The Hill wrote that Donald Trump “falsely claimed” immunity from COVID-19 following his October infection. Unlike most reporting, which factually noted that Trump could not know whether or not he was immune, The Hill made the absolute claim that he was not. In making what was essentially a medical diagnosis of a specific individual, The Hill provided no evidence. While 26 instances of COVID-19 reinfection have been recorded, the CDC considers these cases “rare” and the emerging scientific consensus — supported by at least three reputable studies — indicates that immunity is likely for most people for a period of a few months following recovery.
Background: On 2 October 2020, Donald Trump revealed he had been diagnosed with COVID-19. He was briefly hospitalized for treatment and then released, following which he gave an interview to Fox News. During that 11 October appearance, he said it “looks like I’m immune for, I don’t know, maybe a long time, maybe a short time. It could be a lifetime. Nobody really knows, but I’m immune. So the president is in very good shape to fight the battles.”
The Claim: In a 29 November 2020 article, The Hill‘s John Bowden wrote that,
Trump was hospitalized last month with COVID-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and after receiving treatment falsely claimed in an interview that he was “immune” to the virus.
Bowden was referring to Trump’s October 11 interview.
Investigation: To say that Trump “falsely claimed” he had immunity to COVID-19 is to make the counter-claim that he did not have immunity. It is a more sweeping assertion than the modest asterisk some media applied to Trump’s claim, which was merely to observe that he could not definitively know one way or the other if he was immune.
To know if Trump “falsely claimed” he had immunity to COVID-19 it was necessary to determine if infection: (a) definitely conferred acquired immunity for those who recover, (b) possibly conferred acquired immunity for those who recover, or, (c) definitely did not confer acquired immunity for those who recover. If either “a” or “b” were true it would be impossible to make the definitive proclamation that Trump’s claim of having acquired immunity was false.
Instances of COVID-19 reinfection have been recorded. While the CDC notes that reinfection is “rare,” as of November 28 there were 26 known cases of persons infected with COVID-19 having been reinfected at a later date. And, scientific literature produced during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic described confusing and contradictory perspectives as to whether acquired immunity to the virus was possible.
However, according to a preprint paper of research conducted by scientists at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology published on 16 November at bioRXiv, there are now strong indicators that immunity from COVID-19 can last up to eight months following infection for most people. Trump’s remarks, which were delivered less than two weeks after infection, fell within this window. The La Jolla Institute’s research has not yet been peer reviewed but echoes other new learning on the nature of COVID-19. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease and Research Policy describes two studies that provide strong indicators of a long-term COVID-19 immune response for most people.
Rating: A recent trend in journalism has reporters slapping “falsely” prior to the word “claimed” when describing statements made by politicians. The use of the definitive word “falsely” has become so perfunctory that it’s often applied if something just sounds fishy and reporters frequently don’t think through the logical implications of describing something as a “false” claim.
Whether or not Trump has immunity to COVID-19 is probably unknown to anyone, including Trump himself. CNN offered a more conservative asterisk to a different, 12 October statement by Trump in which he stated that his recovery meant “I can’t get it (immune), and can’t give it.” In that case, CNN said the claim was made “without evidence,” a technically accurate description of the 12 October statement.
The Hill‘s claim was more sweeping. In asserting that Trump “falsely claimed” that he had acquired immunity, John Bowden was essentially making a medical diagnosis. Unlike CNN, he was not claiming the status of Trump’s immunity was unknown. He was claiming the status of Trump’s immunity was known — and that he was not immune!
This incredible claim of definitive medical knowledge of an individual demands incredible evidence, even more so since an emerging scientific consensus has observed immunity in all but a “rare” minority of individuals. It was instead presented as a drive-by statement unaccompanied by proof of any kind. And it is PROBABLY FALSE.
Status: The Hill did not publish a correction within 72 hours of making its probably false claim.