Misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in misinformation and conspiracy theories about the scale of the pandemic and the origin, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the disease. False information, including intentional disinformation, has been spread through social media, text messaging, and mass media. It has also been reportedly spread by covert operations backed by states to generate panic and sow distrust in other countries. Journalists have been arrested for allegedly spreading fake news about the pandemic. It has also been propagated by celebrities, politicians, and other prominent public figures. A Cornell University study found that US President Donald Trump was the "single largest driver" of the infodemic in an analysis of mentions in English-language media articles.[dubious ]
Commercial scams have claimed to offer at-home tests, supposed preventives, and "miracle" cures. Several religious groups have claimed their faith will protect them from the virus. Some people have claimed the virus is a bioweapon accidentally or purposefully leaked from a laboratory, a population control scheme, the result of a spy operation, or the side effect of 5G upgrades to cellular networks.
The World Health Organization has declared an "infodemic" of incorrect information about the virus, which poses risks to global health. Taking into account this global risk the WHO announced it was working with the Wikimedia Foundation to help freely licensing its infographics and other material to help in the work's effort to fight misinformation.
Types, origin, and effect
On 30 January 2020, the BBC reported on the growing number of conspiracy theories and bad health advice regarding COVID-19. Notable examples at the time included false health advice shared on social media and private chats, as well as conspiracy theories such as the disease's origins in (Chinese) bat soup and the outbreak being planned with the participation of the Pirbright Institute. On 31 January, The Guardian listed seven instances of misinformation, adding the conspiracy theories about bioweapons and the link to 5G technology, and including varied false health advice.
In an attempt to speed up research sharing, many researchers have turned to preprint servers such as arXiv, bioRxiv, medRxiv, and SSRN. Papers are uploaded to these servers without peer review or any other editorial process that ensures research quality. Some of these papers have contributed to the spread of conspiracy theories. The most notable case was a preprint paper uploaded to bioRxiv which claimed that the virus contained HIV "insertions". Following objections, the paper was withdrawn. Preprints about COVID-19 have been extensively shared online and some data suggest that they have been used by the media almost 10 times more than preprints on other topics.
According to a study published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, most misinformation related to COVID-19 involves "various forms of reconfiguration, where existing and often true information is spun, twisted, recontextualised, or reworked"; less misinformation "was completely fabricated". The study also found that "top-down misinformation from politicians, celebrities, and other prominent public figures", while accounting for a minority of the samples, captured a majority of the social media engagement. According to their classification, the largest category of misinformation (39%) was "misleading or false claims about the actions or policies of public authorities, including government and international bodies like the WHO or the UN".
A natural experiment—an experiment that takes place spontaneously, without human design or intervention—shows a potential link between coronavirus misinformation and increased infection and death. There was one instance of this reported where two similar television news shown on the same network were compared. One reported the effects of coronavirus more seriously and about a month earlier than the other. People and groups exposed to the news show reporting the effects later had higher infection and death rates.
The misinformation has been used by politicians, interest groups, and state actors in many countries for political purposes: to avoid responsibility, scapegoat other countries, and avoid criticism of their earlier decisions. Sometimes there is a financial motive as well. A number of countries have been accused of spreading disinformation with state-backed operations in the social media in other countries to generate panic, sow distrust, and undermine democratic debate in other countries, or to promote their models of government.
Accidental leakage theories
A number of allegations have emerged supposing a link between the virus and Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV); among these is that the virus was an accidental leakage from WIV. In January 2020, editors at the scientific journal Nature affixed a cautionary warning to an article by Richard H. Ebright who wrote about the WIV in 2017 and noted that the SARS virus had escaped from high-level containment facilities in Beijing before; the editors warned that unverified theories, unsupported by scientists, were being promoted to suggest that the WIV played a role in the COVID-19 outbreak. In an interview with BBC China in February 2020, Ebright refuted several conspiracy theories regarding the WIV (e.g., bioweapons research, or that the virus was engineered), but said a laboratory leak origin could not be "completely ruled out." Other researchers have said that there is little chance it was a laboratory accident.
A theory emerged in February 2020, alleging that the first infected person may have been a researcher at the institute named Huang Yanling. Rumours circulated on Chinese social media stating that the researcher became infected and later died; this prompted a denial from WIV who released a statement that she was a graduate student enrolled at the Institute until 2015, and that she is still healthy and not patient zero. In early April, this theory started to circulate on YouTube and was picked up by conservative media, National Review. Disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz from the Wilson Center, however, proposed that the lab leakage theory entered mainstream media in United States via a later documentary by The Epoch Times, propagated by news outlets.[a][b]
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that one of the WIV's lead researchers, Shi Zhengli, was the particular focus of personal attacks in Chinese social media alleging that her work on bat-based viruses was the source of the virus; this led Shi to post: "I swear with my life, [the virus] has nothing to do with the lab". When asked by the SCMP to comment on the attacks, Shi responded: "My time must be spent on more important matters".[c]
On 14 April, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, in response to questions about the virus being manufactured in a lab, said "it's inconclusive, although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural. But we don't know for certain." On that same day, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin detailed a leaked cable of a 2018 trip made to the WIV by scientists from the US Embassy. The article was referenced and cited by conservative media to push the lab leakage theory. Rogin's article went on to say that "What the U.S. officials learned during their visits concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables categorized as Sensitive But Unclassified back to Washington. The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable, which I obtained, also warns that the lab's work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic." Rogin's article pointed out there was no evidence that the coronavirus was engineered, "But that is not the same as saying it didn't come from the lab, which spent years testing bat coronaviruses in animals." The article went on to quote Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley: "I don't think it's a conspiracy theory. I think it's a legitimate question that needs to be investigated and answered. To understand exactly how this originated is critical knowledge for preventing this from happening in the future." The Washington Post's article and subsequent broadcasts drew criticism from virologist Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University, who stated: "It's irresponsible for political reporters like Rogin [to] uncritically regurgitate a secret 'cable' without asking a single virologist or ecologist or making any attempt to understand the scientific context." Rasmussen later compared biosafety procedure concerns to "having the health inspector come to your restaurant. It could just be, ‘Oh, you need to keep your chemical showers better stocked.’ It doesn't suggest, however, that there are tremendous problems." Jonna Mazet, Professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Davis and director of the PREDICT project to monitor emerging viruses, has commented that staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were trained at US labs and follow high safety standards, and that "All of the evidence points to this not being a laboratory accident."
Days later, multiple media outlets confirmed that US intelligence officials were investigating the possibility that the virus started in the WIV. On 23 April, Vox presented disputed arguments on lab leakage claims from several scientists. Scientists suggested that virus samples cultured in the lab have significant amount of difference compared with SARS-CoV-2. The virus institution[which?] sampled RaTG13 in Yunnan, the closest known relative of the nes[further explanation needed] coronavirus, with a 96% shared genome. Edward Holmes, SARS-CoV-2 researcher at the University of Sydney, explained that 4% of difference "is equivalent to an average of 50 years (and at least 20 years) of evolutionary change." Virologist Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, which studies emerging infectious diseases, noted the estimate that 1–7 million people in Southeast Asia who live or work in proximity to bats are infected each year with bat coronaviruses. In the interview with Vox, he comments, "There are probably half a dozen people that do work in those labs. So let's compare 1 million to 7 million people a year to half a dozen people; it's just not logical."
On 30 April, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration demanded that intelligence agencies find evidence linking WIV with the origin of SARS-Cov-2. Secretary of State and former Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A) director Mike Pompeo was reportedly leading the push on finding information regarding the virus origin. Analysts were concerned that pressure from senior officials could distort assessments from the intelligence community. Anthony Ruggiero, the head of the National Security Council which was responsible for tracking weapons of mass destruction, expressed frustration during a video conference that the C.I.A. was unable to reach a definite explanation of the virus's origin. According to current and former government officials, as of 30 April 2020, the C.I.A has yet to find any information other than circumstantial to bolster the lab theory. United States intelligence officers suggested that Chinese officials tried to conceal the severity of the outbreak in early days, but no evidence has shown China attempted to cover up a lab accident. One day later, Trump claimed to possess evidence of the lab theory, but offered no further details. Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, claimed the SARS-CoV-2 virus "likely" came from a Wuhan virology testing laboratory, based on "circumstantial evidence". He was quoted as saying, "I have no definitive way of proving this thesis."
On 30 April 2020, the US intelligence and scientific communities issued a public statement dismissing the idea that the virus was not natural, while the investigation of the lab accident hypothesis was ongoing. The White House suggested an alternative explanation, along with a seemingly contradictory message, that the virus was man-made. In an interview with ABC News, Secretary of State Pompeo said he has no reason to disbelieve the intelligence community that the virus was natural. However, this contradicted the comment he made earlier in the same interview, in which he said "the best experts so far seem to think it was man-made. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point."
On 4 May, the Australian tabloid The Daily Telegraph claimed that a reportedly leaked dossier from Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance, alleged the probable outbreak was from the Wuhan lab. Fox News, and national security commentators in the US, quickly followed up The Telegraph story, raising tensions within the international intelligence community. The Australian government, which is part of the Five Eyes alliance, determined the leaked dossier was not a Five Eyes document, but a compilation of open-source materials that contained no information generated by intelligence gathering. The German intelligence community denied the claim of the leaked dossier, instead supporting the probability of a natural cause. The Australian government sees the promotion of the lab theory from the United States counterproductive to Australia's push for a more broad international-supported independent inquiry into the virus origins. Senior officials in the Australian government speculated the dossier was leaked by the United States embassy in Canberra to promote a narrative in Australian media that diverged from the mainstream belief of Australia.
