Coronavirus: Every claim about COVID-19 made by anti-lockdown group Voices for Freedom debunked by scientists

A group opposed to lockdowns, the Pfizer vaccine rollout and various other public health measures taken to protect Kiwis from COVID-19 has recently been distributing pamphlets online and in the real world. 

The group, Voices for Freedom, says it stands "for honesty, sound science, true government transparency, a proper health response... and the freedom for New Zealanders to choose what is right".

But scientists and health experts say the group is spreading misinformation. 

In its latest flyer, the 29-page 'COVID Response Survival Kit', Voices for Freedom makes 17 specific claims. Nine are in a section headed 'Things that make you go hmmm...' and the others under the headline '8 Important COVID Vaccine facts'. 

In an email to supporters this week, the group called it "ninja training" - but scientists say it's propaganda, with none of its major claims holding up to scrutiny. 

Here's each claim the group makes, and what scientists say is the reality. 

Claim #1: "Vaccine companies are exempt from ALL liability."

Alison Campbell, a biological sciences lecturer and science educator at the University of Waikato, told Newshub this claim is misleading because our no-fault system of covering injury liability through ACC covers all vaccines, not just those developed for COVID-19.

"This wording is common in US anti-vax messaging, and even there it's only partly correct."

Vaccinologist Helen Petousis-Harris of the University of Auckland says vaccine manufacturers can still be held liable "if there is wilful misconduct such as fraud or deceit".

"If every person who believed they had been injured by a vaccine sued the vaccine manufacturer, nobody would make vaccines because it costs millions to deal with these things," she wrote on SciBlogs, a website Kiwi scientists regularly use to communicate with the public. 

Claim #2: "All COVID-19 vaccines are currently experimental! Some trials won't end until 2023."

"Misleading at best," said Dr Campbell. 

"The phase III trial for the Pfizer vaccine concluded in November 2020 and the results were published in December 2020. That is, standard safety and efficacy testing has been completed. We are now in what's known as the post-licensure surveillance phase."

Dr Campbell said Pfizer's initial paperwork said the phase III trial involving tens of thousands of people would end in October 2021, but "this happened much more quickly than anticipated". 

"Clinical trial participants are a valuable source of data and following them up for as long as possible is desirable and normal in vaccine trials," said Dr Petousis-Harris. "Claiming that the COVID-19 vaccines are 'experimental' in a bid to scare people is misinforming them. There have been over 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines administered, with safety and effectiveness closely monitored."

Rare complications, such as blood clots, often don't show up in trials because they're so rare - not even sample sizes in the tens of thousands are enough to pick them up. 

A COVID denier at a protest in the US.
A COVID denier at a protest in the US. Photo credit: Getty

Claim #3: "The vaccine has not been shown to stop you catching SARS-CoV-2 or passing it on to others."

"There's actually quite a lot of data now showing they do, and they're actually really effective," said Michael Plank, a disease modelling expert at the University of Canterbury and research centre Te Pūnaha Matatini.

Both Dr Petousis-Harris and Dr Campbell also said it's false. While the trials don't measure transmission, just whether they stop people developing symptomatic illness, data collected in real-world use has since shown the vaccines do reduce transmission of the virus by asymptomatic and presymptomatic carriers. 

"Data from Israel, the USA (here and here), and the UK clearly show reduced rates of both infection and illness among those vaccinated," said Dr Campbell. 

And new research from the UK released just this week found the vaccines cut transmission to family members by up to half. 

Previous studies have also found while people not showing symptoms can still transmit the disease, they're less likely to than those showing symptoms - and since the vaccines stop most people developing symptoms, it's not much of a leap to assume they also reduce transmission. 

Claim #4: "The only reason given to take the vaccine is that it might reduce symptoms."

While this would be enough for most people to want the vaccine, with death and ongoing problems like long COVID more likely resulting from symptomatic infections, the vaccines also reduce the likelihood of transmission. 

"Taking the vaccine protects not only you but also those around you and the general community," said Dr Petousis-Harris. "Claiming that the only reason to take it is that it might reduce symptoms is super misleading."

