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Bill and Melinda Gates pose for a photo in Kirkland, Wash., on Feb. 1, 2019. (AP) Bill and Melinda Gates pose for a photo in Kirkland, Wash., on Feb. 1, 2019. (AP)

Bill and Melinda Gates pose for a photo in Kirkland, Wash., on Feb. 1, 2019. (AP)

Samantha Putterman
By Samantha Putterman April 9, 2020

Post about Bill Gates’ work on vaccine tracking distorts research, timeline

If Your Time is short

  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded research into invisible ink technology that could accompany vaccines to strengthen vaccination record-keeping in developing countries.

  • MIT began its research in July 2016, years before the first cases of the novel coronavirus emerged.

  • There’s no evidence Bill Gates is pushing for tracking bracelets, or that the MIT research has anything to do with “tracking Americans” amid the pandemic.

If living through a pandemic doesn’t already make you feel like you’re walking around in a brave, new world, then conspiratorial social media posts about the global outbreak may push you to the brink.

According to a claim we spotted on Instagram and beyond, Bill Gates "is pushing" an effort during the current outbreak to track Americans using bracelets and invisible tattoos that would be delivered alongside a vaccine. 

The theory also insinuates the project came along "days" after Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, stepped down from the company’s board of directors.

The post reads: 

"Bill Gates and other globalists, in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies, are reportedly working to push tracking bracelets and ‘invisible tattoos’ to monitor Americans during an impending lockdown. MIT and Gates have ‘created an ink that can be safely embedded in the skin alongside the vaccine itself, and it’s only visible using a special smartphone camera app and filter.’ This comes days after Gates stepped down from Microsoft’s board."

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has helped fund research into increased vaccine tracking, especially in under-resourced communities, but this post makes unsupported assertions and distorts the timeline of that research.

Let’s take a look.

‘Invisible tattoos’ 

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are seeking to address vaccine tracking challenges in developing countries by creating an invisible ink that could be injected into children along with vaccines.

The study began in July 2016, MIT told us, more than three years before the first novel coronavirus cases emerged. It was not inspired by the current outbreak.

The idea behind the research is that the dye would be visible under near-infrared light for up to five years and provide a quick, affordable way of helping health providers keep track of a child’s vaccinations, even when paperwork gets lost or parents forget whether their child is up to date.

The dye wouldn’t monitor people’s habits or movements, as the Instagram post implies. It would essentially be a marker to see if someone received a vaccine upon inspection by a medical official.

Researchers say accurate vaccine record-keeping remains a major challenge in low-resource areas around the world, where "well-maintained centralized databases do not exist," which "contributes to 1.5 million vaccine-preventable deaths annually." Scientists hope an invisible, embeddable medical record that could accompany vaccines could help solve that problem.

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The Gates Foundation has contributed funds for this research.

‘Tracking bracelets’

Some governments such as Hong Kong are using electronic wristbands to track people who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in order to enforce quarantines and reduce the spread of the virus.

But we find no evidence in news archives or other internet searches that Gates specifically stated he is "pushing" or advocating for the development of tracking bracelets.

The only mention of "bracelets" we could find associated with Gates came about in 2012, when the Gates Foundation funded a study into bracelets that would measure student engagement in classrooms

That said, Gates has said he supports the idea of a national tracking system to monitor the virus that causes COVID-19.

In a March 18 Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, Gates lauded South Korea’s tracking system, which  uses a smartphone app to gather information about COVID-19 spread. He said that, although thousands of tests are being offered per day at the University of Washington in Seattle, for example, "no one is connected to a national tracking system" and that "whenever there is a positive test it should be seen to understand where the disease is and whether we need to strengthen the social distancing."

When did Gates’ interest in vaccination tracking begin? 

Gates has been interested in vaccinations and vaccination tracking, particularly in low-resource areas, for several years.

He stepped down from Microsoft’s board of directors on March 13, 2020. And, as we mentioned, MIT’s research into a vaccination-related invisible ink program has been going on for several years as well. 

MIT published a study on its research on Dec. 18, 2019, in the journal Science Translational Medicine. The research was submitted to the journal in July 2019, and an MIT spokesperson told PolitiFact that it began back in 2016 — years before the first cases of the virus were reported.

The Gates Foundation told PolitiFact that it awarded a grant to MIT to improve the way childhood vaccinations are tracked; it had nothing to do with the 2019 coronavirus outbreak. Additional funding also came from the National Cancer Institute. 

"The researchers are exploring storing data in a pattern of dye, invisible to the naked eye, that is delivered under the skin at the same time as the vaccine. The technology is currently in the proof-of-concept phase," the foundation told PolitiFact in an email. "If successful, governments could elect to incorporate this kind of tool in their immunization programs in place of, or in addition to, their current methods of tracking vaccinations."

None of the research is specific to America, as the Instagram post suggests. Nor is it tied specifically to COVID-19.

Our ruling

An online post says that Bill Gates is pushing tracking bracelets and invisible tattoos to monitor Americans during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

We find no evidence that Gates has supported the concept of "tracking bracelets." His foundation awarded a grant to MIT to study invisible dyes that could accompany vaccines to keep track of vaccinations in developing countries.

But this research began in 2016, and there is no evidence that it has anything to do with the current coronavirus pandemic, or to "monitor" Americans specifically. 

This post takes a small kernel of truth and frames it in a way that gives a misleading impression. We rate it Mostly False.

Our Sources

Instagram post, March 18, 2020 

Scientific American, Invisible Ink Could Reveal whether Kids Have Been Vaccinated, Dec. 18, 2019

Science Translational Medicine, Biocompatible near-infrared quantum dots delivered to the skin by microneedle patches record vaccination, Dec. 18, 2019

Reddit, I’m Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AMA about COVID-19, March 18, 2020

MIT News, Storing medical information below the skin’s surface, Dec. 18, 2019

CNBC, Hong Kong is putting electronic wristbands on arriving passengers to enforce coronavirus quarantine, March 18, 2020

Email interview, Sarah McDonnell spokesperson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, April 6, 2020

Email interview, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation media team, April 7, 2020

Aljazeera, S Korea's smartphone apps tracking coronavirus won't stop buzzing, April 8, 2020

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Post about Bill Gates’ work on vaccine tracking distorts research, timeline

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