Beijing rejected the White House's claim, calling the claim "part of an election year strategy by President Donald Trump's Republican Party". Hua Chunying, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, urged Mike Pompeo to present evidence for his claim. "Mr. Pompeo cannot present any evidence because he does not have any," Hua told a journalist during a regular briefing, "This matter should be handled by scientists and professionals instead of politicians out of their domestic political needs." The Chinese ambassador, in an opinion published in the Washington Post, called on the White House to end the "blame game" over the coronavirus. As of 5 May, assessments and internal sources from the Five Eyes nations indicated that the coronavirus outbreak being the result of a laboratory accident was "highly unlikely", since the human infection was "highly likely" a result of natural human and animal interaction. However, to reach a conclusion with total certainty would still require greater cooperation and transparency from the Chinese side.
Amidst the WIV-conspiracy theories and the rise of anti-Chinese hate crimes, Chinese experts, media and netizens have themselves demanded transparency from the U.S. government back in March 2020, the information regarding the bio-safety level 3 and 4 violations at Fort Detrick which led the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to force closure of the U.S. Army BSL-4 laboratory at the base back in August 2019; two months before the Military World Games in Wuhan. The theory that SARS-CoV-2 could possibly have leaked from Fort Detrick high-level pathogens lab was immediately and strongly rejected by the U.S. side; in an emailed response to Frederick News-Post, U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command spokeswoman Lori Salvatore stated: "That is an absolutely false claim, USAMRIID does not take part in offensive research.”
On 16 May 2020, China reported that their current official position on the source of the COVID-19 virus may be summarized as follows: "The conspiracy theory about the origin of the new coronavirus has no substantive content. In fact, there is evidence to support the natural emergence of new coronaviruses, and preliminary genotyping studies have shown the relationship between the coronavirus and other bat viruses. We must be careful not to blame the rumours in an irresponsible way and use the global crisis to grab political scores". On 18 May 2020, an official UN investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 virus was supported by over 120 countries despite China's objection, A two-member advance team was sent to China to organise the investigation in July 2020, although the team failed to visit Wuhan in their three-week stay there.
In 2015, Nature Medicine published a study by an international group of researchers (including Shi Zhengli who in 2019 identified SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan) on creating a chimeric virus pathogenic to humans. This publication later in 2019 sparked speculations that SARS-CoV-2 is a variant of such human-engineered virus. In 2020 Nature Medicine published an article arguing against the conspiracy theory that the virus was created artificially. The high-affinity binding of its peplomers to human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) was shown to be "most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise". In case of genetic manipulation, one of the several reverse-genetic systems for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used, while the genetic data irrefutably showed that the virus is not derived from a previously used virus template. The overall molecular structure of the virus was found to be distinct from the known coronaviruses and most closely resembles that of viruses of bats and pangolins that were little studied and never known to harm humans.
In February 2020, the Financial Times quoted virus expert and global co-lead coronavirus investigator Trevor Bedford: "There is no evidence whatsoever of genetic engineering that we can find", and "The evidence we have is that the mutations [in the virus] are completely consistent with natural evolution". Bedford further explained, "The most likely scenario, based on genetic analysis, was that the virus was transmitted by a bat to another mammal between 20–70 years ago. This intermediary animal—not yet identified—passed it on to its first human host in the city of Wuhan in late November or early December 2019".
On 19 February 2020, The Lancet published a letter of a group of scientists condemning "conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin". Even so, conspiracy theories have appeared both in social media and in mainstream news outlets, and are heavily influenced by geopolitics. The German Deutsche Welle produced a video in May 2020, featuring scientists from the Leibniz Association and the University of Bern, explaining, that a well made genetic manipulation of a virus could very likely not be recognized.
Chinese biological weapon
In January 2020, BBC News published an article about SARS-CoV-2 misinformation, citing two 24 January articles in The Washington Times that said the virus was part of a Chinese biological weapons program, based at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).[d][e][f][g][h] The Washington Post later published an article debunking the theory, citing US experts who explained why the WIV was unsuitable for military use, that most countries had abandoned bioweapon programs as failures, and that there was no evidence the virus was genetically engineered.
On 6 February, the White House asked scientists and medical researchers to rapidly investigate the origins of the virus both to address the current spread and "to inform future outbreak preparation and better understand animal/human and environmental transmission aspects of coronaviruses".
The Inverse reported that "Christopher Bouzy, the founder of Bot Sentinel, conducted a Twitter analysis for Inverse and found [online] bots and trollbots are making an array of false claims. These bots are claiming China intentionally created the virus, that it's a biological weapon, that Democrats are overstating the threat to hurt Donald Trump and more. While we can't confirm the origin of these bots, they are decidedly pro-Trump."[i]
Li-Meng Yan claims
Chinese ophthalmologist and virologist Li-Meng Yan co-authored two preprint research papers after fleeing to the US,[j] published to the Zenodo platform in September and October 2020, presenting theories about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. The 14 September preprint said that SARS-CoV-2 had not emerged naturally in a "spillover from animals", but had been produced in a laboratory. According to a scientific review by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the September paper offered "contradictory and inaccurate information that does not support their argument". Four reviewers published in the MIT Press criticised the paper as not demonstrating "sufficient scientific evidence to support its claims". The 8 October preprint went further, saying that SARS-CoV-2 was a bioweapon created by laboratories under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Chinese espionage involving Canadian lab
Some people have alleged that the coronavirus was stolen from a Canadian virus research lab by Chinese scientists. Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada said that the conspiracy theory had "no factual basis". The stories seem to have been derived from a July 2019 news article stating that some Chinese researchers had their security access to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, a Level 4 virology lab, revoked after a Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation. Canadian officials described this as an administrative matter and "there is absolutely no risk to the Canadian public."
This article was published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC); responding to the conspiracy theories, the CBC later stated that "CBC reporting never claimed the two scientists were spies, or that they brought any version of the coronavirus to the lab in Wuhan". While pathogen samples were transferred from the lab in Winnipeg to Beijing on 31 March 2019, neither of the samples was a coronavirus, the Public Health Agency of Canada says the shipment conformed to all federal policies, and there has not been any statement that the researchers under investigation were responsible for sending the shipment. The current location of the researchers under investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is not being released.
In the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, a senior research associate and expert in biological warfare with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, referring to a NATO press conference, identified suspicions of espionage as the reason behind the expulsions from the lab, but made no suggestion that coronavirus was taken from the Canadian lab or that it is the result of bioweapons defense research in China.
United States biological weapon
According to London-based The Economist, plenty of conspiracy theories exist on China's internet about COVID-19 being the CIA's creation to keep China down. According to an investigation by ProPublica, such conspiracy theories and disinformation have been propagated under the direction of China News Service, the country's second largest government-owned media outlet controlled by the United Front Work Department. Global Times and Xinhua News Agency have similarly been implicated in propagating disinformation related to COVID-19's origins. NBC News however has noted that there have also been debunking efforts of US-related conspiracy theories posted online, with a WeChat search of "Coronavirus is from the U.S." reported to mostly yield articles explaining why such claims are unreasonable.[k]
On 22 February, US officials alleged that Russia is behind an ongoing disinformation campaign, using thousands of social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to deliberately promote unfounded conspiracy theories, claiming the virus is a biological weapon manufactured by the CIA and the US is waging economic war on China using the virus.[l]
According to Washington DC-based nonprofit Middle East Media Research Institute, numerous writers in the Arabic press have promoted the conspiracy theory that COVID-19, as well as SARS and the swine flu virus, were deliberately created and spread to sell vaccines against these diseases, and it is "part of an economic and psychological war waged by the U.S. against China with the aim of weakening it and presenting it as a backward country and a source of diseases".[m]
The same theory has been reported via Iranian propaganda "to damage its culture and honor". Reza Malekzadeh, Iran's deputy health minister and former Minister of Health, rejected claims that the virus was a biological weapon, pointing out that the US would be suffering heavily from it. He said Iran was hard-hit because its close ties to China and reluctance to cut air ties introduced the virus, and because early cases had been mistaken for influenza.[n] The theory has also circulated in the Philippines[o] and Venezuela.[p]
In the Muslim world
Iran's Press TV asserted that "Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of coronavirus against Iran". Similarly, Arab media outlets accused Israel and the United States of creating and spreading COVID-19, avian flu, and SARS. Users on social media offered other theories, including the allegation that Jews had manufactured COVID-19 to precipitate a global stock market collapse and thereby profit via insider trading, while a guest on Turkish television posited a more ambitious scenario in which Jews and Zionists had created COVID-19, avian flu, and Crimean–Congo hemorrhagic fever to "design the world, seize countries, [and] neuter the world's population".
Israeli attempts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine prompted negative reactions in Iran. Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi denied initial reports that he had ruled that a Zionist-made vaccine would be halal, and one Press TV journalist tweeted that "I'd rather take my chances with the virus than consume an Israeli vaccine". A columnist for the Turkish Yeni Akit asserted that such a vaccine could be a ruse to carry out mass sterilization.
In the United States
An alert by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding the possible threat of far-right extremists intentionally spreading the coronavirus mentioned blame being assigned to Jews and Jewish leaders for causing the pandemic and several statewide shutdowns.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published reports and blogs about online anti-Israel and antisemitic conspiracy theories and misinformation concerning the origin of COVID-19, its spread, and the creation or profitability of vaccines, among other things, linking them to centuries-old antisemitic tropes, particularly in times of plague. ADL also posted blogs holding large tech platforms such as Facebook responsible for the viral spread of these conspiracy theories; ADL blamed such platforms for their failure to adopt policies requiring the removal of this content, failure to enforce existing content moderation policies around hate speech, and/or failure to otherwise restrict the reach and amplification of this content.
