Posts misrepresent Sri Lankan expert's advice on vaccine protection against Omicron

·3 min read

Posts circulating in Sri Lanka claim two local experts gave conflicting remarks about the need for people to be vaccinated against the Omicron coronavirus variant. The posts -- which shared two screenshots of local media reports -- circulated online as the island nation reported its first case of Omicron. But the posts are misleading; AFP found that the original comments from one of the experts were misrepresented.

The claim was shared here on Facebook on December 3, 2021.

The post included a collage of two Sinhala-language newspaper clippings.

The top image shows a report that quotes Dr Chandima Jeewandara, a professor at University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

The purported quote reads: "There is no need to fear Omicron if you take the booster shot -- get [a booster shot] as soon as it's made available to you".

The image at the bottom features a clipping with purported remarks by Dr Padma Gunaratne, president of the Sri Lanka Medical Association.

"Vaccines cannot control Omicron", it reads.

The post's caption translates as: "Now what is correct? What is wrong? Can you see the contradiction?"

The Sinhala-language text overlay on the collage repeats this claim.

Screenshot of the misleading post. Captured December 14, 2021.

The posts circulated online the same day local media reported that Sri Lanka had confirmed its first Omicron case.

The variant -- first identified in South Africa -- is more transmissible than the Delta strain and reduces vaccine efficacy but causes less severe symptoms according to early data, the World Health Organization said on December 12.

Posts showing a similar collage of identical newspaper clippings were also shared on Facebook here and here.

"This is it. I am not taking any more vaccines. Not even the professionals know what they are talking about", one social media user wrote.

"This only shows Covid-19 is only a part of the drug mafia", another commented.

But AFP found Gunaratne's remarks have been misleadingly reported by local media.

Expert's original comments

A keyword search of the clipping showing Gunaratne's purported remarks found this Sinhala-language report published by local newspaper Divaina on December 3.

The report is headlined: "Omicron variant cannot be controlled with vaccines".

It reads in part: "Sri Lanka Medical Association President, Dr. Padma Gunaratne says research has indicated that Covid-19 vaccines may not be able to control the Omicron variant."

The report claims Gunaratne made the remarks during a media briefing by the medical association on December 2, 2021. It was streamed live on Facebook here.

But AFP found Gunaratne did not claim that Omicron cannot be "controlled" by vaccines.

From the video's four-minute mark, she states: "Protections provided by the WHO-approved Covid-19 vaccines might be impacted by the Omicron variant".

But later in the clip, she explains this is only based on preliminary data.

At the ten-minute 45-second mark, she states: "Vaccination is the most important weapon in combating the Omicron variant".

Responding to the misleading posts, Gunaratne told AFP on December 16: "My comments were taken out of context."

The Sri Lankan Medical Association has also urged those aged over 60 to get Covid-19 booster jabs.

Professor's remarks

The screenshot of the clipping featuring Jeewandara's remarks on boosters was taken from a report published by Sinhala-language newspaper Lankadeepa. It was published here on December 3.

The report reads in part: "Chief of Immunology and Molecular Medicine of the Sri Jayawardenapura University, Dr. Chandima Jeewandara urged the public to obtain the booster vaccine as soon as it's made available.

"He says the two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine will contribute towards preventing infections as well as fatalities, and adds continuous immunity can be maintained by obtaining the booster dose which will improve antibodies, providing added protection."

Jeewandara issued similar remarks here.

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