[Tutorial 3] Fact-checking a claim by the Queen of Pop: “COVID-19 vaccine available for months”

We may come across statements or videos in our social media feeds from celebrities and public figures that we suspect may be inaccurate or misleading. This tutorial will provide an example of how to verify a claim made by Madonna that a vaccine “has been available for months,” and a claim by US-based doctor Dr. Stella Immanuel that this virus has a cure.”

While scrolling through your Instagram feed one day, you come across a video posted by celebrity superstar Madonna. In an Instagram post in July (see Figure 1), Madonna shared a video about a conspiracy theory. The video showed Dr. Stella Immanuel, a Houston-based doctor, insisting hydroxychloroquine was a cure for COVID-19 (see Figure 2). 

Figure 1: Madonna’s Instagram post from July 28, shared by The New Zealand Herald.
Figure 2: Screenshot of Dr. Stella Immanuel in live-streamed “America’s Frontline Doctors” video, July 27, 2020

The post was shared by Madonna. Does her position as a global celebrity make you more likely to trust what she says? Do you believe her?

In addition to the video, Madonna posted: “The Truth will set us all Free! But some people don’t want to hear the truth. Especially the people in power who stand to make money from this long drawn out search for a vaccine. Which has been proven and has been available for months…

This post raises questions such as:

  1. What can we fact-check about this post?
  2. Is a COVID-19 vaccine available as claimed on July 28, 2020? 
  3. Who is the doctor speaking in the video? 
  4. What is the event she was speaking at and who was it organized by?

  1. First: What can we fact-check about this post?

We can fact-check the claim in Madonna’s post that a COVID-19 vaccine “has been proven and has been available for months.”

We can also fact-check the claims made by the doctor featured in the video that was included in Madonna’s Instagram post that “This virus has a cure. It is called hydroxychloroquine, zinc and Zithromax.”

  1. Is a COVID-19 vaccine available as claimed on July 28, 2020?

Madonna’s claim: A COVID-19 vaccine has been available for months.

First, COVID-19 is a novel virus, which means it hasn’t been identified before. 

The CDC says: “A novel coronavirus is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified. The virus causing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness, like the common cold.

Because COVID-19 is new and has not previously been seen in humans, there isn’t a vaccine for it but there are several in development at the time of this claim. For the latest information about a COVID-19 vaccine, we should turn to a trusted source such as the WHO. Navigate to the website of the World Health Organization, we find that “There are currently more than 100 COVID-19 vaccine candidates under development, with a number of these in the human trial phase.” 

Madonna’s claim that a COVID-19 vaccine was available at the time of her post is false.

The doctor in the video claims that hydroxychloroquine, zinc and zithromax are cures for COVID-19.

There is no known cure for COVID-19. According to the WHO: “While some western, traditional or home remedies may provide comfort and alleviate symptoms of mild COVID-19, there are no medicines that have been shown to prevent or cure the disease.” 

In addition, we can fact-check the specific drugs and supplements mentioned in the statement by turning to official health bodies such as the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other health authorities including the nonprofit academic medical center Mayo Clinic

  • Hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, had been studied as a possible treatment for COVID-19, but was dropped in June after showing it did not have clinical benefits in treating COVID-19 according to the WHO.  This is the same antimalarial drug promoted by President Trump since earlier this year. 
  • Zinc, a supplement, is taken by people to boost their immune systems. “These supplements are unlikely to affect your immune function or prevent you from getting sick,” according to the Mayo Clinic. (Although research on taking this supplement in the context of COVID-19 is still evolving.)
  • Azithromycin is an antibiotic that has anti-inflammatory properties and is used to treat a broad spectrum of bacterial infections, from chest infections like pneumonia to sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia and Lyme disease. However, there is no evidence azithromycin has any anti-inflammatory effect against COVID-19. 

We can also search academic search repositories such as PubMed for peer-reviewed research on treatments with the drugs Dr. Immanuel mentioned. 

Figure 3: Searching in Pubmed

When we type in “hydroxychloroquine azithromycin COVID-19” into PubMed (Figure 3), the search pops up results like:

This study is based on a clinical trial, and suggests only 20 patients were treated with hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin. Since the sample size in this study is very small, it might not be dispositive. 

Another search result points to a recent study entitled “Association of Treatment with Hydroxychloroquine or Azithromycin with In-Hospital Mortality in Patients with COVID-19 in New York State” which was peer-reviewed and published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The paper is based on a large study involving 1,438 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 in 25 hospitals in New York. It suggests hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin didn’t have any benefits for COVID-patients.

  1. Who is the doctor speaking in the video?

For this, we can use a people search tool such as WebMii, which searches publicly available information for the first and last name you type in. In this instance, the name of the doctor was featured in the video: Dr. Stella Immanuel, a primary care physician from Texas. Once you type in her name, we get a result from Wikipedia, we see that she has Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. A manual review of some of the public information about the doctor suggests that she may have some beliefs that are outside of the mainstream involving conspiracy theories.

  1. What is the event Dr. Stella Immanuel was speaking at and who was it organized by?

We can find this out using a news search tool called PressReader. Navigate to Pressreader.com, and in the search bar on the top right, type in and “America’s Frontline Doctors” including hyphens around the text. There are 104 results.

According to an Associated Press story by Darlene Superville and Amanda Seitz we find on PressReader, the event was organized by Tea Party Patriots Action, a far-right group. It was held in front of the Supreme Court, in Washington.

By doing some additional web searching (in particular, using Google News Search), we learned that social media platforms also fact-checked this claim. In addition to being shared by a popstar, the video was also shared by US President Donald Trump and far-right news site Breitbart. It was viewed tens of millions of times before Instagram (and other platforms) flagged it and removed it for spreading dangerous misinformation.

Let’s round up our findings: 

  1. Madonna’s claim about a vaccine being available for COVID-19 at the time the claim was made on July 28, 2020: false.
  2. Dr. Stella Immanuel’s claim made during the press conference on July 27, 2020 about hydroxychloroquine, zinc and zithromax as the cure for COVID-19: false

Our Assessment

The COVID-19 pandemic is an evolving situation. As much as we follow celebrities, this fact-check reminds us not to take everything they say seriously. At the time when the claims were made, Madonna’s claim that a vaccine has been available for months is false, and Dr. Stella Immanuel’s claim that there is a cure for COVID-19 is not supported by science.