Authors: Tasnim Domun and Nouf Gounjaria
Fact-checking article published as part of an assignment for the Digital Journalism module at the University of Mauritius
Article analysed: https://www.lexpress.mu/node/390480
During the month of March 2021, L’express, a media organisation in Mauritius, published an interview with a Mauritian cardiologist entitled: Dr Sunil Gunness: “A dose of one vaccine and a booster of a different one can even be better than two doses of the same vaccine.” (See below the headline of the article by L’Express and the claim)
Why is it misleading/risky to use this as a headline?
First and foremost, during this interview, Doctor Sunil Gunness simply answered the question of the journalist by stating his personal opinion/advice. With the use of words like, “I don’t think” and “it seems”, it is obvious that his claim was not factual, he was uncertain about his claim, and the result of the research of Oxford University might contradict this. Further, with a lot of controversy cropping up worldwide, people are hesitant and indecisive of whether to be vaccinated or not. Thus, with much restlessness, they are fervently following every news piece (developments) related to COVID-19 vaccination, and this is the case for Mauritian people as well. Hence, with such a headline, it can easily mislead the Mauritian population (they might not read the full article and quickly jump to a conclusion). With the availability of WhatsApp and other social media sites, this news piece could go viral, causing people to make different assumptions and believing that the statement is true, when it is not the case, as the results of the study were not yet posted at that time. To sum up, it is only an interview – with the doctor expressing his opinions – and the statement was not yet scientifically proven.
Is it good to share such a claim with the public?
The cardiologist said that the University of Oxford has recently embarked on the study mentioned above. The University announced this on 4th February 2021. However, the results were published on 28th June 2021 on the website of University of Oxford, and it does support the claim (Mixed Oxford/Pfizer vaccine schedules generate robust immune response against COVID-19, finds Oxford-led study), but at the time Doctor Sunil Gunness made this claim, the results were not yet published, meaning that there was no proof or scientific data to support his statement. It is crucial for health professionals, authorities, or news organizations to check any claims or health related information before communicating these to the public, as this can severely mislead the population, possibly resulting in unwanted repercussions.
Is the mixture of two COVID-19 vaccines recommended by The World Health Organisation (WHO)?
According to Reuters World, The World Health Organisation warns individuals against mixing and matching COVID-19 vaccines. The following is a tweet by a chief scientist at WHO, Dr Soumya Swaminathan.
Moreover, according to Healthline, a website providing health information, Dr Nikhil Bhayani, an infectious disease specialist stated in March 2021 that “the use of two different vaccines is not recommended.”
One can assume that an infectious specialist’s claim is more reliable than that of a cardiologist’s claim in matters concerned with vaccines.
It must also be noted that Doctor Sunil Gunness did not mention about which combination of vaccines are practicable, again creating doubts in the minds of the Mauritians. The vaccines approved for use in Mauritius are Gamaleya Sputnik V, Gamaleya Sputnik Light, Oxford/Astrazeneca, Bharat Biotech Covaxin, and Sinopharm (Source: COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker). It should be noted that it is the mixing of the Oxford–AstraZeneca jab and the Pfizer–BioNTech that is being tested in the Oxford University study and that the Pfizer vaccine is not yet available in Mauritius.
An article in Nature which reports about the study also cites another study conducted by Saarland University in Homburg, Germany and states that, despite optimism about the possibility of mixing vaccines, “the trials so far have been too small to test how effective combinations of vaccines are at preventing people from developing COVID-19. Martina Sester, the immunologist who led the study, declared: “As long as you don’t have any long-term or any follow-up studies with efficacy calculations, it’s hard to say the level or duration of protection.”
The news organisation used this particular claim of Dr Sunil Gunness as a headline, but it was only an opinion of the latter about a possibility at the moment the article was published. With reference to other questions in the interview, it can be seen that he believes that the WHO’s approval is necessary. He simply stated his personal opinion, and has the right to do so. However, the news organisation should have been more careful, because vaccination topic is a sensitive one in these times. For L’express to use this section of his interview as a headline is not totally responsible, due to the reasons mentioned previously. An example of a preferred title could be: The mixture of COVID-19 vaccines may be feasible but extensive research needed. In such a way, the Mauritian audience would take the time to read the article to discover if this is a fact-checked statement or just an opinion.