In India, Muslims have been blamed for spreading infection following the emergence of cases linked to a Tablighi Jamaat religious gathering. There are reports of vilification of Muslims on social media and attacks on individuals in India. Claims have been made that Muslims are selling food contaminated with coronavirus and that a mosque in Patna was sheltering people from Italy and Iran. These claims were shown to be false. In the UK, there are reports of far-right groups blaming Muslims for the coronavirus outbreak and falsely claiming that mosques remained open after the national ban on large gatherings. In the U.S., the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported on Islamophobic anti-Muslim bigotry connected with the coronavirus.
According to the BBC, Jordan Sather, a conspiracy theorist YouTuber supporting the QAnon conspiracy theory and the anti-vax movement, has falsely claimed that the outbreak was a population-control scheme created by the Pirbright Institute in England and by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.
5G mobile phone networks
In February 2020, BBC News reported that conspiracy theorists on social media groups alleged a link between coronavirus and 5G mobile networks, claiming that the Wuhan and Diamond Princess outbreaks were directly caused by electromagnetic fields and by the introduction of 5G and wireless technologies. Conspiracy theorists have alleged that the coronavirus outbreak was a cover-up for a 5G-related illness.
In March 2020, Thomas Cowan, a holistic medical practitioner who trained as a physician and operates on probation with Medical Board of California, alleged that COVID-19 is caused by 5G, based on the claims that African countries were not affected significantly by the pandemic and Africa was not a 5G region. Cowan also falsely alleged that the viruses were waste from cells that have been poisoned by electromagnetic fields, and that historical viral pandemics coincided with major developments in radio technology. The video of his claims went viral and was recirculated by celebrities, including Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, and singer Keri Hilson. The claims may also have been recirculated by an alleged "coordinated disinformation campaign", similar to campaigns used by the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The claims were criticized on social media and debunked by Reuters, USA Today, Full Fact and American Public Health Association executive director Georges C. Benjamin.
Cowan's claims were repeated by Mark Steele, a conspiracy theorist who claimed to have first hand knowledge that 5G was in fact a weapon system capable of causing symptoms identical to those produced by the virus. Kate Shemirani, a former nurse who had been struck-off the UK nursing registry, and had become a promoter of conspiracy theories, repeatedly claimed that these symptoms were precisely the same as those produced by exposure to electromagnetic fields.
Professor Steve Powis, national medical director of NHS England, described theories linking 5G mobile phone networks to COVID-19 as the "worst kind of fake news". Viruses cannot be transmitted by radio waves, and COVID-19 has spread and continues to spread in many countries that do not have 5G networks. In fact, the health of citizens in the well-developed countries with 5G is better than that of citizens from lesser-developed, poorer countries without it.
After telecommunications masts in several parts of the United Kingdom were the subject of arson attacks, British Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said the theory that COVID-19 virus may be spread by 5G wireless communication is "just nonsense, dangerous nonsense as well". Vodafone announced that two Vodafone masts and two it shares with O2, another cellular provider, had been targeted.
By 6 April 2020, at least 20 mobile phone masts in the UK had been vandalised since the previous Thursday. Because of the slow rollout of 5G in the UK, many of the damaged masts had only 3G and 4G equipment. Mobile phone and home broadband operators estimated there were at least 30 incidents of confronting engineers maintaining equipment in the week up to 6 April. As of 30 May, there have been 29 incidents of attempted arson at mobile phone masts in the Netherlands, including one case where "Fuck 5G" was written. There have been incidents in Ireland and Cyprus as well. Facebook has deleted multiple messages encouraging attacks on 5G equipment.
Engineers working for Openreach posted pleas on anti-5G Facebook groups asking to be spared abuse as they are not involved with maintaining mobile networks. Mobile UK said the incidents were affecting attempts to maintain networks that support home working and provide critical connections to vulnerable customers, emergency services, and hospitals. A widely circulated video shows people working for broadband company Community Fibre being abused by a woman who accuses them of installing 5G as part of a plan to kill the population.
Out of those who believed that 5G networks caused COVID-19 symptoms, 60% stated that much of their knowledge about the virus came from YouTube. In April 2020, YouTube announced that it would reduce the amount of content claiming links between 5G and coronavirus. Videos that are conspiratorial about 5G that do not mention coronavirus would not be removed, though they might be considered "borderline content", removed from search recommendations and losing advertising revenue. The discredited claims had been circulated by British conspiracy theorist David Icke in videos (subsequently removed) on YouTube and Vimeo, and an interview by London Live TV network, prompting calls for action by Ofcom. However, some 5G conspirational videos remained on YouTube for some time, as it took YouTube on average 41 days to remove Covid-related videos containing false information in the first half of 2020.
There were 20 suspected arson attacks on phone masts in the UK over the Easter, 2020, weekend. These included an incident in Dagenham where three men were arrested on suspicion of arson, a fire in Huddersfield that affected a mast used by emergency services, and a fire in a mast that provides mobile connectivity to the NHS Nightingale Hospital Birmingham.
Ofcom issued guidance to ITV following comments by Eamonn Holmes about 5G and coronavirus on This Morning. Ofcom said the comments were "ambiguous" and "ill-judged" and they "risked undermining viewers' trust in advice from public authorities and scientific evidence". Ofcom also found local channel London Live in breach of standards for an interview it had with David Icke. It said that he had "expressed views which had the potential to cause significant harm to viewers in London during the pandemic".
Some telecom engineers have reported threats of violence, including threats to stab and murder them, by individuals who believe them to be working on 5G networks. West Midlands Police said the crimes in question are being taken very seriously.
On 24 April 2020, The Guardian revealed that Jonathan Jones, an evangelical pastor from Luton, had provided the male voice on a recording blaming 5G for deaths caused by coronavirus. He claimed to have formerly headed the largest business unit at Vodafone, but insiders at the company said that he was hired for a sales position in 2014 when 5G was not a priority for the company and that 5G would not have been part of his job. He left the company after less than a year.
Social media posts in Cameroon pushed a conspiracy theory that polio vaccines contained coronavirus, further complicating polio eradication beyond the logistical and funding difficulties created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Misreporting of morbidity and mortality numbers
Allegations of inflated death counts
In August 2020, President Donald Trump retweeted that only 6% of reported COVID-19 deaths in the United States were actually from the disease, based on COVID-19 being the only condition listed on the death certificate. The lead mortality statistician at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics said that those death certificates likely did not include all the steps that led to the death and thus were incomplete. The CDC collects data based on case surveillance, vital records, and excess deaths. A factcheck.org article on the issue reported that while 6% of the death certificates included COVID-19 exclusively as the cause of death and 94% had additional conditions that contributed to it, COVID-19 was listed as the underlying cause of death in 92% of them, as it may cause other severe conditions such as pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome. In mid-October 2020, the number of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States was reported at 218,511 (CDC), 219,681 (Johns Hopkins University) and 219,541 (The New York Times).
The public health handling of the pandemic has been hampered by the use of archaic technology (including FAX machines and incompatible formats), poor data flow and management (or even no access to data), and general lack of standardization and federal leadership. Privacy laws are also an issue inasmuch as they preclude contact and tracing, and required data has itself been deliberately corrupted in some places, for example on the state level in the United States.
Alleged leak of death toll
On 5 February, Taiwan News published an article claiming that Tencent may have accidentally leaked the real numbers of death and infection in China. Taiwan News suggested that the Tencent Epidemic Situation Tracker had briefly showed infected cases and death tolls many times higher of the official figure, citing a Facebook post by 38-year-old Taiwanese beverage store owner Hiroki Lo and an anonymous Taiwanese netizen.[better source needed] The article, referenced by other news outlets such as the Daily Mail and widely circulated on Twitter, Facebook and 4chan, sparked a wide range of conspiracy theories that the screenshot indicates the real death toll instead of the ones published by health officials. Justin Lessler, associate professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, claims the numbers of the alleged "leak" are unreasonable and unrealistic, citing the case fatality rate as far lower than the 'leaked information'. A spokesman for Tencent responded to the news article, claiming the image was doctored, and it features "false information which we never published".
Mass cremation in Wuhan
On 8 February 2020, a report emerged on Twitter claiming that "data" showed a massive increase in sulfur emissions over Wuhan, China. The Twitter thread then claimed the reason was due to the mass cremation of coronavirus victims. The story was shared on multiple media outlets, including Daily Express, Daily Mail, and Taiwan News. Fact-check organizations quickly debunked the misinformation, pointing out that the maps used by the claims were not real-time observations of sulfur dioxide (SO2) concentrations above Wuhan. Instead, the data was a computer-generated model based on historical information and forecast on SO2 emissions.
Misinformation against Taiwan
On 26 February 2020, the Taiwanese Central News Agency reported that large amounts of misinformation had appeared on Facebook claiming the pandemic in Taiwan was out of control, the Taiwanese government had covered up the total number of cases, and that President Tsai Ing-wen had been infected. The Taiwan fact-checking organization had suggested the misinformation on Facebook shared similarities with mainland China due to its use of simplified Chinese characters and mainland China vocabulary. The organization warned that the purpose of the misinformation is to attack the government.
In March 2020, Taiwan's Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau warned that China was trying to undermine trust in factual news by portraying the Taiwanese government reports as fake news. Taiwanese authorities have been ordered to use all possible means to track whether the messages were linked to instructions given by the Chinese Communist Party. The PRC's Taiwan Affairs Office denied the claims, calling them lies, and said that Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party was "inciting hatred" between the two sides. They then claimed that the "DPP continues to politically manipulate the virus". According to The Washington Post, China has used organized disinformation campaigns against Taiwan for decades.
