Senator Gerard Rennick’s use of Facebook to push unverified stories about vaccine side-effects is potentially dangerous, a top health expert has warned, as fresh doubt is cast on the legitimacy of a story he helped promote.
Rennick, an LNP senator, has vastly increased his Facebook following in recent months after posting a deluge of stories about the Covid-19 vaccine, which he concedes he does not know are true.
On Tuesday Guardian Australia revealed that in one now deleted post, he boosted a letter falsely linking vaccines with still births from a “retired GP” as a credible source of information, despite her calling for the execution of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern over her government’s vaccination program four weeks earlier. Rennick said he was unaware of the woman’s comments about Ardern, and conceded he “should have” checked the source of the letter before sharing it.
Rennick also conceded to Guardian Australia that he does not verify the accuracy of the dozens of third-party claims he has published about severe vaccine side-effects before publishing them, despite the posts being shared thousands of times among vaccine-hesitant groups online.
In one example earlier this month, Rennick published an account from a woman which claimed she had developed severe neurological side-effects “caused” by her Pfizer vaccination.
The account, which was included with a video of the woman jerking and grunting on a bed, was purportedly relayed by the woman’s mother, who claimed her daughter had been in “constant pain always that’s excruciating” since receiving the vaccine.
She claimed her daughter had struggled to walk and “was sent home from hospital with false information on her discharge papers and meds for anxiety and schizophrenia”.
Since it was posted by Rennick, the video, along with the account from the woman’s mother, has been viewed more than 174,000 times, shared more than 8,000 times and has more than 11,000 “interactions”.
But the post has been cast in serious doubt thanks to a “clarification” from an online fundraising platform.
A friend of the woman set up a fundraiser on a crowdsourcing platform. As of Tuesday it had raised $8,846 NZD.
But on Tuesday the company added its own post-script to the fundraiser stating that it had made “amendments” to give “clarification on some points”.
“[Her] symptoms did start after receiving the Covid vaccine however her doctors have not yet conclusively determined if all her symptoms are a reaction to the vaccine or not – it was previously stated on the page that doctors had confirmed this,” the post from the company stated.
The clarification raises serious questions about the claim in the post that the woman’s illness was caused by the vaccine, although there is no suggestion that the woman, her mother or the fundraisers have deliberately posted false information.
Guardian Australia attempted to contact the woman’s mother but did not receive a response by deadline.
After he was made aware of the change, Rennick said he would amend the post to remove reference to the Pfizer vaccine causing her injury.
“I’m happy to change that,” he said. “As I said in the context of the post, that was from ‘[name removed’s] mum’… I’m happy to change that from ‘caused’ to ‘after’.”
His posts – which have variously linked vaccines to appendicitis, stutters, seizures, among other things – have frustrated health experts, who warn they are without evidence and threaten to undermine public confidence in the vaccine.
Associate professor Nick Wood, who works with the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance and runs the AusVaxSafety program, said there was a danger in Rennick’s posts.
“He’s obviously in a position of power, so people look up to him and he therefore has a sense of credibility,” Wood said. “But the fact that he has admitted he hasn’t checked them and he’s just posted them on, that’s a problem.”
“I think that is a danger because it feeds into: ‘is there a cover-up here, we’re not being told things’. That can potentially impact public confidence.”
The AusVaxSafety program conducts surveillance for vaccine injuries or side-effects in the Australian population. It has surveyed four million recipients.
There was no evidence of vaccines causing appendicitis or stutters.
“In four million people, you’d think if there really was a signal for appendicitis, and that appendicitis was really happening in the days after the vaccine, we’d be picking that up in our system,” he said.
“We have picked up the common side-effects and we have picked up chest pains.”
West Australian president of the Australian Medical Association, Mark Duncan-Smith, the said posts about vaccination side-effects should be left up to the experts.
He said it was crucial to remember that just because something happened after a vaccine, it was not necessarily caused by it.
“I would say that in my position as AMA WA president, I wouldn’t be doing social media posts on how to pass legislation,” he said. “I would be leaving that up to the experts in drafting legislation and the parliamentary process. I think equally the distribution of scientific and medical information should be left up to the experts such as the TGA and ATAGI.”
Asked whether his posts were dangerous, Rennick said it was his duty as a politician to present “two sides of the story”.
“They can say it’s dangerous, well OK I don’t dispute that there is a risk of that, but I’ve also got a responsibility as a politician to put two sides of the story as well,” he said. “The government’s saying ‘get the vaccine, get the vaccine, get the vaccine’. OK, fair enough, but I don’t think it’s wrong to put the other side of the story out there as well.”
Rennick said he accepted that not everything that happened after a vaccine was caused by it.
But he said he was operating on “the balance of probabilities”, unlike the medical indemnity scheme.
“Medical doctors are saying you’ve got to conclusively prove that it was the vaccine, where I’m saying it should be the balance of probabilities,” he said.