Claim #5: "Animals in prior coronavirus vaccine trials became very sick when exposed to the wild virus."

Dr Petousis-Harris said this claim was misleading because it implied the vaccines were somehow responsible. 

Part of vaccine development involves figuring out how to avoid a phenomenon known as "vaccine-associated enhanced disease" - where a vaccine makes an illness worse, should a person become infected. 

"There is no evidence in animals or humans that the authorised COVID-19 vaccines induce a risk for enhanced disease."

Claim #6: "It is unknown if the vaccine will cause cancer, sterility or mutate cells."

"Deliberately misleading," said Dr Campbell. "Because the mRNA in the vaccine can't enter the nucleus, let alone integrate with DNA, then changes in DNA (i.e. mutation) can't happen."

"There has never been an authorised vaccine that has caused cancer, sterility, or dangerous mutation of cells," said Dr Petousis-Harris. 

"Claiming that there is no proof that any vaccine will not cause something far in the future is akin to asking me to prove to you that there are not fairies at the bottom of my garden. I will never be able to prove to you that there are no fairies in my garden."

Dr Campbell said on the other hand, there is evidence the SARS-CoV-2 virus - which causes COVID-19 - can affect male fertility.

Claim #7: "Medsafe's Pfizer report highlights concerns about genotoxicity and serious autoimmunity."

Dr Campbell said this is simply untrue. 

"What the Medsafe safety sheet says is that 'neither genotoxicity nor carcinogenicity studies were performed. The components of COMIRNATY (lipids and mRNA) are not expected to have genotoxic potential.' That is hardly 'highlighting concerns'."

Comirnaty is the brand name for the Pfizer vaccine. 

Dr Petousis-Harris also said the claim is false.

"Medsafe are satisfied with the safety profile of this vaccine so far and they have not identified any concerning or unexpected events."

Claim #8: "Deaths and cases of serious injury are being reported around the world at an alarming rate!"

"Reports of deaths after vaccination is not the same as deaths due to vaccination," said Dr Campbell, pointing out there were more deaths in the placebo arm of the Pfizer trial than in the group that received the vaccine.

"Given that there have been hundreds of millions of vaccine doses administered to date, serious adverse events have occurred at very low frequency."

Dr Petousis-Harris said Voices for Freedom's claims "are deeply misguided and rely on the intentional abuse of data".

"Implying that all adverse events that occur after a vaccine is devious, one could just as well say deaths after eating Marmite on toast for breakfast were all caused by the Marmite and toast."

Reports of blood-clotting after receiving the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are being investigated, but are extremely rare. There have been only a handful of deaths reliably linked to blood clots caused by COVID-19 vaccines after a billion doses, far below the present worldwide COVID-19 case fatality rate of 2 percent

Helen Petousis-Harris.
Helen Petousis-Harris. Photo credit: The AM Show

The Pfizer vaccine being rolled out in New Zealand has had no issues with blood clots, but there have been rare cases of treatable anaphylaxis

"Deaths and cases of serious illness from COVID-19 are massively more common than deaths or serious injury from vaccination," said Dr Plank.

"The health risks from COVID-19 are far bigger than any risks from being vaccinated... you are more likely to be injured on a 40km car journey than to experience a blood clot as a result of vaccination." 

Claim #9: "There's no evidence that lockdowns work to reduce overall mortality in a population."

New Zealand is proof this is untrue, said Dr Plank. 

"New Zealand had a slightly lower mortality rate than usual (in 2020) and that's mainly because the lockdown had the secondary effect of stopping winter flu cases," he told Newshub.

"The clearest evidence is that countries that have had a lot of COVID have had a lot of excess mortality. So the way to prevent large amounts of death is to stop COVID. Before we had vaccines, lockdowns were an effective way of doing that." 

New Zealand recorded 5 percent fewer deaths than usual in 2020, the biggest year-on-year drop in recorded history. New Zealand went into lockdown when disease modelling showed unchecked spread of the virus would see more people requiring hospitalisation at once than our health system could handle. 

