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People queue up for their COVID-19 vaccine booster shots at a clinic inside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, as the latest Omicron variant emerges as a threat, in Toronto on Dec. 22, 2021.STRINGER/Reuters

A small number of physicians in Canada are spreading misinformation and unscientific views about COVID-19, a trend experts say could undermine the response to the pandemic and erode trust in public officials and institutions.

Medical regulators are under pressure to crack down on physicians and other health professionals who say false or misleading things or prescribe unproven treatments.

Last fall, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta conducted five unannounced inspections at medical clinics in response to complaints about doctors spreading COVID-19 misinformation. In January, Ontario’s Health Minister asked the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario what the regulator was doing to crack down on misinformation after reports some doctors were writing false medical exemptions for COVID-19 vaccination. The college said it needs the province to make legal changes to help it deal with a large volume of complaints more efficiently.

The Ontario college declined an interview request, but said in a statement in February it is investigating more than 40 doctors for promotion of misinformation, and that the licences of seven have been suspended for such activities.

Experts who study misinformation want to see further measures from colleges to address the growing problem.

“I absolutely think the colleges need to do more,” Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, said in an e-mail. “It is the statutory obligation of the colleges to protect the best interests of the public.”

Mr. Caulfield said evidence shows that most purveyors of misinformation have a strong ideological agenda. And when the misinformation is coming from a trusted source, such as a doctor or scientist, he said, the effects can be “so damaging.”

Mr. Caulfield said physicians and scientists who make false claims are gaining influence because they offer simple answers to complex questions at a time when everyone feels fed up with the pandemic.

“The deniers are capturing the narrative now,” he said. “They portray contested science as fact.”

Some doctors and scientists are forming associations and using social media to promote their claims about vaccines and treatments, or even sell vaccine exemption cards related to COVID-19.

Many of the ideas they promote are easily disproven, or represent a clear breach of professional rules.

The Canadian Covid Care Alliance, a group of mostly unidentified doctors and scientists, promotes ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasites, as a solution for COVID-19, even though overwhelming research shows it doesn’t work on the virus. The co-founder of the group, Ira Bernstein, is under investigation by the Ontario college. The group did not respond to interview requests.

But other doctors use more sophisticated methods to promote false or misleading ideas that have been used to advocate for mask mandates and other pandemic measures to be removed. That can mean selectively highlighting studies to fit their narrative and ignoring those that disprove their point, or using flawed data to make inaccurate conclusions about the effectiveness of masks and vaccines or the usefulness of capacity limits and other health restrictions.

Such misinformation can be hard to fight because it comes from accomplished people, said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

“The more credentialed they are and the better known the institution they represent, the more damage they can do,” said Dr. Hotez, who is also co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

A high-profile example of a physician group accused of promoting false and misleading information related to COVID-19 is the Urgency of Normal. The U.S.-based group, which says preventive measures such as masks should be focused on high-risk individuals only, has come under fire in recent weeks over its assertion that youth suicide rates have increased during the pandemic. Tyler Black, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of British Columbia, challenged the group on Twitter, pointing out that youth suicide has not increased during the pandemic.

“I consider it ghoulish to wield child suicide statistics inaccurately to make advocacy points,” Dr. Black wrote.

The Urgency of Normal has since taken that claim out of its materials. But one of the group’s members, Martha Fulford, an infectious disease physician who works at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, is facing criticism for some of her statements about the risks of COVID-19.

Dr. Fulford is quoted in the media frequently and is involved with a number of advocacy groups calling for an end to pandemic restrictions.

She gave two online talks in recent weeks that misrepresented the recommendations of Canada’s national immunization panel for COVID-19 vaccination in children, and made statements based on an incomplete assessment of data, asserting that kids are not at risk from the virus and that masks in schools do nothing to stop the spread. (Thousands of children have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. And a report published in February by Public Health Ontario found schools with mask mandates had a lower incidence of infection.)

Dr. Fulford said in a January online talk viewed nearly 30,000 times on YouTube that pandemic health measures aimed at children, including masks at schools, social distancing and teachers wearing N95 respirators and face shields, are abusive.

“This is not rational behaviour any more. Children are not at risk. We’re not seeing transmission in schools,” Dr. Fulford said. “What is unsafe in this setting is how these children are being treated. If we had done this three years ago to our children, we probably would have labelled it child abuse.”

She gave another online talk on Feb. 2, hosted by Families For Choice, a Calgary-based parent group with 25,000 members that questions the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, likens vaccination mandates to segregation, and has participated in trucker convoy protests.

During that talk, she acknowledged there are rare risks to children, but said kids are more likely to die from causes such as drowning and cancer than COVID-19, so the risks of the virus should be accepted.

“While COVID can be a problem for some children, we need the context,” said Dr. Fulford, who is also an associate professor at McMaster University based at the McMaster University Health Centre. “It is nowhere near as severe as a lot of the risks that we accept in any given day.”

Many health experts say that line of thinking is deeply flawed, as there is constant, ongoing work to reduce the incidence of childhood drowning, cancer, accidents and other causes of death in kids.

“It seems like the picture might be incomplete that they’re telling,” said Emily Gruenwoldt Carkner, president and CEO of advocacy organization Children’s Healthcare Canada, referring to medical professionals who use accurate data to make misleading generalizations. “Any single death to a vaccine-preventable death is one too many.”

In an interview with The Globe and Mail after her Feb. 2 talk, Dr. Fulford defended her statements and repeated the claim that COVID-19 poses almost no danger to children.

“Studies have consistently shown that kids are not at risk from COVID. Are there going to be exceptions? Sure, but it’s a risk perception,” Dr. Fulford said during an interview.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, 3,875 children 19 and under have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Of those, 395 have been admitted to the ICU. And 29 children aged 19 and under have died as a result of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

In her February talk, Dr. Fulford said COVID-19 vaccines should be targeted to vulnerable people, such as seniors, and that most children don’t need to be vaccinated – which contradicts official guidance from Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI).

“You don’t have to vaccinate a 20-year-old healthy person because that person will never be in hospital in the first place,” she said.

Most medical professionals have rejected the idea of targeting only high-risk people, in part because it’s impossible to predict who will develop severe illness and the fact that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.

Dr. Fulford suggested that NACI’s recommendations for kids 5 to 11 are similar to those in places like Norway and the U.K., which have decided mass immunization campaigns aren’t worthwhile and that only high-risk kids need to be vaccinated.

NACI’s actual recommendation, which was strengthened in January, is that children 5 to 11 should be offered vaccination against COVID-19. The national immunization committee in the U.K. has changed its approach, now saying all kids, not just those at high risk, should be offered vaccination.

Michelle Donovan, a spokesperson for McMaster University, said “there are a variety of views among experts” and that Dr. Fulford and other faculty members have academic freedom to “freely express their views.”

Wendy Stewart, a spokesperson for Hamilton Health Sciences Centre, said Dr. Fulford was not representing the hospital when she made the remarks.

One of the best-known medical professionals facing criticism for COVID-19 misinformation is Robert Malone, a U.S. physician and scientist who did early work on mRNA technology. He’s developed a following since a recent appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience, during which he made false claims about vaccines and other issues related to COVID-19. He spoke earlier this year at an anti-vaccine and anti-mandate event at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Kumanan Wilson, a physician at the Ottawa Hospital, said he’s seen too many examples of medical professionals speaking outside their area of expertise and making misleading statements during the pandemic, which can damage public trust.

“The responsibility is even greater for those of us who are looked to as leaders to ensure we are accurately reflecting the science,” Dr. Wilson said. “If you don’t have a full grasp of a very complicated question, you should really be careful about what you say.”

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