British Columbia

B.C. doctors warned they could face discipline for spreading COVID-19 misinformation

Doctors in B.C. have been warned that spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines could harm patients and result in professional discipline.

First Nations Health Authority says false information especially damaging in Indigenous communities

Dr. Stephen Malthouse appeared at a rally against COVID-19 restrictions in Duncan, B.C., in November, referring to the disease as a 'so-called pandemic.' (YouTube)

Doctors in B.C. have been warned that spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines could harm patients and result in professional discipline.

In a joint statement issued on Thursday, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia and the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) say they've become aware some doctors are sharing false anti-vaccine and anti-mask ideas, as well as promoting treatments for COVID-19 that are not supported by scientific research.

This kind of misinformation is a violation of public trust as well as the ethical obligations of doctors, whom members of the public tend to trust implicitly when it comes to matters of health, the statement says.

"Public statements from physicians that contradict public health orders and guidance are confusing and potentially harmful to patients," college registrar Dr. Heidi Oetter said in the release.

"Those who put the public at risk with misinformation may face an investigation by the college and, if warranted, regulatory action."

The FNHA says misinformation from doctors is particularly damaging in Indigenous communities, which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

"Indigenous people already face barriers to accessing health care due to systemic racism," Dr. Nel Wieman, the FNHA's acting deputy chief medical officer said.

"Misleading information adds another barrier at a time when the COVID-19 vaccine needs to be delivered to Indigenous people as quickly as possible."

B.C. doctors gain prominence for questionable claims

Though the notice does not single out any individual physicians by name, a small number of doctors in B.C. have become popular among groups that oppose vaccines, masks and other measures meant to reduce COVID-19 transmission. 

That includes Dr. Stephen Malthouse of Denman Island, who has appeared at numerous rallies against mask mandates and other public health measures and in October 2020 wrote a widely circulated open letter to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry that falsely suggested the coronavirus is no more deadly than the flu.

Malthouse told The Canadian Press he had not seen the college's statement but encouraged the regulator to reach out to doctors who have differing views.

"We really need to have scientific debate about these topics rather than just having rules and regulations and attempts just to make doctors follow the policy alone," he said. "If doctors have questions about it, I think that the college should really be in a position to discuss it with them."

As of May 1, B.C. recorded 54 serious adverse events connected to COVID-19 vaccines out of 1.85 million doses administered. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Another B.C. doctor, anesthesiologist Dr. Bill Code of Duncan, appeared in a video alongside Malthouse in March this year claiming that he was successfully treated for COVID-19 with vitamins and hydroxychloroquine. Hydroxychloroquine was once promoted by Donald Trump as a "game changer" but has since proven to be ineffective against the virus and potentially risky.

Code told The Canadian Press he believes his claims are based on scientific research and that health officials and politicians are just telling one side of the story.

54 adverse events out of 1.85M doses in B.C. so far

More recently, Lytton, B.C., family physician Dr. Charles Hoffe published another letter to Henry on the website of the anti-vaccine group Vaccine Choice Canada, making numerous unproven and false claims about COVID-19 vaccines.

Hoffe claimed in his letter, dated April 5, that after administering the Moderna shot to community members, he believes "this vaccine is quite clearly more dangerous than COVID-19."

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control publishes weekly updates on adverse events following COVID-19 vaccination, and as of May 1, a total of 54 serious health events, including anaphylaxis, seizure and possible neurological effects, were reported out of 1.85 million doses administered. That's a rate of about 0.002 per cent.

While four people have died within 30 days of receiving one of those 1.85 million shots, none of those deaths are believed to be the result of the vaccine. In comparison, 1,622 people have died of COVID-19 in B.C. out of 136,100 confirmed cases.

Hoffe's letter also echoes a common but thoroughly debunked talking point used in conspiracy theorist circles that suggests mRNA vaccines are actually a form of "experimental gene modification therapy."

These vaccines, which include the COVID-19 shots from Pfizer and Moderna, absolutely cannot alter someone's genes.

The only thing mRNA does inside the human body is carry the instructions for building proteins — in the case of vaccines, those proteins trigger an immune response. Once those proteins have been built, the mRNA degrades, and it's physically impossible for it to be incorporated into a person's DNA.

"You can't go from RNA back to DNA in human cells. It's not possible because we just don't have the machinery to deal with it," Dr. Zain Chagla of McMaster University in Hamilton told CBC News in December.

Hoffe has yet to respond to requests for comment from CBC News or The Canadian Press.

It's not known if Malthouse, Code or Hoffe face any regulatory action from their professional college, and all three are currently licensed to practise without any conditions. The college doesn't release any public information about its investigations unless a matter is deemed to be serious.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

With files from The Canadian Press

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