FactCheck Social Media

‘Poison’ post delivers dose of misleading info on vaccine safety

2021-05-07 14:13:38

The Statement

A social media post claims there is justification for calling COVID-19 vaccines “poison” because the word appears in Australian legislation authorising defence paramedics and nurses to administer the immunisations.

The Facebook post from April 26 features a screenshot of the title of an authorisation notice that appears on the Western Australian government website. It reads “Public Health Act 2016 (WA) – Instrument of Authorisation – Authorisation to Supply or Administer a Poison [SARS-COV-2 (COVID-19) VACCINE – Australian Defence Force] (No.2) 2021”. The word “poison” is circled in red.

The post’s caption reads, “What? A poison? Ya don’t say…?? A bit of validation if you’ve been called a ‘conspiracy theorist’ for saying the vax is poison, that’s what the WA state government is calling it…”

It continues with a statement that people can “feel free to fact check it yourself that the defence force has been given ‘authorization’ to supply and administer a poison in the name of a ‘vaccine’.”

At the time of writing, the post had been viewed more than 50,000 times and shared more than 390 times. Similar claims have been shared on Instagram here and here by other Australian users.

A Facebook post
 A post highlights the word “poison” in WA legislation relating to COVID-19 vaccines. 

The Analysis

The post provides a screenshot of a real state government authorisation, however it ignores the fact that every medicine and vaccine distributed in Australia, alongside thousands of other chemicals, are classified under unifying federal legislation known as the Poisons Standard.

The post seeks to portray the use of the term “poison” as an indicator that the COVID-19 vaccine will have a toxic or harmful effect. This is misleading. The Poisons Standard’s role is to establish a uniform national guideline for how both medicines and poisons are scheduled, labelled and packaged.

The federal Health Department’s Introduction to the Poisons Standard document states at the onset: “Any substance (ingredient) can be a ‘poison’ and cause harm if used incorrectly or taken at the wrong dose.” (page 4)

Substances covered by the Poisons Standard are categorised in 10 schedules based on their risk of harm to people, and how accessible they are to the public. COVID-19 vaccines are classified by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) under schedule four, which covers prescription-only human and animal medicines (see here and here).

Australia has provisionally approved two COVID-19 vaccines for use: the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines. The TGA decided the vaccines meet the high safety, efficacy and quality standards required for use in Australia despite extremely rare cases of a potentially fatal blood-clotting adverse reaction to the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The legislation featured in the post refers to the WA chief health officer’s decision, under the state’s Public Health Act (page 135-136), to authorise Australian Defence Force paramedics and medical technicians to supply or administer COVID-19 vaccines to the WA population from March 8. In Western Australia, the federal Poisons Standard categories are reflected in the state’s Medicines and Poisons Act 2014.

A TGA spokeswoman told AAP FactCheck in an email that, under the law, all medicines are called poisons within the Poisons Standard. A document search within the Standard shows paracetamol, for example, is listed in schedule two while schedule four includes everything from the cholera vaccine to antidepressants as well as the COVID-19 treatments.

In the current version of the Poisons Standard, the word “poison” does not appear in the definitions for schedules two to four, which refer to “medicines”, while “poison” and “dangerous poison” appear in schedules six and seven respectively.

“Medicines are mostly included in schedules two, three, four and eight of the Poisons Standard, with progression through these schedules signifying increasingly restrictive regulatory controls,” the TGA spokeswoman said, noting that all human vaccines were included in schedule four.

Substances in the Poisons Standard are not solely classified based on how toxic they are. Categorisation is based on a series of factors, including purpose of use, potential for abuse, how safe a substance is in use, the need for the substance and toxicity.

A spokesperson for WA Health told AAP FactCheck in an email that “medicines are a subset of poisons as they are generally safe only at certain doses. Therefore (they) are regulated accordingly”.

Syringes containing the COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine.
 The AstraZeneca vaccine is listed under schedule four of the Poisons Standard. 

The Verdict

The post correctly identifies that the term “poison” is used in an official Western Australian authorisation to describe COVID-19 vaccines. However, it and other posts misleadingly draw on this information to imply the vaccines are toxic.

In fact, all medicines, including over-the-counter treatments, are classified under Australia’s unifying medicine and poisons categorisation system, the Poisons Standard. This does not mean vaccines or other medicines are harmful. Rather, they are regulated as all such substances have the potential to do harm if used incorrectly or in the wrong doses.

Missing Context – Content that may mislead without additional context.

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