Why I don’t trust Reuters

I have lost faith in Reuters. Which is bad news since it’s a press agency that supplies lots of news outlets with news stories. It should hopefully be very reliable.

Why?

Try this: go to google.com and type the following search terms: “site:reuters.com covid vaccine experimental‘ (or click here)

You should get a results page looking like this:

The first result is a fact check that Reuters did titled “Fact Check- COVID-19 vaccines are not experimental”

The other results suggest that this was the only fact check that Reuters did about the status of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Reuters Fact Check

April 2021. The world is rushing to get everyone vaccinated. So worries about whether the vaccines are experimental are important. We should get clarity on this question. So Reuters does a fact checking article.

The fact check article addresses a Facebook post according to Reuters:

Claims that COVID-19 vaccines are “experimental”, have skipped animal testing and have not completed initial research trials are false. They were included in a Facebook post addressed in this check. 

Reuters Fact Check

The article links to the Facebook post but censorship did it’s work and the post is gone.

It’s interesting that they placed the word “experimental” in quotes. I take that to mean that Reuters thinks that the status “experimental” is ill-defined. But I’m not sure. It might mean that they are quoting someone. But single-word quotes are unusual.

Because the Facebook post made multiple claims, they are fact-checking four claims at the same time:

  • COVID-19 vaccines are “experimental”
  • Have skipped animal testing
  • Have not completed initial research trials
  • Will not complete trials for 2-3 years

I personally think that this should have been split up. All these questions are important enough to warrant separate fact checks. In this post I’ll mainly focus on the first claim. Also I think writing a fact check about a laden subject like the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines and then basing it on a single Facebook post is weak. There have been hundreds or thousands of articles written about this subject, many of them by medical professionals, so why base the fact check on a single Facebook post?

Interestingly, in the section where they address the claim that the vaccines are “experimental”, they don’t really quote any source but just make a counter claim :

CLAIM 1 - “All the vaccines are considered experimental” 

According to the post, all vaccines are considered experimental. This is not true – they have all been put through standard safety testing before being rolled out to the public. 

Both the United States and United Kingdom have authorized the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines for emergency use, while the former has also authorized shots by Johnson & Johnson; the latter by Oxford/AstraZeneca. 

Reuters Fact Check

This text was probably edited on April 30, because the first paragraph tells us the article was corrected to not say ‘approved’ but in stead say ‘authorized for emergency use’. But at this point I’m not sure what it said originally.

The article follows up with a section that explains what Emergency Use Authorization means that does include links to sources, but apparently they edited that section in later. And there are more sections that explain the types of vaccines, how they work, how long they’ve been in development etc that have plenty of sources, but they do not seem to have a single direct source addressing claim 1 that the vaccines are “experimental”.

Fact-checking the fact checker.

Reuters claims the vaccine is not “experimental”. So let’s fact check that. But first, what’s the definition of “experimental”? One would think that Reuters would address that in their article, but it’s not in there. They never defined it. So we will maybe have to define it ourselves. But we may get around that.

I think we can all agree that if the vaccine has been fully tested and approved, it’s not experimental. But if it has not been fully tested and approved, it might be experimental, depending on the definition. So let’s first try to see if we can find any evidence as to whether the vaccines were fully tested and approved. If so, then the vaccines are not experimental and we are done. If not, they might be considered “experimental” depending on your definition and we will have to look closer at what that definition should be.

But where to get the answers? At the authoritative source of course! In this case, that’s the Federal Drug Administration or FDA for short. Because that’s the agency that is in charge of approving vaccines for the U.S. market.

Let’s have a look at their website. As coincidence has it, when I opened it again today to write this article, it had a press release on it’s page about COVID-19 vaccines:

Interesting. So the FDA approved a vaccine months after Reuters stated it was not experimental. Let’s have a closer look at that article:

Notice how it explicitly says this is the first vaccine it has approved? And notice the date of the press release? August 23, 2021. So 3 days ago as of this writing, the FDA approved the first vaccine. Since the Reuters fact check was originally written on April 14, 2021, this means we know for sure that not a single COVID-19 vaccine had been FDA approved at the time Reuters did their fact check.

So what did Reuters mean when they said the vaccines were not experimental? That they were approved? We know that’s not true, because the FDA says so themselves on their website. However, we also know that that’s in fact exactly what Reuters initially said. In their fact check, Reuters initially called the vaccines ‘approved for use in the United States’. They corrected this on April 30, but apparently this did not make them change their mind about whether the statement that the vaccines were “experimental” was in fact true:

Correction, April 30, 2021: An earlier version of this check described the Pfizer/BioNtech, Moderna and J&J vaccines as being approved for use in the United States. This has been corrected to say these vaccines have been authorized for emergency use by the FDA.

So what was and still is Reuters’ verdict on whether the vaccines were “experimental”? Let’s read:

VERDICT  

False. COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. and UK are not experimental and have all completed animal and clinical trials. 

Reuters Fact Check

I think it’s strange that when Reuters edited the article on April 30, they remained so firm on the position that the statement that the vaccines are considered “experimental” is false. I mean they had to make a correction because they had said that the vaccines were approved, when in fact they were not. And the FDA is and has been from the start, perfectly clear about that:

Yeah that’s right. They say it literally.

And in case you are wondering where I got that quote, It’s in the fact sheet for the Janssen vaccine (page 4)

FACT SHEET FOR HEALTHCARE PROVIDERS ADMINISTERING VACCINE
(VACCINATION PROVIDERS)

So let me ask you, in stead of making blanket assertions about the vaccine being “approved” in it’s original article, shouldn’t Reuters have simply checked with and then quoted the authoritative source on this? And isn’t the FDA very clear about it not being approved? And when they corrected the article, shouldn’t they maybe have corrected the verdict as well? Or at least added some nuance to it? And shouldn’t they at this point have realized that whether or not something is “experimental” becomes open for debate when we are discussing a vaccine that has not been approved yet? That it becomes important how we define the word “experimental” at this point?

