President Donald Trump has been telling a conspiratorial story about the media and the coronavirus.
The story goes like this: The media had always said that people who survived a Covid-19 infection would be immune from the virus for life. But once he, Trump, got infected and survived, the media started claiming immunity only lasted for months.
“And until I came along – you know, you used to hear you have immunity for life, right? As soon as I had it and got better, they were not too happy about that…It was supposed to be for life; when it was me, they said it’s only good for four months, okay? Okay. Anybody else it’s for life, with Trump they said it’s four months. So they brought it down now, immunity, from life to four months,” Trump said at his Tuesday rally in Lansing, Michigan.
Trump told a similar story at his Tuesday rally in Omaha, Nebraska: “But because it was me, the press said, ‘No, it’s not for a lifetime. It’s only for four months. The immunity is only now for four months.’ They brought it down, right? It was always gonna be for a lifetime, now it’s four months.”
Trump said much the same thing at a Wednesday rally in Bullhead City, Arizona, this time adding that “they’ve changed the whole medical standard” because of his own infection.
Facts First: Trump’s story is false. In the months before Trump tested positive for Covid-19 in early October, numerous major media outlets had reported that scientists were not yet sure how long survivors might have immunity. While we can’t definitively say there was no media report whatsoever from before Trump’s infection that had claimed survivors would get lifetime immunity, it was certainly not widely reported that survivors were immune for life.
A CNN fact check in July concluded: “It remains unclear if those already infected with the virus are immune to any reinfection. Additionally, it’s unknown how long any sort of immunity would last.” A CNN story in mid-August was headlined, “Are you immune to Covid-19 for three months after recovering? It’s not clear.” And CNN wrote in August about a Nevada man who was infected with the virus twice – quoting Mark Pandori, the director of the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory, as saying: “After one recovers from COVID-19, we still do not know how much immunity is built up, how long it may last, or how well antibodies play a role in protection against a reinfection.”
Even upbeat media stories about optimistic findings about immunity noted that the facts had not been conclusively settled.
For example, an August article in the New York Times said that “scientists who have been monitoring immune responses to the coronavirus for months are now starting to see encouraging signs of strong, lasting immunity, even in people who developed only mild symptoms of Covid-19, a flurry of new studies has found.” But that piece continued by saying that “researchers cannot forecast how long these immune responses will last.”
The Washington Post also made clear in August that “researchers are still trying to understand what immunity to the coronavirus will look like” and that “much remains to be seen.”
NBC wrote in September about an Icelandic study finding that some Covid-19 survivors had antibodies for four months. But the article proceeded to say that “it’s unclear whether the antibodies will protect people from being reinfected.” The article quoted a professor who said, “What we don’t know is really the million-dollar question: How do these antibodies reflect immunity against this virus and inhibition of this virus.”
And ABC included the immunity question on an August list of “unanswered medical questions about coronavirus,” saying that “we still don’t know how long immunity lasts.”