FULL CLAIM: “no one has died from the coronavirus”; “no novel-coronavirus-specific antibodies have been found”; “the novel coronavirus has not fulfilled Koch’s postulates”; “the inability to identify monoclonal antibodies for the virus suggests there is no basis for the vaccines”; “the WHO is creating [worldwide] chaos is by prohibiting almost all autopsies of people deemed to have died from COVID-19”
Originally published by OffGuardian, this article makes numerous claims about the COVID-19 pandemic that have been republished in other outlets such as GlobalResearch.ca and Australian National Review, both of which have been described as conspiracy websites by Media Bias/Fact Check. The article purportedly discloses “important revelations” by Stoian Alexov, a Bulgarian pathologist and president of the Bulgarian Pathology Association, which he allegedly made during a webinar organized by the European Society of Pathology (ESP). The article has received more than 60,000 interactions on social media including Facebook and Twitter.
Health Feedback reached out to several scientists regarding the veracity of Alexov’s claims, including members of the ESP leadership, who responded with a joint clarification on behalf of the Society. You can read the ESP’s official clarification in full here.
The article states that Alexov claims that “No one has died from the coronavirus” and that no antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2 have been identified. It goes on to say that “Dr. Alexov made his jaw-dropping observations in a video interview summarizing the consensus of participants in a May 8, 2020, European Society of Pathology (ESP) webinar on COVID-19.”
The webinar referenced in the article, titled “COVID-19: Unprecedented Daily Challenges in Pathology Laboratories across Europe” was indeed organized by the ESP. However, although Alexov is a member, he is not listed among the presenters. Therefore, the claim that Alexov made his remarks at a “consensus of participants” during the ESP webinar—with the implication that his comments were accepted as part of the scientific or medical consensus—is false. The complete proceedings were recorded and are publicly available on the ESP’s YouTube channel.
“no novel-coronavirus-specific antibodies have been found”
This is false. Several published studies report the discovery of antibodies that bind specifically to SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19, as well as antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in people who had been previously infected[1-4].
“The body forms antibodies specific to pathogens it encounters. These specific antibodies are known as monoclonal antibodies”
This description of monoclonal antibodies is inaccurate and serves as the springboard for other inaccurate claims regarding pathological findings and COVID-19 vaccines that appear later in the article, as we will see below.
When the immune system encounters a pathogen, part of its response is to generate antibodies against the pathogen, a process that is carried out by B cells. These antibodies can help other cells of the immune system recognize and destroy the pathogen. In the case of viral infections, antibodies can also bind to the virus to prevent the virus from infecting cells.
The term “monoclonal” indicates that the antibodies come from the same clone of a B cell. When a B cell divides, its daughter cells are described as clones. Antibodies produced by clones of the same B cell are described as monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies bind to the same part of a protein (antigen-binding site).
On the other hand, polyclonal antibodies, which are produced by clones of different B cells, bind to different antigen-binding sites on the same pathogen. Both monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies are generated commercially for use in various laboratory techniques, such as the enzyme-linked immunoassay (ELISA), which is used to detect and measure the levels of certain proteins in a sample, as well as immunohistochemistry, a technique used to visualize the presence of certain biomarkers in a sample.
Given that our bodies naturally contain many different B cell clones, the pool of antibodies generated in response to a pathogen would be polyclonal by default, not monoclonal. While it is possible to isolate monoclonal antibodies from a person, this would occur outside of the human body and require human intervention in the form of selecting and purifying a sample to obtain a specific B cell clone.
“[Monoclonal antibodies] are a key tool in pathology. This is done via immunohistochemistry […] Therefore, in the absence of monoclonal antibodies to the novel coronavirus, pathologists cannot verify whether SARS-CoV-2 is present in the body, or whether the diseases and deaths attributed to it indeed were caused by the virus rather than by something else”
This is demonstrably false. In its statement, the ESP clarified that “Monoclonal antibodies able to identify different components of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) are certainly available. They are used by pathologists to demonstrate the presence of the virus in body tissues with immunohistochemistry and immunofluorescence studies.” Furthermore, the ESP also pointed to several published studies in the journals the Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the British Journal of Dermatology as evidence that pathologists have indeed imaged coronavirus in human tissues[6-9]. (Read the ESP’s full comment.)
In addition, the ESP webinar that the article refers to included a specific session dedicated to methods for detecting SARS-CoV-2 in human tissue. This session showed that pathologists are using a variety of techniques to determine whether a person was infected with SARS-CoV-2, including molecular techniques such as in situ hybridization (ISH). ISH uses nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) attached to a label, such as a radioactive isotope or fluorescent dye, that bind to viral nucleic acids in human tissue, thus signaling the presence of the virus. The webinar also describes the detection of SARS-CoV-2 in human tissue using immunohistochemistry (IHC) as demonstrated in another published study.
In summary, the article’s claim is false. Monoclonal antibodies for detecting SARS-CoV-2 are available and pathologists use a variety of techniques to detect SARS-CoV-2, as demonstrated in published studies.