Defining “experimental”

I think we start out with some assumptions or facts that we will acknowledge:

  • That there are drugs and vaccines that we consider normal, which have been fully approved.
  • That there are drugs and vaccines that are considered experimental, which have not been approved.
  • That a normal vaccine is definitely not considered experimental and an experimental vaccine is definitely not considered normal.
  • That we have an authoritative source for approving drugs and vaccines for the U.S. market, the FDA.
  • That we accept that the FDA had not approved any of these vaccines in April 2021
  • That we accept that the FDA did grant emergency use authorization.
  • That there is a grey area between experimental and approved

So basically we have 3 possible statuses for a vaccine according to the FDA:

  • Not approved, no use granted
  • Not approved, emergency use granted
  • Approved

I think we can agree that once a medicine is approved it’s not experimental. But we know that the vaccines were not approved. So that leaves the two other statuses. I think that most of us will agree that vaccines for which no use was granted yet, making them illegal for your doctor to administer, could be considered experimental. So the question basically becomes whether vaccines for which only emergency use has been granted can be considered experimental.

Personally I feel that yes, that’s experimental. Simply because it hasn’t been approved yet. I don’t know enough about the whole process to make a better split than approved or not. This has clearly not been fully approved yet and in my mind, that’s because it’s not there yet. I don’t understand everything they need to do to fully test a vaccine to get it approved but until it gets there I would consider it experimental. Because otherwise why would they not simply approve it right?

But I admit that that’s my definition. You might have another. And Reuters may yet have another. But it’s clear in my mind that we have gotten into a gray area.

Ok so Reuters called it different. What’s the big deal?

It’s not that they call it something else than experimental. It’s that they show zero nuance in a ‘fact checking’ article that actually is more an opinion piece. They present an opinion without any sources and sprinkle in some facts that weren’t contested in the claim. They even initially wrote that it was approved and had to correct that and still they didn’t add any nuance. Their verdict was false. As if this was a binary, yes/no fact. But we can clearly see that it’s open for debate when something stops being experimental and starts being normal.

Saying that the vaccine is not experimental is a political opinion. Just like saying that it is. It’s not approved yet but the FDA thinks it’s safe enough to use in emergencies. That’s what it is. Whether that makes it normal or experimental or something in between is opinion. Reuters pumps out these articles and it gets picked up by many news outlets and they are injecting their opinion under the guise of fact checking. Yeah the Facebook post probably got a lot of stuff wrong. Maybe that’s why they picked it? But simply saying the vaccine is not experimental without acknowledging that there is a reason the vaccine has only been authorized for emergency use is also wrong. How save the vaccine is (none are 100% safe) has to be estimated and weighed against the risk that COVID-19 itself poses for the person being vaccinated. The FDA initially only authorized the Janssen vaccine for people aged 18 years and older for example. The risk to benefit ratio is not the same for everyone. There are doctors that only give the vaccine to the elderly. They have their reasons for that. All of these reasons are valid and in the search for answers we need more nuance than true or false. Reuters makes zero attempts at providing any nuance and it seems that there was never another outcome than false allowed.

Have a look at the FDA Decision Memorandum for Janssen, issued Februari 27, 2021, pages 9 and 10:

If a manufacturer ‘is developing’ a vaccine, is it finished?

If it’s only for people 18 and older, is that because there are no concerns?

If a Phase 3 trial is ‘currently ongoing’, does that mean that all clinical trials have completed?

It seems that since emergency use has been granted, some new clinical trials have been completed. The document from January clearly states that a phase 3 trial was ongoing. That means it wasn’t completed. But it might have been completed by the time Reuters wrote their fact check. We could probably read all the documentation on the FDA website and find out. I admit I am too lazy to do that. Spent way too much time on this blog post already. But we also know Reuters also didn’t do that. Otherwise they wouldn’t have called the vaccines approved even though the FDA explicitly states in many places they are not. And maybe the author of the Facebook post also didn’t do that. Maybe he read the January document and based his opinion on that.

I did find this picture the FDA provides on it’s website about the path a vaccine needs to take before getting FDA approved. As far as I can tell, at the time the EUA was granted to Janssen, it had Phase 3 clinical trials ongoing. So they were at Clinical Trials, marked with the arrow in the picture below:

Now just compare how far they were from the start to how far they were from the end. Is a vaccine still considered experimental at that point in time? I think arguments can easily be made that yes, it’s still experimental. It’s a long way from being approved. Then again other arguments can also be made. It’s a grey area.

Final thoughts

In my opinion, Reuters had a mission from the get-go. To aggressively ‘debunk’ any ‘false facts’ and ‘misinformation’ or ‘fake news’ about COVID-19 by fact-checking the hell out of it. And of course, any information that doesn’t support Reuters opinion on that subject is misinformation. Just looking at the other fact checking articles that Reuters has put out makes it clear what that opinion is. This is politics pure and simple and has nothing to do with news. Reuters addressing huge societal concerns such as vaccine safety by cherry picking Facebook posts and then fact-checking and ‘debunking’ them with blanket true/false statements that are more opinion than fact, while at the same time ignoring thousands of other articles about the subject that reveal nuance are a way to control public opinion. Just like Facebook promptly deleting the original post and Google only showing the ‘facts’ and none of the ‘debunked’ ‘misinformation’, is another. I have a very simple word for it:

Propaganda

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