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NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn't happen this week

A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out.
This image from video provided by Eddie Johnson shows a line of tanks and other military combat vehicles traveling by rail along a snowy field along Highway 40 outside of Gorham, Kansas. On Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly claiming the video showed a train transporting American tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in Poland, after President Joe Biden announced the U.S. would send tanks to Ukraine. (Eddie Johnson via AP)

A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out. Here are the facts:


No, food products don’t contain fetal tissue

CLAIM: Flavor enhancers made from aborted fetal tissue are being added to food products without consumers’ knowledge.

THE FACTS: Biotechnology companies have frequently used fetal cell lines in their research and testing, but flavor enhancers used in food products do not contain any tissue from aborted fetuses. A years-old misconception about the use of fetal cell lines in research has resurfaced online with the false claim that food manufacturers give customers products made from fetal tissue. The claim was further amplified when a Texas state senator this month introduced a bill calling for the labeling of such foods. But there is no basis for these claims, according to the FDA, which said in an emailed statement that it would not condone this and was “not aware of any company ever putting fetal cells into food products.” “There are no conditions under which the FDA would consider human fetal tissue to be safe or legal for human or animal consumption,” the statement read. The agency added that it has never had to take enforcement action for this violation. The false claim originates from the fact that many biotechnology companies, including some in the food industry, have used fetal cell lines in a research and testing capacity. Cell lines, which are key to medical research, are cloned copies of cells from the same source that have been adapted to grow continuously in labs. They are very commonly used in pharmaceutical research and vaccine development. For years, people have criticized and misrepresented the fact that the biotechnology company Senomyx used the HEK293 cell line — or Human Embryonic Kidney 293 — in research involving flavor development. The HEK293 cell line was first established in the early 1970s using cells from a kidney of a fetus. However, numerous news reports over the years have clarified that the company didn’t put fetal cells into any food products given to consumers. Senomyx was acquired in 2018 by the Swiss company Firmenich, which did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment. But as a Senomyx official explained in a 2011 interview with Miami New Times, the company used the cell lines in “basically a robotic tasting system” that isolated human taste receptors in the form of proteins to test out how they reacted to flavors. If a protein reacted positively to a flavor, the company would move on to further taste tests. Frank Graham, a professor emeritus in the departments of biology and pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University, developed the HEK-293 cell line in the 1970s. He told the AP via email that the cells “would be used in tests for various properties of compounds to be used as flavor enhancers” but “would not themselves be incorporated into beverages or other foods.”

— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York contributed this report.


New FAA cardiac health rules not prompted by COVID-19 shots

CLAIM: The Federal Aviation Administration loosened the requirements that airline pilots must meet for cardiac health because a large number have heart damage caused by the COVID-19 vaccines.

THE FACTS: In October, the FAA widened the acceptable parameters it uses when screening pilots for a specific heart condition called heart block, or AV block. This change was made in response to new scientific evidence about the condition from its cardiology consultants, not adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines. The update prompted speculation, with some falsely claiming that it is connected to the vaccines. AV block can make it difficult for one’s heart to pump blood effectively by delaying or blocking the electrical signal that controls one’s heartbeat. It is classified as first, second or third degree and is often diagnosed with an electrocardiogram test, also referred to as an EKG or ECG, which measures the heart’s electrical activity. A normal EKG result is generally defined as having a PR interval — how long it takes the electrical signal to travel from the top part of the heart to the bottom — of between 120 and 200 milliseconds. A PR interval of more than 200 milliseconds typically indicates AV block. However, first-degree AV block only delays the electrical signal, rather than blocking it, and often does not have noticeable effects. “In an otherwise healthy heart, this is usually a benign condition and rarely causes any symptoms,” said Dr. Roland Assi, a cardiac surgeon and assistant professor at Yale University. Previously, pilots with first-degree AV block were required to submit documentation proving that they had “no evidence of structural function or coronary heart disease” before they could be certified to fly. The FAA’s recent update to its guidelines specifies that pilots with first-degree AV block and a PR interval of less than 300 milliseconds can be certified without additional documentation if they are not exhibiting symptoms and if their medical examiner does not have any concerns. This decision was not made because pilots are developing heart problems from COVID-19 vaccinations. “When making changes to medical requirements and guidance, the FAA follows standard processes based on data and science,” the agency told the AP in an emailed statement. “Our cardiology consultants provided information that anything under 300ms requires no additional testing and is not a risk for sudden or subtle incapacitation.” If a pilot has first-degree AV block with a PR interval of 300 milliseconds or more, further data still must be submitted to the FAA before a final decision on their certification can be made. According to Rossi, certifying a pilot with first-degree AV block carries “no real risk,” as long as there are no other issues. Dr. Richard Kovacs, chief medical officer at the American College of Cardiology, agreed that the FAA’s new guidelines are not worrisome. “The FAA’s updated criteria for widening the ECG parameters regarding AV Block are reasonable and consistent with ACC guideline recommendations,” he wrote in an email to the AP. Severe reactions to COVID-19 vaccines, such as sustaining heart damage, are rare, according to the CDC. Rossi and Adler explained that scientific evidence does not point to AV block being linked to the COVID-19 vaccine. The FAA also said in its statement that it “has no evidence of aircraft accidents or incapacitations caused by pilots suffering medical complications associated with COVID-19 vaccines.”