Nick Monaco, the research director of the Digital Intelligence Lab at Institute for the Future, analyzed the posts and concluded that the majority appear to have come from ordinary users in China, not the state. However, he criticized the Chinese government's decision to allow the information to spread beyond China's Great Firewall, which he described as "malicious". According to Taiwan News, nearly one in four cases of misinformation are believed to be connected to China.
Misrepresented World Population Project map
In early February, a decade-old map illustrating a hypothetical viral outbreak published by the World Population Project (part of the University of Southampton) was misappropriated by a number of Australian media news outlets (and British tabloids The Sun, Daily Mail and Metro) which claimed the map represented the 2020 coronavirus outbreak. This misinformation was then spread via the social media accounts of the same media outlets, and while some outlets later removed the map, the BBC reported that a number of news sites had yet to retract the map.
On 24 January, a video circulated online appearing to be of a nurse named Jin Hui in Hubei, describing a far more dire situation in Wuhan than reported by Chinese officials. The video claimed that more than 90,000 people had been infected with the virus in China, that the virus could spread from one person to 14 people (R0=14) and that the virus was starting a second mutation. The video attracted millions of views on various social media platforms and was mentioned in numerous online reports. However, the BBC noted that, contrary to its English subtitles in one of the video's existing versions, the woman does not claim to be either a nurse or a doctor in the video and that her suit and mask do not match the ones worn by medical staff in Hubei. The claimed R0 of 14 in the video was noted by the BBC to be inconsistent with the expert estimation of 1.4 to 2.5 at that time. The video's claim of 90,000 infected cases is noted to be 'unsubstantiated'.
Decline in cellphone subscriptions
There was a decrease of nearly 21 million cellphone subscriptions among the three largest cellphone carriers in China, which led to misinformation that this is evidence for millions of deaths due to the coronavirus in China. The drop is attributed to cancellations of phone services due to a downturn in the social and economic life during the outbreak.
The term "casedemic" has been used by skeptics criticizing continued emphasis on COVID-19 restrictions and media coverage, despite increases in the total number of cases. These arguments often argue that the overall risk of COVID-19 has lessened due to more cases being among populations at a relatively lower risk, that increasing testing and/or alleged false positives on PCR tests had led to the increases, and that the increased cases did not necessarily correspond with an immediate increase in hospitalizations or deaths. In reality, there is often a lag time between cases and associated escalations such as hospitalization or death.
California herd immunity in 2019
On 31 March 2020, Victor Davis Hanson publicized a theory that COVID-19 may have been in California in the fall of 2019 resulting in a level of herd immunity to at least partially explain differences in infection rates in cities such as New York City vs Los Angeles. Dr. Jeff Smith of Santa Clara County stated that evidence indicated the virus may have been in California since December 2019. Early genetic and antibody analyses refute the idea that the virus was in the United States prior to January 2020.
In March, conspiracy theorists started the false rumor that Maatje Benassi, a U.S. army reservist, was "Patient Zero" of the pandemic, the first person to be infected with coronavirus. Benassi was targeted because of her participation in the 2019 Military World Games before the pandemic started, even though she never actually tested positive for the virus. Conspiracy theorists even connected her family to the DJ Benny Benassi as a Benassi virus plot, even though Ben has no relation to Maatje and also never had the virus.
Resistance/susceptibility based on ethnicity
There have been claims that specific ethnicities are more or less vulnerable to COVID-19. COVID-19 is a new zoonotic disease, so no population has yet had the time to develop population immunity.[medical citation needed]
Beginning on 11 February, reports, quickly spread via Facebook, implied that a Cameroonian student in China had been completely cured of the virus due to his African genetics. While a student was successfully treated, other media sources have noted that no evidence implies Africans are more resistant to the virus and labeled such claims as false information. Kenyan Secretary of Health Mutahi Kagwe explicitly refuted rumors that "those with black skin cannot get coronavirus", while announcing Kenya's first case on 13 March. This myth was cited as a contributing factor in the disproportionately high rates of infection and death observed among African Americans.
There have been claims of "Indian immunity": that the people of India have more immunity to the COVID-19 virus due to living conditions in India. This idea was deemed "absolute drivel" by Anand Krishnan, professor at the Centre for Community Medicine of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). He said there was no population immunity to the COVID-19 virus yet, as it is new, and it is not even clear whether people who have recovered from COVID-19 will have lasting immunity, as this happens with some viruses but not with others.
A group of Jordanian researchers published a report claiming that Arabs are less vulnerable to COVID-19 due to a genetic variation specific to those of Middle East heritage.
Xenophobic blaming by ethnicity and religion
COVID-19-related xenophobic attacks have been made against individuals with the attacker blaming the victim for COVID-19 on the basis of his or her ethnicity. People who are considered to look Chinese have been subjected to COVID-19-related verbal and physical attacks in many other countries, often by people accusing them of transmitting the virus. Within China, there has been discrimination (such as evictions and refusal of service in shops) against people from anywhere closer to Wuhan (where the pandemic started) and against anyone perceived as being non-Chinese (especially those considered African), as the Chinese government has blamed continuing cases on re-introductions of the virus from abroad (90% of reintroduced cases were by Chinese passport-holders). Neighbouring countries have also discriminated against people seen as Westerners.
People have also simply blamed other local groups along the lines of pre-existing social tensions and divisions, sometimes citing reporting of COVID-19 cases within that group. For instance, Muslims have been widely blamed, shunned, and discriminated against in India (including some violent attacks), amid unfounded claims that Muslims are deliberately spreading COVID-19, and a Muslim event at which the disease did spread has received far more public attention than many similar events run by other groups and the government. White supremacist groups have blamed COVID-19 on non-whites and advocated deliberately infecting minorities they dislike, such as Jews.
Bat soup consumption
Some media outlets, including Daily Mail and RT, as well as individuals, disseminated a video showing a Chinese woman eating a bat, falsely suggesting it was filmed in Wuhan and connecting it to the outbreak. However, the widely circulated video contains unrelated footage of a Chinese travel vlogger, Wang Mengyun, eating bat soup in the island country of Palau in 2016. Wang posted an apology on Weibo, in which she said she had been abused and threatened, and that she had only wanted to showcase Palauan cuisine. The spread of misinformation about bat consumption has been characterized by xenophobic and racist sentiment toward Asians. In contrast, scientists suggest the virus originated in bats and migrated into an intermediary host animal before infecting people.
South Korean "conservative populist" Jun Kwang-hun told his followers there was no risk to mass public gatherings as the virus was impossible to contract outdoors. Many of his followers are elderly.
Lifetime of the virus
Misinformation has spread that the lifetime of SARS-CoV-2 is only 12 hours and that staying home for 14 hours during the Janata curfew would break the chain of transmission. Another message claimed that observing the Janata curfew would result in the reduction of COVID-19 cases by 40%.
A fake Costco product recall notice circulated on social media purporting that Kirkland-brand bath tissue had been contaminated with COVID-19 (meaning SARS-CoV-2) due to the item being made in China. No evidence supports that SARS-CoV-2 can survive on surfaces for prolonged periods of time (as might happen during shipping), and Costco has not issued such a recall.
There were claims that wearing shoes at one's home was the reason behind the spread of the coronavirus in Italy.
Cruise ships' safety from infection
In March 2020, the Miami New Times reported that managers at Norwegian Cruise Line had prepared a set of responses intended to convince wary customers to book cruises, including "blatantly false" claims that the coronavirus "can only survive in cold temperatures, so the Caribbean is a fantastic choice for your next cruise", that "[s]cientists and medical professionals have confirmed that the warm weather of the spring will be the end of the [c]oronavirus", and that the virus "cannot live in the amazingly warm and tropical temperatures that your cruise will be sailing to".
Flu is seasonal (becoming less frequent in the summer) in some countries, but not in others. While it is possible that the COVID-19 coronavirus will also show some seasonality, it is not yet known.[medical citation needed] The COVID-19 coronavirus spread along international air travel routes, including to tropical locations. Outbreaks on cruise ships, where an older population lives in close quarters, frequently touching surfaces which others have touched, were common.
It seems that COVID-19 can be transmitted in all climates. It has seriously affected many warm-climate countries. For instance, Dubai, with a year-round average daily high of 28.0 Celsius (82.3 °F) and the airport said to have the world's most international traffic, has had thousands of cases.
Efficacy of hand sanitizer, "antibacterial" soaps
Claims that hand sanitizer is merely "antibacterial not antiviral", and therefore ineffective against COVID-19, have spread widely on Twitter and other social networks. While the effectiveness of sanitiser depends on the specific ingredients, most hand sanitiser sold commercially inactivates SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Hand sanitizer is recommended against COVID-19, though unlike soap, it is not effective against all types of germs. Washing in soap and water for at least 20 seconds is recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as the best way to clean hands in most situations. However, if soap and water are not available, a hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol can be used instead, unless hands are visibly dirty or greasy. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration both recommend plain soap; there is no evidence that "antibacterial soaps" are any better, and limited evidence that they might be worse long-term.
Public use of face masks
Although authorities, especially in Asia, recommended wearing face masks in public, in other parts of the world conflicting advice caused confusion among the general population. Several governments and institutions, such as in the United States, initially dismissed the use of face masks by the general population, often with misleading or incomplete information about their effectiveness. Commentators have attributed the anti-mask messaging to efforts to manage the mask shortages, as governments did not act quickly enough, remarking that the claims go beyond the science or were simply lies.
In February 2020, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted "Seriously people—STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus", but he later reversed his position with evidence mounting that masks can limit the spread of coronavirus. On 12 June 2020, Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, confirmed that the American public were told not to wear masks from the beginning due to the shortage of masks and explained that masks do actually work.