“the novel coronavirus has not fulfilled Koch’s postulates”
Koch’s postulates are a set of criteria used to determine whether a certain microorganism is the cause of a disease. They were originally developed by Robert Koch, a German physician who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1905 for his work on tuberculosis. The original postulates are as follows:
- The microorganism must be found in abundance in all organisms suffering from the disease, but should not be found in healthy organisms.
- The organism must be isolated from a host containing the disease and grown in pure culture.
- Samples of the organism taken from pure culture must cause the same disease when inoculated into a healthy, susceptible animal in the laboratory.
- The organism must be isolated from the inoculated animal and must be identified as the same original organism first isolated from the originally diseased host.
While these postulates remain an important foundation for establishing the cause of an infectious disease even today, scientists have also recognized that there are limitations to these criteria. Vincent Racaniello, a virologist and professor at Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons, wrote in his blog post that “Despite the importance of Koch’s postulates in the development of microbiology, they have severe limitations, which even Koch realized.” For example, Vibrio cholerae, the causative agent of cholera, could be isolated from both sick and healthy people, invalidating postulate #1.
Other notable exceptions to the original postulates that Racaniello pointed out are viruses, such as poliovirus, which causes illness of varying severity and does not manifest in the same way for all infected individuals. For example, fewer than 1% of individuals infected by polio are affected by paralysis. Additionally, “Postulates #2 and #3 cannot be fulfilled for viruses that do not replicate in cell culture, or for which a suitable animal model has not been identified.” Consequently, over the past decades, scientists have found it necessary to modify Koch’s postulates to adapt the criteria for the study of viral diseases[11-13].
Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology and director at the Center for Infection and Immunity of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told Health Feedback that many published studies have already demonstrated that SARS-CoV-2 fulfills Koch’s postulates[14-16]. Specifically, researchers isolated SARS-CoV-2 from COVID-19 patient samples, propagated the virus in cell cultures in the laboratory, and infected non-human primates with the cultured virus. The infected primates displayed the same signs of COVID-19 as humans, including lung damage and pneumonia. Finally, the researchers were able to detect the virus in the infected animals. With these findings, all four of Koch’s postulates are met, demonstrating that SARS-CoV-2 is the cause of COVID-19.
“no one has died from the coronavirus”
In its statement, the ESP refuted this claim, stating that:
“As discussed in the two ESP webinars on the subject (May 8th and June 25th, 2020), the striking autopsy findings seen in the lungs and other organs of COVID-19 patients are unexplainable as the effect of any concurrent disease and support the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) as the cause of death in these cases.
In agreement with this, autopsy studies of COVID-19 patients have demonstrated the presence of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in a variety of tissues, mainly the lungs and the inner lining of blood vessels (endothelium).” (Read the ESP’s full statement.)
If the article’s claim were true, then the number of deaths that have occurred since the beginning of the outbreak would be similar to that of previous years before the emergence of COVID-19. However, this is not the case. For instance, an earlier Health Feedback review reported that we are seeing a higher number of deaths in 2020 compared to previous years in the U.S. (see figure below).
A Financial Times report also showed the same pattern of excess mortality in other countries like Belgium, France, and Italy. The excess mortality observed across the world in 2020 can only be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, as there is no other factor which can explain this sudden increase in mortality compared to previous years when COVID-19 was not present.
“the inability to identify monoclonal antibodies for the virus suggests there is no basis for the vaccines, serological testing, and immunity certificates being rolled out around the globe”
This is inaccurate for several reasons. As we explained earlier under Claim #2, monoclonal antibodies which bind to SARS-CoV-2 have indeed been identified[1,2]. Additionally, immunity is not dependent on monoclonal antibodies. The body has many different B cell clones, meaning that the antibodies produced in response to a pathogen would be polyclonal by default—even so, our immune system remains functional. Furthermore, while antibodies are an important part of the immune response, other factors which can be enhanced by vaccination, such as the T-cell mediated immune response, are also relevant in mounting an effective defense against infection.
Finally, immunity certificates are not being “rolled out around the globe” at the moment. Countries including Germany and the United Kingdom have discussed its use as a potential tool for returning to normal life, but whether immunity certificates will be implemented is still an open question given the practical and ethical implications, some of which are discussed in this 21 May Nature news article.
“Among the myriad ways the WHO is creating [worldwide] chaos is by prohibiting almost all autopsies of people deemed to have died from COVID-19”
The World Health Organization has not prohibited such autopsies and the article produces no evidence to support this claim. In fact, the aforementioned ESP webinar openly discusses findings from the autopsies of COVID-19 patients. Furthermore, several studies on COVID-19 autopsy findings from countries such as the U.S., Germany, and China have been published[17-20].
Conspiracy theorists are not persuaded by data. There are many studies on SARS-CoV-2 that fulfill Koch’s postulates[14-16].
European Society of Pathology:
[The following statement was co-signed by ESP President Prof. Holger Moch, ESP Director-General Dr. Raed Al-Dieri, and ESP Secretary Prof. Aurelio Ariza]
In response to some of the claims made by the article “No one has died from the coronavirus,” the European Society of Pathology (ESP) offers the following comments:
Claim by the article: “No one has died from the coronavirus”
Comment by the ESP: As discussed in the two ESP webinars on the subject (May 8th and June 25th, 2020), the striking autopsy findings seen in the lungs and other organs of COVID-19 patients are unexplainable as the effect of any concurrent disease and support the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) as the cause of death in these cases.