— Associated Press writer Melissa Goldin in New York contributed this report.


Video does not show American tanks on a train in Poland

CLAIM: A video shows a train transporting American tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in Poland, after President Biden announced that the U.S. will send tanks to Ukraine.

THE FACTS: The video was filmed along Highway 40 outside of Gorham, Kansas, by a local resident. After Biden announced on Wednesday that the U.S. will send 31 M1 Abrams battle tanks to Ukrainian forces, social media users shared an unrelated video clip of military vehicles being transported by rail in Kansas, falsely suggesting it was Poland. The video, which was captured from a moving car, shows a seemingly endless line of tanks and other military combat vehicles traveling by rail along a snowy field. Eddie Johnson, a local resident who filmed the video, told the AP that it was filmed as he was driving on Highway 40 outside of Gorham. Johnson’s video shows an intersection with the surrounding land covered in snow and the back of a stop sign, along with a green sign that reads “Hwy 40.” The intersection of 400th Ave and Hwy 40 on Google maps shows the same sign placement along with the rail line shown in the video. Johnson said he posted the video on Twitter on Jan, 24, as “kind of a joke” and as a reply to a tweet that stated Biden was “considering” sending tanks to Ukraine. “Is that decision already made? This is Kansas today,” his tweet reads. A Kansas Department of Transportation map shows that Union Pacific runs the rail line that passes through Gorham. A Union Pacific spokesperson told the AP in an email that they couldn’t disclose any information regarding specific shipments, but did confirm that they transport cargo freight for the U.S. military. Johnson sent a second similar video to the AP that shows Gorham in the distance. Johnson, who said he was an oil field contractor and drives a lot for a living, posted the same video on his Twitter account, which shows a sticker with a vehicle service date and the address of a Toyota dealership in Kansas. Dr. Gian Gentile, a senior historian at the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research organization, told the AP in an email the video shows Abrams tanks but it’s unclear which kind they are. Gentile also was able to identify several other vehicles as well, including Bradley fighting vehicles. An Army spokesperson told the AP in an email that they were not able to verify when the video was taken or where the equipment was assigned to. U.S. officials said that it will take “many months” to deliver the Abrams tanks to Ukraine, according to AP reporting.

— Associated Press writer Karena Phan in Los Angeles contributed this report.


Experts say toxic pesticide DDT not linked to polio

CLAIM: Polio stopped spreading when the pesticide DDT stopped being used, not when vaccines for the virus were introduced.

THE FACTS: Polio and its side effects, including paralysis, have been widely demonstrated to be caused by the polio virus, not a pesticide, several medical experts confirmed to the AP. Social media users are misidentifying the cause of the viral disease, suggesting that a toxic agricultural pesticide is linked to the illness. But medical experts who study the disease say there’s no truth to this claim. “Polio vaccines (both injectable and orally-administered) are the singular reason for the decline in the incidence of paralytic polio both here in the United States and across the globe,” said Dr. Olakunle Alonge, a professor in the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The viral disease, which mostly affected children, was once one of the nation’s most feared diseases. While some people exhibit flu-like symptoms, or no symptoms at all, severe cases can cause paralysis. Vaccines became available starting in 1955, and a national vaccination campaign cut the annual number of U.S. cases to fewer than 10 in the 1970s, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1979, polio was declared eliminated in the U.S. That’s because of the wide administration of vaccines to fight the disease, emphasized Rosemary Rochford, a professor of immunology and microbiology who is the co-director of the University of Colorado medical school’s climate and health program. “The polio vaccine was directly responsible for the elimination of polio in the US,” she wrote in an email to the AP. Meanwhile, DDT is an agricultural insecticide that was commonly used in the mid 1900s. It was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1972 amid concerns about its adverse effect on the environment and its persistence in the food chain. It is also considered a possible carcinogen by the CDC. While historical accounts show that DDT was in some cases sprayed in towns in a misguided attempt to prevent the spread of the polio virus, this campaign was not effective. “Polio the disease is caused by the polio virus,” Rochford wrote in an email to the AP. “DDT is a pesticide, so not clear how a pesticide could cause a viral infection. There is no mechanism that I know of that would have a pesticide cause an outbreak of polio.” Alonge said the “misinformation” might be linked to some research that showed DDT may be associated with neurological effects, including leg paralysis, among those chronically exposed to high levels of the toxin. However, Alonge clarified that the paralysis caused by polio and the paralysis potentially caused by the pesticide are distinct and caused by different mechanisms. Alonge pointed out that those affected by paralysis from chronic DDT exposure don't match up with the population most affected by polio, either. Complications from DDT mainly affect farm workers, he said, not children in the general population.

— Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in New York contributed this report.


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