It’s estimated that COVID-19 vaccines have saved millions of lives, but false claims continue to cast doubt on their safety and efficacy. One such claim that has spread around the world falsely suggests that three Canadian doctors died from the shots. But they each died of a long-term illness unrelated to the vaccines.
COVID-19 vaccines have been used widely for more than a year and a half. According to a recent modeling study from researchers at the Imperial College London and published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, the COVID-19 vaccines prevented at least 14.4 million deaths in the first year they were available.
But false claims casting doubt on the safety and efficacy of the shots remain rampant online.
One recent claim was spread by the right-wing website Gateway Pundit, which published a story and accompanying social media posts on July 28 falsely suggesting that three Canadian doctors died as a result from the vaccine within days of each other, shortly after their employer mandated COVID-19 booster shots.
The claim has also been shared in Spanish, Hebrew and Polish.
Trillium Health Partners, the hospital system that employed the doctors, responded to the claim online, saying in a statement that was also posted on Twitter: “The rumour circulating on social media is simply not true. Their passings were not related to the COVID-19 vaccine. We ask to please respect their families’ privacy during this difficult time.”
Indeed, two of the doctors died of cancer and the third died after what was described as a serious illness, as has been reported by several other fact–checking organizations.
The three doctors were:
- Dr. Jakub Sawicki, who died after he was diagnosed with stage 4 gastric cancer signet ring adenocarcinoma almost a year earlier, according to a GoFundMe campaign set up by his wife, who plans to create a scholarship fund in his name. He died on July 19.
- Dr. Stephen McKenzie, who was “seriously ill” before he died, according to an outgoing message for his medical office, which is now closed. He had reportedly joined Trillium Health almost 40 years ago and was one of the founding members of the neurology department. He died on July 18. His obituary, published on Aug. 5, said that he died “after a courageous battle with cancer.”
- Dr. Lorne Segall, who died of lung cancer after a “year-long battle,” according to his obituary. He died on July 17.
It’s unclear why those spreading this claim think these deaths were related to COVID-19 vaccines since Trillium Health Partners had implemented a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for “staff, professional staff, volunteers and learners” on Sept. 7, 2021 — almost a year before the doctors died.
Not surprisingly, the claim has dubious origins. It appears to have come from an Instagram account run by Monique Mackay, a Canadian real estate agent who began filming outside of seemingly empty hospitals earlier in the pandemic to make the claim that COVID-19 was a hoax.
A wide-spread conspiracy theory at the time had encouraged those who were skeptical of the existence or severity of the disease to film apparent inactivity outside their local hospitals, an action that was embraced by Simone Gold — a doctor who has become one of the primary promoters of COVID-19 disinformation and is currently serving a 60-day sentence for entering the Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot.
Mackay, who uses the name Monique Leal on many of her COVID-19-related social media accounts, now spreads anti-vaccination claims online and promoted the “Freedom Convoy,” in which hundreds of trucks and passenger vehicles protested Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions.
She declined to answer questions from FactCheck.org.
On July 22, Mackay posted a picture of a text message from an unidentified person on her Instagram account that typically gets about 500 likes per post. The text noted the doctors’ deaths and concluded, “How many more ‘coincidences’ will people accept. These shots need to be pulled.”
Then Gateway Pundit cited the Instagram post in its July 28 story — and now the claim has gone around the world.
The route this claim has taken — from an Instagram account, to a major partisan website, to posts shared internationally — shows how an unsubstantiated claim from a niche social media account can catapult to major notoriety in a matter of days.
Update, Aug. 5: Dr. Stephen McKenzie’s obituary was published in the Globe and Mail on Aug. 5, specifying that he died of cancer. We’ve updated the story to include his cause of death.
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.
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