Fact check: Fauci study did not attribute 1918 Spanish flu deaths to bacterial pneumonia caused by masks

Correction October 28, 2020: This article previously linked to a similar 2008 study (here) that was not co-authored by Fauci. Correcting link in paragraph three to study co-authored by Fauci (here).

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

Social media users have been publishing a screenshot of a tweet, which erroneously claims that during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, people died of bacterial pneumonia from masks and that Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, knew this and wrote about it in 2008. In fact, the study that Fauci co-authored in 2008 does not mention masks and found that bacterial pneumonia led to most deaths in the Spanish flu pandemic when it had been preceded by “viral damage,” or influenza infection.

The original tweets (one has been deleted, the other is visible  here ), shared in posts ( here  ,  here  ,  here  ,  here  ) say, “The unmasked buried the masked in the “Spanish Flu”. What did people in #masks die from? Bacterial Pneumonia. Who knew this and wrote about it in 2008? Dr Anthony Fauci,” and “Dr Fauci neglected to let the public know that he was co-author on a paper that found this: 1918-1919 pandemic deaths were mostly from bacterial pneumonia […] Why did that happen? #Masks”. One caption reads, “Here is the Dr Fauci article from 2008 saying that most deaths from the 1918 Spanish Flu were caused by Bacterial pneumonia! — not the supposed “pandemic”!!”

2008 STUDY

The 2008 study (here), which Fauci did co-author, explains that the influenza virus destroyed cells that line the bronchial tubes and lungs which created a pathway for bacteria that normally inhabit the nose and throat to invade the lungs and cause bacterial pneumonia.

Fauci makes it very clear in his description of the study that bacterial pneumonia was preceded by the influenza virus: “The weight of evidence we examined from both historical and modern analyses of the 1918 influenza pandemic favors a scenario in which viral damage followed by bacterial pneumonia led to the vast majority of deaths. In essence, the virus landed the first blow while bacteria delivered the knockout punch." (here).

To claim the 1918-1919 flu pandemic deaths were caused by bacterial pneumonia alone is inaccurate as it was viral damage from the flu that made people susceptible to bacterial pneumonia in the first place.

COVID-19 has also been found to cause pneumonia (  here  ,  here  ,  here  ,  here  ).


There is no mention of masks in the study. The author of the original tweet later explained on Twitter in a comment that it was her own paper that made the connection between bacterial pneumonia and masks (here), that this paper has not been peer reviewed (here), and ResearchGate took it down from its website (here).

COVID-19 spreads in near contact with others and masks are a barrier that prevent respiratory droplets from traveling further, as explained in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance  here  .

As explained by Dr Fauci in a video from July 17 (, while at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, masks had not been recommended for the general public due to a shortage of masks for health workers, as more information became available, health authorities and organizations changed their stance and advised that masks should be worn by the general public (here).

At the time of publishing, Fauci was still advising that masks should be worn as a pandemic containment measure alongside social distancing (here).

Reuters recently debunked posts undermining mask usage (  here  ,  here  ), some of which showed outdated advice from Fauci (here).


False. The study Fauci co-authored in 2008 does not mention masks and makes it clear that those who died of bacterial pneumonia during the flu pandemic of 1918 contracted it as a result of suffering from the influenza virus.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work  here  .