is vulnerable to the protection offered by other monoclonal antibody treatments.
First identified as a variant of concern last December, the B.1.1.7 or Alpha variant of coronavirus was worrying public health officials last spring. It swept across England quickly and then out into the world, quickly becoming the dominant lineage in the United States. It has now been demoted to "Variant Being Monitored" by the CDC because of its low impact in the US.
It was shown to be at least 50% more transmissible than older lineages. It carries 23 mutations, including one called N501Y that increases transmission.
It's fully susceptible to monoclonal antibody treatments and vaccines.
First seen in South Africa, the B.1.351 or Beta variant has both an E484K mutation that is linked with immune escape and the N501Y mutation suspected of helping make many other variants more contagious. It has been shown to be 50% more transmissible than older strains and evades Lilly's dual monoclonal antibody treatment, but not others.
Blood tests and real-life use both suggest it can infect people who have recovered from coronavirus and also people who have been vaccinated against Covid-19.
Vaccine makers trying to get out ahead of the new variants by developing booster shots had focused on B.1.351, as it's the variant scientists most fear could elude vaccine protection. But partial escape doesn't mean full escape, and vaccines are still expected to protect people to some degree.
It was overtaken by Delta in South Africa and have never gained much of a foothold in the US, despite the worry it caused, and is now designated a Variant Being Monitored by the CDC.
WHO Variants of Interest
Lambda: Lambda or C.37 was designated a WHO Variant of Interest in June. The CDC doesn't mention it.
Mu: Mu or B.1.621 caused a flurry of fear when it was declared a WHO Variant of Interest in August, but it soon fizzled out. It's now designated Variant Being Monitored by the CDC.
Variants Being Monitored by CDC
All of the following variants are listed by the CDC as Variants Being Monitored.
Epsilon: The B.1.427 and B.1.429 variants are usually lumped together and known as Epsilon. First seen in California, this one has the same L452R mutation carried by Delta, but not some of its other mutations and has not taken off in the way Delta has.
Iota: First seen in New York last November, the B.1.526 or Iota variant spread at first, accounting for as many as 9% of samples last April, but it's now virtually disappeared. It has what's called a 484 mutation that should help the virus attach more easily to the cells it infects and makes the virus less recognizable to the immune system.
Eta: First seen in the UK and Nigeria, Eta, also known as B.1.525, carries an E484K mutation. It has also virtually disappeared.
Zeta: Circulating in Brazil since last year, this variant, also known as P.2, also carries the E484K mutation and has not been found widely globally. It's almost disappeared in the US, according to the CDC.
There are no variants designated Nu or Xi. WHO decided "Nu" sounded too much like the English word "new" and Xi is a common last name.
The P.1 or Gamma variant that swept Brazil also never gained much ground elsewhere and is also now a CDC Variant Being Monitored.
Gamma carries both E484K and N501Y mutations, with more than 30 others. It has been demonstrated to evade the effects of Lilly's monoclonal antibody treatment but not one made by Regeneron. Blood tests show it might partly escape both natural and vaccine-elicited immune responses.