Some media outlets claimed that neck gaiters were worse than not wearing masks at all in the COVID-19 pandemic, misinterpreting a study which was intended to demonstrate a method for evaluating masks (and not actually to determine the effectiveness of different types of masks). The study also only looked at one wearer wearing the one neck gaiter made from a polyester/spandex blend, which is not sufficient evidence to support the claim about gaiters made in the media. The study found that the neck gaiter, which was made from a thin and stretchy material, appeared to be ineffective at limiting airborne droplets expelled from the wearer; Isaac Henrion, one of the co-authors, suggests that the result was likely due to the material rather than the style, stating that "Any mask made from that fabric would probably have the same result, no matter the design." Warren S. Warren, a co-author, said that they tried to be careful with their language in interviews, but added that the press coverage has "careened out of control" for a study testing a measuring technique.
There are false claims spread that the usage of masks causes adverse health-related issues such as low blood oxygen levels, high blood carbon dioxide levels, and a weakened immune system. Some also falsely claimed that masks cause antibiotic-resistant pneumonia by preventing pathogenic organisms to be exhaled away from the body.
Anti-maskers have called upon bogus claims about legal or medical exemptions in their refusal to mask. They have, for instance, claimed that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA; designed to prohibit discrimination based on disabilities) allows exemption from mask requirements, but the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) responded by stating that the act "does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations." The DOJ has issued a warning about cards (some featuring DOJ logos and notices about ADA) that "exempt" its holder from wearing a mask, stating that they are fraudulent and were not issued by a government agency.
On 31 July 2020, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte said those who didn't have cleaning supplies could use gasoline as a disinfectant to clean their masks. He further stated that "For people who don't [have Lysol], drench it in gasoline or diesel... just find some gasoline [and] dip your hand [with the mask] in it." His spokesman Harry Roque later corrected him.
Alcohol (ethanol and poisonous methanol)
Contrary to some reports, drinking alcohol does not protect against COVID-19, and can increase health risks (short term and long term). Drinking alcohol is ethanol; other alcohols, such as methanol, which causes methanol poisoning, are acutely poisonous, and may be present in badly prepared alcoholic beverages.
Iran has reported incidents of methanol poisoning, caused by the false belief that drinking alcohol would cure or protect against coronavirus; alcohol is banned in Iran, and bootleg alcohol may contain methanol. According to Iranian media in March 2020, nearly 300 people have died and more than a thousand have become ill due to methanol poisoning, while Associated Press gave figures of around 480 deaths with 2,850 others affected. The number of deaths due to methanol poisoning in Iran reached over 700 by April. Iranian social media had circulated a story from British tabloids that a British man and others had been cured of coronavirus with whiskey and honey, which combined with the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers as disinfectants, led to the false belief that drinking high-proof alcohol can kill the virus.
In Kenya, the Governor of Nairobi Mike Sonko has come under scrutiny for including small bottles of the cognac Hennessy in care packages, falsely claiming that alcohol serves as "throat sanitizer" and that, from research, it is believed that "alcohol plays a major role in killing the coronavirus."
Claims that vegetarians are immune to coronavirus spread online in India, causing "#NoMeat_NoCoronaVirus" to trend on Twitter.[better source needed] Eating meat does not have an effect on COVID-19 spread, except for people near where animals are slaughtered, said Anand Krishnan. Fisheries, Dairying and Animal Husbandry Minister Giriraj Singh said the rumour had significantly affected industry, with the price of a chicken falling to a third of pre-pandemic levels. He also described efforts to improve the hygiene of the meat supply chain.
A number of religious groups have claimed protection due to their faith, some refusing to stop large religious gatherings. In Israel, some Ultra-Orthodox Jews initially refused to close synagogues and religious seminaries and disregarded government restrictions because "The Torah protects and saves", which resulted in an eight-fold faster rate of infection among some groups. The Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat organised Ijtema mass gatherings in Malaysia, India, and Pakistan whose participants believed that God will protect them, causing the biggest rise in COVID-19 cases in these and other countries. In Iran, the head of Fatima Masumeh Shrine encouraged pilgrims to visit the shrine despite calls to close the shrine, saying that they "consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing." In South Korea the River of Grace Community Church in Gyeonggi Province spread the virus after spraying salt water into their members' mouths in the belief that it would kill the virus, while the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu where a church leader claimed that no Shincheonji worshipers had caught the virus in February while hundreds died in Wuhan, later caused in the biggest spread of the virus in the country.
In Tanzania, President John Magufuli, instead of banning congregations, urged the faithfuls to go to pray in churches and mosques in the belief that it will protect them. He said that the coronavirus is a devil, therefore "cannot survive in the body of Jesus Christ, it will burn" (the "body of Jesus Christ" refers to the church).
Despite the coronavirus outbreak, on 9 March, the Church of Greece announced that Holy Communion, in which churchgoers eat pieces of bread soaked in wine from the same chalice, would continue as a practice. The Holy Synod said Holy Communion "cannot be the cause of the spread of illness", with Metropolitan Seraphim saying the wine was without blemish because it represented the blood and body of Christ, and that "whoever attends Holy Communion is approaching God, who has the power to heal." The Church refused to restrict Christians from taking Holy Communion, which was supported by several clerics, some politicians, and health professionals. The Greek Association of Hospital Doctors criticized these professionals for putting their religious beliefs before science.
Cocaine does not protect against COVID-19. Several viral tweets purporting that snorting cocaine would sterilize one's nostrils of the coronavirus spread around Europe and Africa. In response, the French Ministry of Health released a public service announcement debunking this claim, saying "No, cocaine does NOT protect against COVID-19. It is an addictive drug that causes serious side effects and is harmful to people's health." The World Health Organization also debunked the claim.
In some Asian countries, it has been claimed that one should stay at home on particular days when helicopters spray "COVID–19 disinfectant" over homes. No such spraying has taken place, nor is it planned, nor, as of July 2020, is there any such agent to be sprayed.
The notion that the vibrations generated by clapping together during Janata curfew will kill the virus was debunked by the media. Amitabh Bachchan was heavily criticised for one of his tweets, which claimed vibrations from clapping, blowing conch shells as part of Sunday's Janata Curfew would have reduced or destroyed coronavirus potency as it was Amavasya, the darkest day of the month.
In India, fake news circulated that the World Health Organization warned against eating cabbage to prevent coronavirus infection. Claims that the poisonous fruit of the Datura plant is a preventive measure for COVID-19 resulted in eleven people being hospitalized in India. They ate the fruit, following the instructions from a TikTok video that propagated misinformation regarding the prevention of COVID-19.
Widely circulated posts on social media have made many unfounded claims of methods against coronavirus. Some of these claims are scams, and some promoted methods are dangerous and unhealthy.
Some conservative figures in the United States, such as Richard Epstein, downplayed the scale of the pandemic, saying it has been exaggerated as part of an effort to hurt President Trump. Some people pointed to empty hospital parking lots as evidence that the virus has been exaggerated. Despite the empty parking lots, many hospitals in New York City and other places experienced thousands of COVID-19-related hospitalizations.
Various national and party-held Chinese media heavily advertised an "overnight research" report by Wuhan Institute of Virology and Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Sciences, on how shuanghuanglian, an herb mixture from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), can effectively inhibit the novel coronavirus. The report led to a purchase craze of shuanghuanglian.
The president of Madagascar Andry Rajoelina launched and promoted in April 2020 a herbal drink based on an artemisia plant as a miracle cure that can treat and prevent COVID-19 despite a lack of medical evidence. The drink has been exported to other African countries.
Claims that Vitamin D pills could help prevent the coronavirus circulated on social media in Thailand. The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, while noting that "current advice is that the whole population of the UK should take vitamin D supplements to prevent vitamin D deficiency", found "no clinical evidence that vitamin D supplements are beneficial in preventing or treating COVID-19".Vitamin D deficiency, however, may raise the risk of a COVID-19 infection, as well as the severity of the infection.
Common cold and flu treatments
There were also claims that a 30-year-old Indian textbook lists aspirin, antihistamines, and nasal spray as treatments for COVID-19. The textbook actually talks about coronaviruses in general, as a family of viruses.
A rumor circulated on social media posts on Weibo, Facebook and Twitter claiming that Chinese experts said saline solutions could kill the coronavirus. There is no evidence that saline solutions have such an effect.
A tweet from French health minister Olivier Véran, a bulletin from the French health ministry, and a small speculative study in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine raised concerns about ibuprofen worsening COVID-19, which spread extensively on social media. The European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organization recommended COVID-19 patients keep taking ibuprofen as directed, citing lack of convincing evidence of any danger.
Animal-based products or foods
Indian political activist Swami Chakrapani and Member of the Legislative Assembly Suman Haripriya claimed that drinking cow urine and applying cow dung on the body can cure COVID-19. WHO's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan criticised politicians incautiously spreading such misinformation without an evidence base.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) prescriptions
Since its third version, the COVID management guidelines from the Chinese National Health Commission recommends using Traditional Chinese Medicines to treat the disease. In Wuhan, China Central Television reported that local authorities have pushed for a set of TCM prescriptions to be used for every case since early February. One formula was promoted at the national level by mid-February. The local field hospitals were explicitly TCM-oriented. According to state-owned media, as of 16 March 2020, 91.91% of all Hubei patients have used TCM, with the rate reaching 99% in field hospitals and 94% in bulk quarantine areas.
On 11 March, Adrian Bye, a tech startup leader who is not a doctor, suggested to cryptocurrency investors Gregory Rigano and James Todaro that “chloroquine will keep most people out of hospital." (Bye later admitted that he had reached this conclusion through "philosophy" rather than medical research.) Two days later, Rigano and Todaro promoted chloroquine in a self-published article that falsely claimed affiliation with three institutions. Google removed the article.
