Fact Check: Mask Meme

by ENN Staff

Editor’s Note: The ENN Newsroom is researching social media messages and memes that are sharing information
about current events. This first project examines the factual basis for a meme making the rounds
around the internet related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The meme features an image of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who serves as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).  Dr. Fauci has become a familiar face to many Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The text of the image says that Dr. Fauci was co-author of a research paper in 2008 that linked “mask-wearing to the majority of bacterial pneumonia deaths during the Spanish Flu.” The meme makes a disparaging remark about people who currently wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and says they will not research this information.

Below the image of Fauci is additional text saying “Fauci wrote the paper in 2008 – Masks Cause Bacterial Pneumonia Deaths.”

ENN students said they spent about 30 seconds on a web search in order to find the original research paper referenced in the meme.

The team discovered Dr. Fauci was a co-author of a research paper in 2008 that addressed bacterial pneumonia to a majority of deaths during the flu pandemic of 1918-19.

However, that is where the accuracy of the meme ended.

The study first appeared in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, Volume 198 Issue 7 on October 1, 2008.

A search of the report for the word “mask” yields no results.  The paper is solely focused on the role bacterial infections played in the deaths related to the 1918-19 flu pandemic.

In a press release about the research published in August of 2008, the NIAID said “The majority of deaths during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 were not caused by the influenza virus acting alone.”

The report found that the damage the virus caused to the lungs paved the way for future bacterial infections.  This means the bacterial infections might not have been fatal were it not for the damaged caused by the flu virus.  

There is no mention that masks played any role in harboring or transmitting bacteria. In fact, modern research has found a significant benefit to wearing masks in efforts to slow the spread of the flu virus.

“The cause and timing of the next influenza pandemic cannot be predicted with certainty, the authors acknowledge, nor can the virulence of the pandemic influenza virus strain. However, it is possible that — as in 1918 — a similar pattern of viral damage followed by bacterial invasion could unfold,” the authors wrote in 2008.

In 2020 scientists have found the current pandemic virus has caused irreparable damage to patients who go on to die from underlying or secondary causes. 

We rate this meme’s overall message as false and misleading.

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