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Health professionals sign letter with misleading claims around Pfizer's Covid vaccine

An investigation is underway after dozens of health professionals — including several general practitioners — appear to have signed an open letter that seemingly shares some misleading claims around Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine. 

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The signatures on the letter, which focuses on the Pfizer vaccine, include some general practitioners. Source: 1 NEWS

The fact they signed in their professional capacity has led to concerns it could expose patients to misinformation, raise the risk of vaccine hesitancy and subsequently undermine the rollout. 

In her role as a research fellow at the University of Auckland, Kate Hannah is looking into disinformation. She says the letter that is seemingly signed by a number of medical professionals is "concerning".

"Rather than speaking as an individual who might have some concerns with, perhaps, the way in which the vaccine rollout is going, they are doing it in a position as a doctor — and thus kind of implying there are broad concerns, which really isn't the case."

The letter's contents have been described by experts in the field as misinformation, or incomplete and taken out of context at best. 

Today, the Medical Council told 1 NEWS it had received "notifications" related to the letter and was looking into them. But the council was unable to elaborate on what, if any, action it had taken at this stage.

It says after evaluating the reports, if it found there was reason to do so, it could create a committee that would formally investigate the doctor. Any disciplinary action could only be imposed by the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal. 

The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners has, since becoming aware of the letter, reminded its fellows to base their advice to patients on established evidence. 

College president Samantha Murton says all GPs must take care with what they say. "We have to allow people to have a choice, but we also need to be making sure that all the information we are giving is very broad and has both sides of the story." 

None of the more than a dozen general practitioners named on the letter were willing to speak on camera. One did say his concerns were around giving the vaccine to patients with a blood condition and how it interacted with their other drugs. But he said he had not intended for his name to be attached publicly and preferred his concerns to be dealt with at an official level. 

Meanwhile, two practices — Masterton Medical and Meadowbank Medical Centres — distanced themselves from the letter, saying it did not reflect their practices. 

The spokesman for Masterton Medical said it expected all its doctors would "follow guidance provided by the Medical Council". 

Meanwhile, the spokeswoman for Meadowbank Medical Centre said it was the doctor's "personal opinion" but it did not impact patient care. 

The letter is just one example of recent cases of misinformation surrounding the vaccine. This week another group launched legal action to stop the rollout and has crowd-funded the printing of thousands of leaflets containing claims that medical experts have debunked. 

The fear is that, as campaigns get more sophisticated, they could increase fear among the community.

Hannah, the disinformation researcher, says: "I don't know how much effect it has outside people who are already engaged with those disinformation ideas, but it is making more New Zealanders nervous."

The growing concern has lead to the Medical Council also releasing a guidance strongly advising doctors to get a Covid vaccination —unless there is a medical reason not to do so. 

Jamie King, who is an expert in health law at the University of Auckland, says at times like these where misinformation is having a real cost, there needs to be consequences. 

But she says doctors do need to feel able to defend themselves and raise concerns through the appropriate channels.  

"If you actively know that a physician is actively spreading misinformation it is appropriate to bring an ethical challenge, but I also want that doctor to be able to have the ability to present their evidence.

"Physicians that have concerns should present them to the Ministry of Health for evaluation with the rest of the scientific claims."