Some QAnon proponents, including Jordan Sather and others, have promoted gargling "Miracle Mineral Supplement" (actually chlorine dioxide, a chemical used in some industrial applications as a bleach that may cause life-threatening reactions and even death) as a way of preventing or curing the disease. The Food and Drug Administration has warned multiple times that drinking MMS is "dangerous" as it may cause "severe vomiting" and "acute liver failure".
In February 2020, televangelist Jim Bakker promoted a colloidal silver solution, sold on his website, as a remedy for coronavirus COVID-19; naturopath Sherrill Sellman, a guest on his show, falsely stated that it "hasn't been tested on this strain of the coronavirus, but it's been tested on other strains of the coronavirus and has been able to eliminate it within 12 hours." The US Food and Drug Administration and New York Attorney General's office both issued cease-and-desist orders against Bakker, and he was sued by the state of Missouri over the sales.
The New York Attorney General's office also issued a cease-and-desist order to radio host Alex Jones, who was selling silver-infused toothpaste that he falsely claimed could kill the virus and had been verified by federal officials, causing a Jones spokesman to deny the products had been sold for the purpose of treating any disease. The FDA would later threaten Jones with legal action and seizure of several silver-based products if he continued to promote their use against coronavirus.
Misinformation that the government is spreading an "anti-corona" drug in the country during Janata curfew, a stay-at-home curfew enforced in India, went viral on social media. The yoga guru Ramdev claimed that one can treat coronavirus by pouring mustard oil through the nose, causing the virus to flow into the stomach where it would be destroyed by gastric acid. He also claimed that if a person holds his breath for a minute, it means s/he is not suffering from any type of coronavirus, symptomatic or asymtomatic. Both these claims were found to be false.
Non-existent COVID-19 vaccine
Multiple social media posts have promoted a conspiracy theory claiming the virus was known and that a vaccine was already available. PolitiFact and FactCheck.org noted that no vaccine currently exists for COVID-19. The patents cited by various social media posts reference existing patents for genetic sequences and vaccines for other strains of coronavirus such as the SARS coronavirus. The WHO reported that as of 5 February 2020, despite news reports of "breakthrough drugs" being discovered, there were no treatments known to be effective; this included antibiotics and herbal remedies not being useful.
On Facebook, a widely shared post claimed that seven Senegalese children had died because they had received a COVID-19 vaccine. No such vaccine exists, although some are in clinical trials.
Another televangelist, Kenneth Copeland, claimed on Victory Channel during a programme called "Standing Against Coronavirus", that he can cure television viewers of COVID-19 directly from the TV studio. The viewers had to touch the television screen to receive the spiritual healing.
It has been wrongly claimed that anyone infected with COVID-19 will have the virus in their bodies for life. While there is no curative treatment, infected individuals can recover from the disease, eliminating the virus from their bodies; getting supportive medical care early can help.
Name of the disease
Social media posts and internet memes claimed that COVID-19 derives from "Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease 19", or similar, as supposedly the "19th virus to come out of China". In fact, the WHO named the disease as follows: CO stands for corona, VI for virus, D for disease and 19 for when the outbreak was first identified (31 December 2019).
Claims that The Simpsons had predicted the COVID-19 pandemic in 1993, accompanied by a doctored screenshot from the show (where the text "Corona Virus" was layered over the original text "Apocalypse Meow", without blocking it from view), were later found to be false; the claim was widely spread on social media.
United Kingdom £20 banknote
A tweet started an internet meme that Bank of England £20 banknotes contained a picture of a 5G mast and the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Facebook and YouTube removed items pushing this story, and fact checking organisations established that the picture is of Margate Lighthouse and the "virus" is the staircase at the Tate Britain.
Hospital ship attack
The hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) deployed to the Port of Los Angeles to provide backup hospital services for the region. On 31 March 2020, a Pacific Harbor Line freight train was deliberately derailed by its onboard engineer in an attempt to crash into the ship, but the attack was unsuccessful and no one was injured. According to federal prosecutors, the train's engineer "was suspicious of the Mercy, believing it had an alternate purpose related to COVID-19 or a government takeover".
Return of wildlife
A viral post that originated on Weibo and spread on Twitter claimed that a pack of elephants descended on a village under quarantine in China's Yunnan, got drunk on corn wine, and passed out in a tea garden. A Chinese news report debunked the claim that the elephants got drunk on corn wine and noted that wild elephants were a common sight in the village; the image attached to the post was originally taken at the Asian Elephant Research Center in Yunnan in December 2019.
Following reports of reduced pollution levels in Italy as a result of lockdowns, images purporting to show swans and dolphins swimming in Venice canals went viral on social media. The image of the swans was revealed to have been taken in Burano, where swans are common, while footage of the dolphins was filmed at a port in Sardinia hundreds of miles away. The Venice mayor's office clarified that the reported water clarity in the canals was due to the lack of sediment being kicked up by boat traffic, not a reduction in water pollution as initially reported.
Following the lockdown of India, a video clip purporting to show the extremely rare Malabar civet (a critically endangered, possibly extinct, species) walking the empty streets of Meppayur went viral on social media. Experts later identified the civet in the video as actually being the much commoner small Indian civet. Another viral Indian video clip showed a pod of humpback whales allegedly returning to the Arabian Sea offshore from Mumbai following the shutdown of shipping routes; however, this video was found to have actually been taken in 2019 in the Java Sea.
In a radio interview Fernández recommended drinking warm drinks since "heat kills the virus". Scientific studies proved that this information is false. Fernández, in response to criticism, later said: "It's a virus that, according to all medical reports in the world, dies at 26ºC. Argentina was in a climatic scenario where temperature was around 30ºC so it would be hard for the virus to survive." He later added: "The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends us to drink warm drinks since heat kills the virus"; however, the WHO did not recommend that at all.
On 23 January 2020, García claimed that "there is no chance that COVID-19 will exist in the country". This ended up being untrue, as the virus ended up reaching Argentina and lockdown was imposed in March. González later apologized, saying: "I didn't think it would reach our country so fast, it surprised us".
Fernández, González and other government officials have inaccurately predicted that the peak of cases would occur in April, later May, then June, July, August, September and finally October.
On June, in a press conference, Buenos Aires Province governor Axel Kicillof falsely stated that Spain was in an extremely strict lockdown at that time. A few hours later, the Spanish embassy in Argentina denied it.
Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro openly attempted to force state and municipal governments to revoke social isolation measures they had begun by launching an anti lockdown campaign called "o Brasil não pode parar" (Brazil can't stop). It received massive backlash both from the media and from the public, and was blocked by the supreme court justice.
However, the WHO had never advocated lockdowns as a means for controlling coronavirus. Dr. David Nabarro from the WHO appealed to world leaders, telling them to stop “using lockdowns as your primary control method” of the coronavirus. “We in the World Health Organisation do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus,” he said. “Lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer.”
Mishandling of crisis
In the early stages of the outbreak, the Chinese National Health Commission said it had no "clear evidence" of human-to-human transmissions. On 20 January 2020, it announced that human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus had already occurred. Research published on 29 January 2020 indicated that, among officially confirmed cases, human-to-human transmission may have started in December 2019, and the delay of disclosure on the results until then, rather than earlier in January, brought criticism of health authorities. Wang Guangfa, one of the health officials, said that "There was uncertainty regarding the human-to-human transmission"; he was infected by a patient within 10 days of making the statement.
On 26 January 2020, the editor of the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, tweeted a claim that the first building of the Huoshenshan Hospital had been completed in only 16 hours. The Daily Beast reported the next day that the building shown in the picture accompanying the tweet was actually a marketing photo of a modular container building sold by the Henan K-Home Steel Structure Company, and not of the actual hospital. A Human Rights Watch researcher claimed that the post was part of the Chinese government's misinformation campaign to hype the government's response. The tweet was later removed and replaced with a video of the modular container buildings being assembled at Huoshenshan Hospital, again stating that the first building had been completed in only 16 hours.
On 15 February 2020, China's paramount leader and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping published an article which claimed he had learned of the epidemic on 7 January 2020 and had the same day issued a request for information on activities to contain the spread of the disease. However, the original public announcement of that 7 January 2020 meeting did not mention the epidemic, and Xi's claim was unsupported by the evidence.
Origin of virus
CNN, Quartz, The Washington Post, Financial Times, and others have reported that Chinese government officials, in response to the outbreak, launched a coordinated disinformation campaign seeking to spread doubt about the origin of the coronavirus and its outbreak. A review of Chinese state media and social media posts in early March 2020, conducted by The Washington Post, found that anti-American conspiracy theories circulating among Chinese users "gained steam through a mix of unexplained official statements magnified by social media, censorship and doubts stoked by state media and government officials". United States Department of State officials, as well as sinologist Dali Yang, have said the campaign was intended to deflect attention away from the Chinese government's mishandling of the crisis.
At a press conference on 12 March 2020, two spokesmen for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Zhao Lijian and Geng Shuang) promoted the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus had been "bio-engineered" by Western powers and suggested that the US government, specifically the US Army, had spread the virus. No evidence supports these claims. Zhao also pushed these conspiracy theories on Twitter, which is blocked in mainland China but is used as a public diplomacy tool by Chinese officials to promote the Chinese government and defend it from criticism. China's ambassador to South Africa also made these claims on Twitter. Some Chinese state media had propagated the speculation that the virus may have spread in Italy before the Wuhan outbreak, after Italian doctor Giuseppe Remuzzi mentioned reports of strange pneumonia cases in November and December. He later said his words were "twisted".