Dr Campbell said even if the lockdown didn't reduce mortality - which it did - stopping people from catching the virus and surviving was still important, with between 10 and 30 percent of symptomatic cases going on to develop long COVID. 

"'Death' and 'full recovery' are not the only measures of the impact of the virus, plus there's a social and economic cost inherent in people being ill anyway. This apparent sole focus on mortality really annoys me."

Contrary to claims on social media, suicides went down during the nationwide level 4 lockdown.

Claim #10: "Typical mask wearing does not reduce SARS-CoV-2 infection rates (COVID-19)."

Dr Campbell said studies have shown reduction in transmission in both the lab and real-world settings, when people actually wear masks properly and when they should. 

"I suspect they are basing the statement on a particular study from Denmark (where the authors identified a number of limitations - including the fact that mask-wearing was recommended, not required, of study participants & adherence to that recommendation was patchy)." 

Dr Campbell is right. In a separate flyer printed by Voices for Freedom, the group cites the Danish research - which an editorial in the British Medical Journal said was inconclusive about mask use, and actually leaned in favour of their use. 

Claim #11: "The Pfizer vaccine is experimental and has not been shown to stop you catching SARS-CoV-2 or passing it on to others." 

We covered both of these claims above - it's no longer experimental, and has been shown to reduce transmission. 

Claim #12: "The average age of death attributed to COVID-19 is higher than the regular average age of death."

"This is just deflection," said Dr Campbell. "It's like saying 'only old people are dying due to the infection, so we can ignore it'. 

"Also, while the 'average' might be higher, we need to remember that this means that half the deaths would be in lower age cohorts."

A study released in February showed the average person who dies of COVID-19 would have lived another 16 years had they not caught the disease.

And newer variants of the virus - such as that ravaging Brazil - appear to be more dangerous to young people than the original strains that swept the world last year.

Claim #13: "The PCR test on its own is not an appropriate diagnostic tool for COVID-19."

Dr Campbell said the PCR test - the one where a nurse shoves a long stick up your nose - detects the presence of the actual virus behind the disease, SARS-CoV-2.

"If it's found to be present, then depending on the strength of the 'signal', someone can be identified as having a current or a past infection."

Compared to other tests, only a very small amount of genetic material is needed to detect an infection using PCR. 

Michael Plank.
Michael Plank. Photo credit: Supplied

Claim #14: "We've heard nothing about proven therapeutics. Why are our health authorities ignoring the science on vitamin D and ivermectin?"

Dr Campbell said research so far into both vitamin D and ivermectin - a medication used to fight parasitic worms - is "poor quality", and neither are a "proven therapeutic" for COVID-19. 

The US Federal Drug Administration warns against using Ivermectin for COVID-19, saying it's not an anti-viral and has to be used at "very specific doses" or side-effects can occur - particularly if used at the same time as other medicines. 

"Taking a drug for an unapproved use can be very dangerous. This is true of ivermectin, too," the FDA says. "There's a lot of misinformation around, and you may have heard that it's okay to take large doses of ivermectin. That is wrong."

While there is some evidence people low in vitamin D appear to be more susceptible to catching COVID-19, so far the research has only been observational - meaning a direct link between the two hasn't yet been proven

One study which claimed vitamin D resulted in an 80 percent reduction in ICU admission, published online before it was peer-reviewed, was later withdrawn

Claim #15: "Asymptomatic people are not established to be significant transmitters of infection."

They have been.

Dr Campbell pointed to two peer-reviewed studies (here and here), one of which found "a large number of asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 are in the community seeding potential outbreaks", and the other finding "asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 carriers are to be considered as infectious as symptomatic individuals".

The US Centers for Disease Control says most community transmission - between 51-67 percent - is likely to be from asymptomatic carriers, since they're more likely to not wear masks or follow distancing guidelines. 

"There's very clear evidence that a lot of the transmission comes from presymptomatic people - in the period of time before they develop symptoms," said Dr Plank. "It's not obvious they're sick so they're not taking measures necessary to prevent [transmission]."