In agreement with this, autopsy studies of COVID-19 patients have demonstrated the presence of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in a variety of tissues, mainly the lungs and the inner lining of blood vessels (endothelium). There is evidence of a specific COVID-19-associated coagulopathy that can cause deadly thromboembolism.
Claim by the article: “In the absence of monoclonal antibodies to the novel coronavirus, pathologists cannot verify whether SARS-CoV-2 is present in the body, or whether the diseases and deaths attributed to it indeed were caused by the virus rather than by something else”
Comment by the ESP: Monoclonal antibodies able to identify different components of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) are certainly available. They are used by pathologists to demonstrate the presence of the virus in body tissues with immunohistochemistry and immunofluorescence studies.
Other techniques (such as in situ hybridization and RT-PCR) can detect viral RNA in tissues. Additionally, electron microscopy neatly allows the visualization of the spike-crowned virus (hence the name coronavirus) in the diseased organs.
Coronavirus images as observed by pathologists in human tissues may be seen in the articles by M. Ackerman et al. (NEJM 2020), I. Colmenero et al. (Brit J Dermatol 2020), V.G. Puelles et al. (NEJM 2020) and Z. Varga et al. (Lancet 2020), among others.
The above comments briefly summarize the official position of the European Society of Pathology (ESP), which is not responsible for the claims and opinions of its individual members.
&: The number of deaths in Figure 1 are labeled “predicted number of deaths” because the raw number of deaths counted in a given week by the CDC are typically not finalized until weeks to months after the week in question due to a lag in reporting of death certificates. More details are available in this technical note.
We have corrected the authors’ image at the top of this review. The original image incorrectly showed James Corbett of The Corbett Report. The image has now been updated to show the correct image of the OffGuardian article’s co-author Patrick Corbett.
- 1 – Pinto et al. (2020) Cross-neutralization of SARS-CoV-2 by a human monoclonal SARS-CoV antibody. Nature.
- 2 – Wang et al. (2020) A human monoclonal antibody blocking SARS-CoV-2 infection. Nature Communications.
- 3 – Pollan et al. (2020) Prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 in Spain (ENE-COVID): a nationwide, population-based seroepidemiological study. The Lancet.
- 4 – Mulligan et al. (2020) Phase 1/2 Study to Describe the Safety and Immunogenicity of a COVID-19 RNA Vaccine Candidate (BNT162b1) in Adults 18 to 55 Years of Age: Interim Report. MedRxiv.[Note: This is a pre-print that has not yet been peer reviewed or been published in a journal at the time of this review’s publication.]
- 5 – Alberts et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002. B Cells and Antibodies. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26884/
- 6 – Ackerman et al. (2020) Pulmonary Vascular Endothelialitis, Thrombosis, and Angiogenesis in Covid-19. New England Journal of Medicine.
- 7 – Colmenero et al. (2020) SARS‐CoV‐2 endothelial infection causes COVID‐19 chilblains: histopathological, immunohistochemical and ultrastructural study of 7 paediatric cases. British Journal of Dermatology.
- 8 – Puelles et al. (2020) Multiorgan and Renal Tropism of SARS-CoV-2. New England Journal of Medicine
- 9 – Varga et al. (2020) Endothelial cell infection and endotheliitis in COVID-19. The Lancet.
- 10 – Liu et al. (2020) Molecular detection of SARS-CoV-2 in formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded specimens. JCI Insight.
- 11 – Rivers TM. (1937) Viruses and Koch’s Postulates. Journal of Bacteriology.
- 12 – Fredricks and Relman. (1996) Sequence-based Identification of Microbial Pathogens: A Reconsideration of Koch’s Postulates. Clinical Microbiology Reviews.
- 13 – Prescott et al. (2017) Amending Koch’s postulates for viral disease: When “growth in pure culture” leads to a loss of virulence. Antiviral Research.
- 14 – Rockx et al. (2020) Comparative pathogenesis of COVID-19, MERS, and SARS in a nonhuman primate model. Science.
- 15 – Shan et al. (2020) Infection with novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) causes pneumonia in Rhesus macaques. Cell Research.
- 16 – Yu et al. (2020) Age-related Rhesus Macaque Models of COVID-19. Animal Models and Experimental Medicine.
- 17 – Barton et al. (2020) COVID-19 Autopsies, Oklahoma, USA. American Journal of Clinical Pathology.
- 18 – Edler et al. (2020) Dying with SARS-CoV-2 infection—an autopsy study of the first consecutive 80 cases in Hamburg, Germany. International Journal of Legal Medicine.
- 19 – Hanley et al. (2020) Autopsy in Suspected COVID-19 Cases. Journal of Clinical Pathology.
- 20 – Bosmuller et al. (2020) The Evolution of Pulmonary Pathology in Fatal COVID-19 Disease: An Autopsy Study With Clinical Correlation. Virchows Archiv.