An "intentional disinformation campaign" by China was discussed among the Group of Seven (G7), and the Chinese efforts were condemned by the US Department of State, which criticized Chinese authorities for spreading "dangerous and ridiculous" conspiracy claims. The US summoned China's ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, to issue a "stern message" over the Chinese government's claims; Cui had disavowed the US military conspiracy theory as "crazy" in a February interview and affirmed his belief in another one in mid-March.
The Observer reported in April 2020 that China has clamped down on the publication of research on the origin of the virus, requiring that all academic papers containing information on COVID-19 be vetted by China's ministry of science and technology before they can be published. CNN, for example, published a report about the imposition of new restrictions and central government vetting, quoting an anonymous Chinese researcher's belief that the crackdown "is a coordinated effort from [the] Chinese government to control [the] narrative, and paint it as if the outbreak did not originate in China."
In May 2020, Twitter placed fact-check labels on two of the Chinese government tweets which had falsely suggested that the virus originated in the US and was brought to China by the Americans. In February 2020, the People's Daily published an article stating that the virus "did not necessarily originate in China." In May 2020, the same newspaper stated that the virus had "multiple origins." In November 2020, the People's Daily published the false claim that COVID-19 was "imported" into China.
In July 2020, misinformation about a deadlier virus appearing alongside COVID-19 in Kazakhstan was traced to the Economic and Commercial Office of the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan. The misinformation was picked up by Xinhua and from there spread to other Chinese outlets and internationally.
Cuban president Miguel Díaz Canel claimed on Twitter that Cuban Interferon alfa-2b was being used to treat and cure COVID-19 in China, linking to an article written by state-owned newspaper Granma.[q] The Chinese embassy in Cuba also made similar claims. Several Latin American news outlets relayed the story, which was also relayed on social media, and the claims were eventually translated to Portuguese and French. In reality, the interferon was made by a Chinese company, in China, using Cuban technology, and it was under clinical trials in China as a potential cure, but it was not actively being used as such, as the claims suggested.
Twitter suspended thousands of accounts linked to El Fagr, an Egypt-based media group "taking direction from the Egyptian government" to "amplify messaging critical of Iran, Qatar and Turkey."
On 27 February 2020, the Estonian Minister of the Interior Mart Helme said at a government press conference that the common cold had been renamed as the coronavirus and that in his youth nothing like that existed. He recommended wearing warm socks and mustard patches as well as spreading goose fat on one's chest as treatments for the virus. Helme also said the virus would pass within a few days to a week, just like the common cold.
In mid-April, the Chinese embassy published an article entitled "Restoring distorted facts – Observations of a Chinese diplomat posted to Paris", in which it criticised western countries' slow response and accused workers at nursing homes in France of "abandoning their posts overnight ... and leaving their residents to die of hunger and disease". Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summoned the Chinese ambassador, and said that the remarks were not in line with the "quality of the bilateral relationship" between France and China.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the US created "a special version" of the virus that is "specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means".
In late March 2020 Mexico's federal government was strongly criticised for responding slowly to the COVID-19 pandemic. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has continued to hold rallies, be tactile with crowds, and downplay the threat of the pandemic to Mexicans' health and to the Mexican economy.
The European Union watchdog group EUvsDisinfo reported that Russia was pushing what they believe was false information related to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic through "pro-Kremlin outlets". On 18 March, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the findings. Mark Galeotti, a RUSI Senior Associate Fellow, questioned these claims and wrote that "it seems strange that the Kremlin itself would launch and push a disinformation campaign at the very time it is clearly launching a soft-power charm offensive on the back of the pandemic."
As the number of infections rose throughout Europe, on 26 February 2020 president Aleksandar Vučić called a press conference where he addressed the possibility of the virus impacting Serbia. This news conference made headlines after a pulmonologist, Dr. Branimir Nestorović, made joking statements about the virus, calling it "the most laughable virus in the history of mankind" and suggested that women should travel to then virus-affected Italy for shopping because "estrogen protects them". The president, who was visible in the background expressing amusement and chuckling at this during the TV broadcast, later denied any accusations of portraying the virus as such by Dr. Nestorović.
In April 2020, a decree that limited access to public information about COVID-19 was announced and a journalist was arrested for writing an article on alleged shortages of medical equipment and neglect of medical staff, but after public outcry and reactions from the EU, RSF, and IPI, charges were dropped and the journalist released. The declared goal of the decree was to limit the spread of fake news about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 in Serbia. On 21 April 2020, Dr. Predrag Kon, a guest on the Ćirilica TV show on Happy TV, confirmed the lack of medical supplies.
On 22 June, the BIRN (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network) released an official document from the government's COVID-19 database stating that from 19 March to 1 June, there were 632 COVID-19-related deaths, compared to 244–388 more than officially reported. The database also showed there to have been more new daily cases, between 300 and 340 compared to the official 97. Throughout the pandemic, many government critics and opposition leaders have accused the government of purposely downscaling the numbers so the vote turnout would surpass the 50% percent for the parliamentary elections. The report's release inspired Marinika Tepić, a Serbian MP and a member of the Party of Freedom and Justice, to file a lawsuit against the members of the Crisis Staff, Serbian PM Ana Brnabić and Minister of Health Zlatibor Lončar, for allowing mass gatherings to be held, football matches to be held with crowds, and ignoring risks to public health to give the impression that the pandemic was over and that it was safe to vote.
During an interview on RTS 1, Vučić showed pictures of hospital beds, oxygen canisters and ventilators, accusing political opponents of spreading fake news to the effect that hospitals in Novi Pazar and Tutin did not have the medical equipment they needed. On 5 July, a syndicate of pharmacists and doctors accused the president of spreading untrue statements regarding the equipment and of taking credit for combating the pandemic, denying facts from Raška oblast, and presenting a false impression of the state of the Serbian healthcare system. They state that the photographs were taken on 6 April when Vučić personally had the ventilators delivered to the region. None of those photographs show ventilators in use, or the 10 ventilators claimed.
On 7 July, epidemiologist Zoran Radovanović stated that on 2 July alone there had been 52 COVID-19 deaths, conflicting with the official numbers presented to the public by the government. The following day, he repeated his claims that there were more infected people than officially reported.
Officials from Sweden misrepresented data from a 7 July 2020 report comparing Sweden to Finland to claim that the "closing of schools had no measurable effect on the number of cases of COVID-19 among children," neglecting that testing among Swedish children is almost non-existent when compared to Finnish children. However, the Public Health Agency and the Minister of Education still cited this report as justification for not closing schools.
In April 2020, scientists and physicians criticized the Swedish government for the 105 deaths per day in the country at the time, but the Public Health Agency and Anders Tegnell (the Public Health Agency epidemiologist in charge of the country's pandemic response) wrongly claimed that the actual number was 60 deaths per day in response. The revised government figures later showed that the critics were right.
Reporters Without Borders reported that the government of Turkmenistan had banned the word "coronavirus" and that people could be arrested for wearing masks or discussing the pandemic. The organization later corrected their report, clarifying that the word itself was not banned, but maintaining it had been removed from informational brochures and the government was restricting information about the virus and providing "very one-sided information". According to Chronicles of Turkmenistan, state media did not begin reporting on the measures that had been taken until 25 March. The BBC quoted an anonymous Turkmen citizen who said citizens may get into trouble for suggesting that COVID-19 had spread to Turkmenistan. The BBC article also states that the Turkmen government is working to control a possible outbreak.
United Arab Emirates
The Mail on Sunday newspaper played a key role in disseminating the theory that the virus was developed by a Chinese lab in January 2020. The newspaper said in April that the theory was being taken seriously by the UK government, and reported that a member of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's emergency committee of senior officials, Cobra, said: "There is a credible alternative view [to the zoonotic theory] based on the nature of the virus. Perhaps it is no coincidence that there is that laboratory in Wuhan. It is not discounted."
According to The Washington Post, Republican government members were largely influenced by series of articles by Richard A. Epstein of the Hoover Institution, who consistently played down the scale of the epidemics, ridiculed the "panic" being spread by "progressives", made a number of incorrect statements about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, misapplied and misconstrued Darwinian evolutionary theory in regards to the pandemics, and predicted "about 500 deaths at the end" of the epidemics. Representative Louie Gohmert from Texas hinted in July that he caught coronavirus because he wore a mask more often in the days leading up to his infection.
Several members of the US Senate—particularly Richard Burr (R-NC) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA)—have come under scrutiny for sales of large amounts of stocks before the financial markets crashed due to the outbreak, sparking accusations that they had insider knowledge from closed-door briefings, while many of them publicly downplayed the risks posed by the health crisis to the US public. An audio recording from 27 February revealed that Burr (Senate Intelligence Committee chairman) gave dire warnings to a small group of well-connected constituents in private, contrasted in severity to his public statements and not known to the public, that the virus is "much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history", advising against travel to Europe (13 days before official warnings, 15 days before the ban), saying schools will be likely be closed (16 days before the closure), and suggesting the military might be mobilized (learned three weeks later from the recording).
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in May 2020 falsely claimed that "clearly the Obama administration did not leave to [the Trump] administration any kind of game plan for" pandemics. Lara Trump, the president's daughter-in-law, stated that McConnell was "exactly right". However, the Obama administration had in actuality left a pandemic response playbook of 69 pages. That document explicitly cited novel coronaviruses as needing a major governmental response. Additionally, in January 2017, the Obama administration had gone through an exercise in pandemic response with incoming Trump administration members.
Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, was widely criticized for providing poor and misleading information to the public. On 10 March, he said he would keep schools open and if an infected student was found to be in class it would take only a day to clean and re-open the school. de Blasio also said, "If you're under 50 and you're healthy, which is most New Yorkers, there's very little threat here." During a photo op at a public 3-1-1 call center, he told a caller there was no need to self-quarantine, despite the fact she had just returned from Italy. His instructions to the caller were subsequently reversed by city officials.
