Update: Since this fact-check was published, the Associated Press has debunked another claim related to a Project Veritas video. The erroneous claim is that fetal cells may be in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19. That is false. Read AP's fact check here.
On October 4, the right-wing activist group Project Veritas published a fourth video in what it says is a COVID-19 “investigative” series.
The video includes what Veritas claims to be secretly filmed conversations with employees of the Pfizer drug company. The purported employees say that natural exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, provides stronger immunity than vaccination – an assertion that is not settled science.
Eric Spracklen, chief of staff at Project Veritas, posted several tweets:
“BREAKING: @Pfizer Scientists: ‘Your [COVID] Antibodies are Probably Better than the [Pfizer] Vaccination’
“We’re Like Bred And Taught to be Like “Vaccine is Safer Than Actually Getting Covid.”
“Our Organization is Run on Covid Money Now”.
They are accompanied by the hashtag “#ExposePfizer”
However, the video, spliced in with highly emotive footage, is misleading. Moreover, the insinuation that natural immunity is better is disputed. Overall, Project Veritas presents a false choice that puts the vaccine hesitant in danger.
In fact, studies on natural immunity versus vaccination are inconclusive. To be sure, there is a growing body of evidence that vaccination in combination with natural exposure might provide the greatest level of protection.
But what Project Veritas fails to mention are the dire health consequences, including a higher likelihood of death, that unvaccinated individuals face when infected with COVID-19.
The manipulative video includes comment from one individual identified as an “experienced biochemist at Pfizer.” The person tells the undercover Project Veritas reporter:
“When somebody is naturally immune — like they got COVID — they probably have better, like not better, but more antibodies against the virus.”
The individual goes on to state that natural exposure works better as the body starts “producing antibodies against multiple pieces of the virus.”
“So, your antibodies are probably better at that point than the [COVID-19] vaccination,” this person states.
That opinion is reinforced by two other individuals identified as Pfizer scientists. One says “you’re protected for longer” if you exposed to the virus naturally. “I work for an evil corporation … Our organization is run on COVID money.”
The other purported scientist says: “We're bred and taught to be like, ‘vaccine is safer than actually getting COVID’ .”
Polygraph.info has reached out to Pfizer to confirm that the three individuals in the video are actually employed at the company, and to clarify what, exactly, their work at the pharmaceutical giant entails.
Pfizer did not respond in time for publication. Pfizer has yet to publicly comment on the video.
Despite Project Veritas’ insinuation of a cover-up, the debate on natural immunity versus vaccination is hardly secret in the scientific community. Nor is the question settled. Contradictory evidence on the issue continues to be published.
Writing for the Washington Post, Marty Makary, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health, noted more than 15 studies have shown "the power of" naturally acquired immunity, with one study out of Washington University suggesting "even a mild covid infection resulted in long-lasting immunity."
A large study conducted in Israel found that people who had previously been infected with COVID-19 “were much less likely than never-infected, vaccinated people to get Delta (the more contagious and deadly variant of the virus), develop symptoms from it, or become hospitalized with serious COVID-19,” the peer reviewed academic journal Science reported.
Charlotte Thalin, a physician and researcher who studies the immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, told Science that study is “a textbook example of how natural immunity is really better than vaccination.”
But Thalin warned that deliberate exposure to the virus would put the unvaccinated at risk of serious illness, death, and chronic symptoms from so-called “Long Covid,” or long-haul COVID, with symptoms that can last for weeks if not months.
James Lawler, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Nebraska, contends the Israeli study was flawed. Its authors did not correct for survivorship bias (the exclusion of individuals who have died from a disease) or selection bias (when the sample population is not reflective of the overall population), Lawler said.
Nebraska Medicine, which partners with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, argues that “natural immunity is not better” than vaccination.
Nebraska Medicine points to a study published last month in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, which found that 36 percent of people who had previously tested positive for COVID-19 failed to develop antibodies.
That study, however, was only conducted among 72 people.
Nebraska Medicine also links to a study suggesting that natural immunity fades faster than vaccine immunity.
Published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in November 2020, the study was conducted among 156 frontline U.S. health care personnel. It found that 60 days after testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, 93.6 percent people experienced a drop in levels. A full 28 percent tested negative for antibodies.
Some studies show that vaccines also become less effective over time and against more potent strains of the coronavirus.
A large Lancet study published on October 4 found that “effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2 infections (including the Delta variant) dropped from 88 percent during the first full month after vaccination to 47 percent after five months.
But the vaccine was 90 percent effective in preventing hospital admissions. The Lancet study was funded by Pfizer.
Vaccination versus natural exposure is not an either/or proposition.
Writing for Science, virologist Shane Crotty of California’s La Jolla Institute for Immunology argues that “[w]hen natural immunity to SARS-CoV-2 is combined with vaccine-generated immunity, a larger-than-expected immune response arises.”
That phenomenon, which he says is borne out in multiple studies, is called “hybrid immunity.”
A study published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in August looked at the benefits of natural exposure plus vaccination versus only natural exposure. It found that those who had not been vaccinated were 2.34 times more likely to get reinfected with COVID-19 than those who were fully vaccinated.
As to the risk of infection, various estimates show 86 percent to 98.6 percent of all hospitalizations in the United States for COVID-19 are unvaccinated people.
Although the delta variant and decreasing vaccine efficacy have taken a toll, a study published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in September found that “rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths were substantially higher in persons not fully vaccinated compared with those in fully vaccinated persons."
A CDC study released last month found that unvaccinated individuals are 11 times more likely to die than vaccinated individuals.
Project Veritas has been accused of using deceptive practices, including selective editing, secret recordings and gotcha journalism, to discredit their targets.
In “Network Propaganda Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics,” researchers at Harvard called Project Veritas a “right-wing disinformation outlet.”