Claim #16: "We're not allowed to know if we've had COVID-19: Public SARS-CoV-2 antibody testing is banned in New Zealand."

Misleading. The Ministry of Health confirmed to Newshub serology testing - which can detect the presence of COVID-19 antibodies and confirm a suspected historical infection - can be ordered by a GP. 

"It is also available to those who are travelling to a destination country that requires a serology test result (e.g. China). This requires payment from the person seeking to travel. Antibody testing may become more commonplace in the post-vaccine era as people seek to determine if they have protective antibodies."

Serology tests that give near-instant results, known as 'point of care' (POC) tests, "have been shown to be much less sensitive than laboratory based testing," a spokesperson said, and it is indeed illegal to import any unapproved by Medsafe.

In April 2020, the ministry said it had "concerns about both the quality of testing from many of these kits and the likely impact of misinterpreted results". 

"There is currently no plan to introduce POC serology testing into New Zealand at this time," the spokesperson told Newshub. 

Experts have called for serology testing to become more available however, particularly in light of recent research which suggests thousands of Kiwis might have been exposed to the virus during last year's nationwide outbreak, but were never tested - some of which might be suffering long COVID without knowing it. 

Claim #17: "SARS-CoV-2 isn't new - there is evidence it has been around since March 2019."

"This claim is based on a single paper that has not been further substantiated," said Dr Campbell.

Newshub found another paper, published in June last year, which claimed evidence for traces of the virus in Spanish wastewater samples collected in early 2019. It was not peer-reviewed, and scientists expressed doubt, pointing out a number of flaws in the paper

"A curious thing about this finding is that it disagrees with epidemiological data about the virus. The authors don't cite reports of a spike in the number of respiratory disease cases in the local population following the date of the sampling," virologist Claire Crossan of the University of Glasgow wrote in an article for academic news site The Conversation.

"Also, we know SARS-CoV-2 to be highly transmissible, at least in its current form. If this result is a true positive it suggests the virus was present in the population at a high enough incidence to be detected in an 800ml sample of sewage, but then not present at a high enough incidence to be detected for nine months, when no control measures were in place."

Even if it was circulating in March 2019, that means when the first reports of mysterious illness started emerging from China in November, it had been around less than a year - new by evolutionary standards, which are measured in millions of years, not months. 

Response from Voices for Freedom

Newshub asked Voices for Freedom to respond to the scientists, and asked who was funding its latest activities. 

"All of our claims are backed up with references on our website," spokesperson Alia Bee said. 

"We advise caution when taking certain scientific spokespeople at their word without first undertaking further investigation," said Bee, pointing out Dr Petousis-Harris recently claimed about one-in-six COVID-19 patients developed blood clots during an interview with RNZ, which prompted a lengthy rebuttal from anti-lockdown group Plan B. 

Dr Petousis-Harris told Newshub during that one interview she inadvertently left out the word "serious" - one-in-six figure was for patients with severe COVID-19, as the study showed, and she was "mortified" when she realised her verbal slip-up. 

A blog post she wrote before the interview makes it very clear the one-in-six figure applies to those hospitalised with severe cases of the disease

Bee said Voices for Freedom has "many doctors, nurses and medical professionals reaching out to us".

"We also are in contact with scientists, epidemiologists, virologists, molecular biologists, psychiatrists, and legal teams from within New Zealand and around the world. We see these voices and opinions as just as valid as those that regularly appear in NZ news stories."

Voices for Freedom said it was "entirely funded by public donation". 

"We are well supported by thousands of fellow New Zealanders concerned with an overzealous government response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the subsequent erosion of their rights and freedoms."

The group is currently on a fundraising drive. This week it told supporters in an email its funds will be used for "censor-proof guerrilla marketing, bulk advance purchase of merchandise (tees, bags, pre printed post-it notes), fact sheets, flyers, signs, billboards, rallying of communities, legal aid, as well as other resources that help equip our growing army of freedom fighters on the ground". 

According to its site, the group is in the process of becoming a registered charity and intends to "open our books to provide accountability and transparency".