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VERA FILES FACT CHECK: COVID task force ex-adviser Tony Leachon shares false guide on ‘first 8 Omicron symptoms’

A former special adviser to the National Task Force (NTF) Against COVID-19 shared a false graphic that lists different symptoms supposedly from an infection with the Omicron virus variant. It surfaced as the country grappled with a post-holiday surge of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases.

A research group cited as the source of the list has refuted its legitimacy. The Department of Health (DOH) also says it is difficult to tell, based on symptoms alone, whether a person was infected with Omicron or with other variants of the COVID-19 virus.

STATEMENT

Citing a COVID-19 symptom study from the London-based health science company ZOE, Dr. Anthony “Tony” Leachon, former president of the Philippine College of Physicians, shared a graphic on his social media accounts on Jan. 3 with the caption:

“The first 8 Omicron symptoms that should never be ignored which can appear as quickly as 48 hours after you’ve been infected. Please read on.”

Source: Dr. Tony Leachon (@DrTonyLeachon) official Facebook page, “The first 8 Omicron symptoms…,” Jan. 3, 2022

The supposed symptoms were sneezing, fatigue, a scratchy throat, a runny nose, headache, lower back pain, night sweats and body aches, and loss of appetite.

Leachon’s official Facebook (FB) page has 278,000 followers. His false post received over 1,900 interactions and almost 2,000 shares as of Jan. 6.

Three minutes after posting on FB, the former special adviser to the government’s COVID-19 task force shared the graphic on his Twitter account, which has over 57,000 followers. The tweet has since gained 3,611 retweets and 3,852 likes as of Jan. 7.

The graphic was also uploaded on the FB page of the group Kilusang Kontra COVID (KILKOVID), whose logo appears on the social media card. Leachon and lawyer Dot Balasbas-Gancayco lead the group.

According to its FB page, KILKOVID is an “unincorporated association of civic minded citizens whose aim is to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.” It has more than 5,700 followers on the platform.

On June 17, 2020, Leachon announced that he “left” his position as special adviser of the NTF Against COVID-19 due to “differences with DOH policies.”

FACT

In an email to VERA Files Fact Check, ZOE COVID Study team said the graphic does not accurately reflect its research findings. It wrote:

“We haven’t done the analysis on the first 48 hours [of] symptoms, so … we aren’t aware where this has come from on this graphic and Prof. [Tim] Spector hasn’t said this.”

Source: Personal communication, Eleanor Griffiths, Communications Manager of ZOE COVID Study Team, Jan. 5, 2022

It added that it “never” said lower back pain, night sweats and body aches, and loss of appetite were top symptoms of Omicron.

The circulating graphic appears to have wrongly interpreted a report last month by the ZOE COVID Study team.

In a Dec. 21, 2021 blog post titled “What are the symptoms of Omicron?,” the team reported an analysis of data from the company’s COVID Study mobile phone app, which people can use to report their COVID-19 symptoms. The company claims it has “over four million” contributors globally since the launch of its study in March 2020.

The team looked into “most recent” data from London — which it described as having a higher prevalence of Omicron than in other parts of the United Kingdom — and compared it with data collected from early October 2021, when the Delta variant was more dominant.

Its finding: There was “no clear difference in the symptom profile of Delta and Omicron.” It said the top five symptoms reported in both periods were runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, and sore throat. Loss of appetite and brain fog were also reported as common symptoms.

The team said in its email to VERA Files Fact Check that the user-contributors to the app were “mostly fully vaccinated, either with two or three doses so these symptoms relate to vaccinated individuals.” It has no data on the symptoms of unvaccinated people, the team added.

Spector, a co-founder of ZOE, leads the research team that studies the user-submitted reports to understand the disease’s symptoms and risks, and to track COVID-19 infections in the United Kingdom and other countries.

The Philippine DOH issued an advisory on Jan. 4, 2022 and labelled the circulating graphic as “fake.” It said the symptoms are “generally similar” for COVID-19 infections, whether with the Delta or Omicron variant, or even with a regular flu, and that symptoms alone would not be enough to tell what caused an infection.

The health agency noted that the usual symptoms of COVID-19 are cough, fever, sore throat, fatigue, loss of taste or smell, headache, body pain, rashes, and red or irritated eyes, per the World Health Organization (WHO).

In a Dec. 17, 2021 explainer, WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove stressed that they have “not seen a change” in the symptoms that people present with Omicron compared to Delta. “[Y]ou won’t be able to tell the difference,” she said.

Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist, reminded the public, “The best thing for you to do is to keep yourself safe, get vaccinated when you can and make sure you take steps to reduce your exposure to this virus.”

On Jan. 5, the ZOE COVID Study team asked KILKOVID in a comment to take down its post, saying:

“Hi there, thank you for mentioning us, unfortunately, this data is incorrect and not released by us.

Please could you remove this post, in a time where misinformation is particularly dangerous we want to ensure we are helping people to access accurate scientific data to understand COVID-19.”

Social media monitoring tool CrowdTangle shows that at least 16 other pages have shared or re-posted the false graphic, including radio station DWIZ 882, and the pages Inday Sara Para Sa Masa and The University Library, UP Diliman.

The post continues to circulate as the Philippines recorded 17,220 new COVID-19 cases on Jan. 6, bringing the total number of active cases to 56,561.

Health officials say the Omicron variant is not yet the dominant strain among locally recorded cases but noted that it may become so in the next few weeks. They urge the public to continue observing minimum public health safety protocols and to get vaccinated.


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Sources

Personal Communication, ZOE COVID Study Team, Jan. 5, 2022

ZOE, Omicron Symptoms: What Are They and How Long Do They Last?, Dec. 21, 2021

ZOE, COVID Symptom Study – Apps on Google Play

ZOE, About this Research

Department of Health, Fact Check, Jan. 4, 2022

World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

World Health Organization, WHO’s Science in 5 on COVID-19: Omicron variant, Dec. 17, 2021

Department of Health, COVID-19 Tracker

ABS-CBN News, Headstart, Jan. 3, 2022

Department of Health, Beat COVID-19 Media Forum, Jan. 3, 2022

(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)