Tucker Carlson Hyped These Fringe COVID Theories. The Science Just Fell Apart.

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Fox News host Tucker Carlson and his fellow COVID-19 deniers have pounced on two controversial claims recently, arguing that face masks endanger children and that a drug used for parasitic worms could potentially treat COVID-19. Some have cited two scientific studies to back them up.

The issue: Those studies have since been retracted.

On Friday, JAMA Pediatrics retracted a study claiming face masks could expose children to increased levels of carbon dioxide, one Carlson had covered extensively on his show Tucker Carlson Tonight.

It adds to the widespread concern about the role public figures like Carlson have had on the U.S.’s vaccination rollout, which has slowed among young people. The Biden administration is struggling to reach its aim of vaccinating at least 70 percent of the population.

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The study, “Experimental Assessment of Carbon Dioxide Content in Inhaled Air With or Without Face Masks in Healthy Children,” was published last month by a group of Polish and German doctors in Germany. It cited an experimental study on 45 children, using an incubator analyzer to identify carbon dioxide levels on two different types of face coverings.

“Following publication, numerous scientific issues were raised regarding the study methodology,” JAMA wrote in its statement. They cited issues with the device used to measure the carbon dioxide levels, along with whether the results accurately reflected the carbon dioxide inhaled.

“Given fundamental concerns about the study methodology, uncertainty regarding the validity of the findings and conclusions, and the potential public health implications, the editors have retracted this Research Letter,” it said.

The study had been relentlessly touted by Carlson, who earlier this month called policies of child mask-wearing “a human tragedy, in fact, on a vast scale, and it is a living testament to the recklessness of our leaders.” He said parents who make their kids wear masks should be reported for child abuse.

“That study confirms that masking children wasn’t simply unnecessary and probably counterproductive,” Carlson said on his July 1 episode. “Masking children was legitimately dangerous for the children.”

It was further pushed by other COVID conspiracists, like former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, who has become one of the top deniers of COVID-19 science.

“CHILDREN SHOULD NEVER BE REQUIRED TO WEAR FACE DIAPERS,” he shouted in a July 1 tweet, linking to the JAMA paper.

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The study’s lead author was Harald Walach, a health researcher and former professor at Poznan University of the Medical Sciences in Poland. It was not the first time Walach has had a study on COVID-19 retracted.

Science magazine reported earlier this month that at least six virologists quit the scientific journal Vaccines over its publication of Walach’s June 24 study accusing COVID-19 vaccines of causing adverse reactions and deaths. That study was retracted on July 2, and it led to Poznan firing Walach on July 6.

Walach defended his child masking study in an email to The Daily Beast, saying his work was conducted by experts who knew how to handle the carbon dioxide measurement device in accordance with the laws.

“The equipment was sensitive, and we provided enough material to prove this,” he wrote. “We measured the inhaled air separately from the exhaled air, invalidating those arguments that were raised that we could not possibly have done that.”

Walach wrote that, while he didn’t see Carlson’s segment, he still stood by his conclusion.

“I think anybody requiring children to wear masks should prove their point: That the carbon dioxide that children inhale does not violate the safety limits, that the germ content of this air (which we did not measure and as far as I know no one did so far) is negligeable [sic] and that the side effects that were documented by a large German survey which we quoted are in fact not there,” he wrote.

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It’s not the only COVID science Carlson has pushed that’s on shaky ground. Throughout June, Carlson promoted the use of ivermectin, a drug designed to fight parasitic worms and lice, as a tool to treat COVID-19.

He repeatedly downplayed the effectiveness of COVID vaccines while touting ivermectin on shows in June and July, inviting evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein to advocate for the drug’s usage.

Weinstein said the drug was being downplayed by the pharmaceutical industry to help promote the COVID-19 vaccines. His and his wife’s YouTube channel has been demonetized over claims of disinformation, and the Food and Drug Administration has warned against the use of the drug, which it notes is not an antiviral.

The drug’s rise among right-wing figures, including fellow Fox host Laura Ingraham, was supported by a November 2020 study conducted by Ahmed Elgazzar at Benha University in Egypt and published through Research Square.

But that preprint study, which hasn’t been peer reviewed, was retracted by Research Square Wednesday over “ethical concerns.” Jack Lawrence, a reporter for disinformation blog Grftr, found that Elgazzar seemingly plagiarized certain elements in the study from press releases for ivermectin, including most of the introduction.

He also seemed to have fabricated some of the data within the study, noting how unusually complete it was and the duplication of patient deaths.

“The authors claimed they conducted the study between the 8th of June and 20th of September 2020, however most of the patients who died were admitted into hospital and died before the 8th of June according to the raw data,” he told The Guardian.

Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist at the University of Wollongong, told The Guardian the data was “just totally faked.”

But one public health expert said JAMA Pediatrics’ retraction of the child masking study could potentially make the fight against COVID-19 disinformation harder.

“Retracting is so radical,” Daniel Halperin, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know if they did the right thing by retracting.”

Halperin said JAMA should have allowed others to publicly respond to the study’s methodology through research papers, noting how papers must go through a peer-reviewal process to be published. But by outright retracting the paper, it could potentially allow Carlson to claim it was done for political reasons, even if that wasn’t the case.

“It just gives fodder to people like Tucker Carlson,” he said. “It makes things worse.”

Fox News did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.

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