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in April 2020, refused to rule out the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 escaped from Wuhan Institute of Virology during experiments and China covered it.
United States President Donald Trump and his top economic adviser Larry Kudlow have been accused of spreading misinformation about the coronavirus. On 25 February, Trump said, "I think that whole situation will start working out. We're very close to a vaccine." At the time, SARS-CoV-2 had been spreading in the United States undetected for weeks, and new vaccine development may require a minimum of a year to prove safety and efficacy to gain regulatory approval. In an interview with Sean Hannity on 4 March, Trump also claimed that the death rate published by the WHO was false, that the correct fatality rate was less than 1 percent, and said, "Well, I think the 3.4 percent is really a false number — and this is just my hunch — but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this and it's very mild, they'll get better very rapidly. They don't even see a doctor. They don't even call a doctor. You never hear about those people", that the potential impact of the outbreak was exaggerated by Democrats plotting against him, and that it was safe for infected individuals to go to work. In a later tweet, Trump denied having made claims regarding infected individuals going to work, contrary to footage from the interview.
The White House accused media of intentionally stoking fears of the virus to destabilize the administration. The Stat News reported that "President Trump and members of his administration have also said that US containment of the virus is 'close to airtight' and that the virus is only as deadly as the seasonal flu. Their statements range from false to unproven, and in some cases, underestimate the challenges that public health officials must contend with in responding to the virus." Around the same time the "airtight" claim was made, SARS-CoV-2 was already past containment; the first case of community spread of the virus had been confirmed, and it was spreading faster than severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, with a case fatality rate at least seven times the rate for seasonal flu.
Trump repeatedly compared COVID-19 to influenza, despite the fact that COVID-19's mortality rate is estimated to be approximately ten times higher. On 26 February, he stated: "This is a flu. This is like a flu". On 9 March, Trump compared the 546 known US cases of COVID-19 at the time and the 22 known deaths at the time to the tens of thousands of US deaths from flu each year. On 24 March, Trump argued that: "We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu ... But we've never closed down the country for the flu." On 27 March, he stated: "You can call it a flu". On 31 March, Trump changed his stance: "It's not the flu ... It's vicious ... I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible, and I knew it could be maybe good."
On 2 March, Trump told the media he had heard that a COVID-19 vaccine would be available in "a matter of months", with "a year [being] an outside number", after Trump attended a discussion where his senior health official Anthony Fauci told him this process would take "a year to a year and a half" (at a minimum, Fauci later said). During that discussion, Trump repeatedly quizzed the leaders of pharmaceutical companies on the time needed to produce vaccines, stating "I like the sound of a couple of months better". The length of time is due in part to regulations and safeguards intended to guarantee efficacy and safety.
On 4 March, Trump blamed the Barack Obama administration for making "a decision" that delayed COVID-19 testing by the Trump administration. The policy in question had never been modified by the Obama administration, despite plans to do so. The policy's overall legal roots date to 2004, before the Obama administration. Under the umbrella of Emergency Use Authorizations, the old policy stated that laboratory-developed tests "should not be used for clinical diagnoses without FDA's approval, clearance, or authorization during an emergency declaration". However, this policy was historically treated as a recommendation and generally unenforced, with no clear legal authority of the FDA in this area. The Trump administration continued to require laboratories to apply to the FDA for approval, but allowed the laboratories to test while the FDA processed the applications.
On 6 March, Trump over-promised on the availability of COVID-19 testing in the United States, claiming that "anybody that wants a test can get a test." Firstly, there were criteria needed to qualify for a test; recommendations were needed from doctors or health officials to approve testing. Secondly, the lack of test supplies resulted in some being denied tests even though doctors wanted to test them.
On 19 March, Trump falsely claimed the drug chloroquine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for COVID-19. This led the FDA to say it had not approved any drugs or therapies for COVID-19, and strongly advised people against taking it outside of a hospital or clinical trial, due to possibly fatal side effects. While Trump claimed that "we're going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately", the leader of the FDA said the drug would still need to be tested in a "large, pragmatic clinical trial" on subjects infected with COVID-19. While Trump promoted chloroquine as a potential "game changer", Fauci said positive results thus far were still based on anecdotal evidence and not "definitive" evidence from clinical trials. At a later press briefing, Trump prevented Fauci from answering a question about the medical evidence of the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine. Trump also remarked that re-purposing existing drugs for COVID-19 is "safe" and "not killing people" (chloroquine is a form of treatment for malaria, while its derivative hydroxychloroquine is a form of treatment for lupus or arthritis), however most drugs may cause side effects. Potentially serious side effects from chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine include irregular heartbeats, tinnitus, blurred vision, muscle weakness or "mental changes". Overdoses of these drugs have been documented in scientific literature, including fatal overdoses. Demand for chloroquine in Lagos, Nigeria sharply increased after Trump's comments, with three people overdosing by 23 March. An Arizona engineer in his 60s died after ingesting a fish tank cleaner containing chloroquine phosphate in a vitamin cocktail prepared by his wife. The wife stated she intended to medicate her husband against the coronavirus after hearing Trump tout the potential benefits of chloroquine during a public briefing.
On 21 March, Trump addressed a shortage of ventilator supply in the United States, claiming that carmaker companies General Motors (GM) and Ford "are making them right now" when the companies were not producing ventilators at the time, and had yet to change their factories' production abilities.
On 30 March, Trump claimed his administration "inherited a broken test" for COVID-19. "That wasn't from us. That's been there a long time," he said. The claim was illogical because no previous administration could have prepared a test for a disease which had yet to emerge. COVID-19 emerged during Trump's presidency, having first been reported on 31 December 2019. The test was designed in 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control under the Trump administration. Trump continued to make the false claim on 19 April.
From 2 to 9 April, the White House was in a standoff with CNN, which frequently declined to air the daily coronavirus Task Force briefings, and which fact-checked Trump's remarks. The White House said that if CNN did not begin airing the part of the briefing that featured the Task Force members, including Mike Pence, then the White House would disallow national health experts (including Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx) from appearing on CNN. Pence relented and allowed Robert R. Redfield to appear on CNN.
During a 15 April White House news conference, President Trump said the US government is trying to determine if the COVID-19 virus emanated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The vice director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology called the accusations a "conspiracy theory".
On 23 April, after a Homeland Security official stated that certain disinfectants can kill the coronavirus on surfaces, Trump openly wondered if disinfectants could be used on humans "by injection", saying "it'd be interesting to check" if that was a potential treatment. Injecting disinfectants into the body is dangerous and potentially lethal. Trump also suggested another "interesting" method to be tested: "we hit the body with a tremendous—whether it's ultraviolet or just very powerful light ... supposing you brought the light inside of the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way." He asked coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx if heat or light can be used as a treatment, to which Birx stated she had not seen any treatments using heat or light. Trump attributed these ideas to him being "a person that has a good you-know-what".
The next day, the White House accused the media of taking Trump's words "out of context", while Trump defended himself by claiming he had spoken in a "very sarcastic" manner and that he had addressed his comment "to reporters ... just to see what would happen", this despite the video showing he had addressed not reporters but rather Deborah Birx directly, and had also been looking at Bill Bryan, head of the DHS science and technology division. In his defense, Trump also tried revising his comment to say disinfectant "would kill [the virus] on the hands, and that would make things much better." Disinfectants are useful for destroying microorganisms on inert surfaces, not on living tissue, and applying disinfectants on skin has the potential to cause irritation or chemical burns. After the president's remarks, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the makers of Lysol, the World Health Organization, and other government officials issued various advisories pointing out that it is already known to be harmful to use disinfectants or ultraviolet radiation on human bodies instead of inanimate surfaces, and Birx explained that these were not under investigation as possible treatments.
After Trump's comments, "hundreds of calls" were made to the Maryland health department emergency hotline "asking if it was right to ingest Clorox or alcohol cleaning products—whether that was going to help them fight the virus", stated the Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan. He called for the White House to communicate "very clearly on the facts", because people "certainly pay attention when the president of the United States is standing there giving a press conference". Other increases in calls to poison control centers were reported in the city of New York, and the states of Michigan, Tennessee, and Illinois. The state of Illinois also reported incidents where people have used detergents for sinus rinses, and gargling with a mixture of bleach and mouthwash. Officials of the state of Kansas said on 27 April that a man drank disinfectant "because of the advice he'd received", but did not clarify the source of the advice. When Trump was asked by a reporter about "a spike in people using disinfectant after your comments last week", Trump interrupted the question, stating: "I can't imagine why." The reporter continued by asking: "Do you take any responsibility?" Trump replied: "No, I don't."
On 4 July 2020, Trump falsely stated that "99 percent" of COVID-19 cases are "totally harmless". In the same speech, Trump contradicted several public health experts by saying that the U.S. will "likely have a therapeutic and/or vaccine solution long before the end of the year". FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn declined to state whether Trump's "99 percent" statement was accurate or to say how many cases are harmless.
As the U.S. COVID-19 daily new case count increased from about 20,000 on 9 June to over 50,000 by 7 July, Trump repeatedly insisted that the case increase was a function of increased COVID-19 testing. Trump's claims were contradicted by the facts that states having increased case counts as well as those having decreased case counts had increased testing, that the positive test rate increased in all ten states with the largest case increases, and that case rate increases consistently exceeded testing rate increases in states with the most new cases.
In a recorded interview with Bob Woodward on 7 February 2020, President Trump underscored the deadliness of the coronavirus in his recount of a conversation with President Xi Jinping of China, but, in another recorded interview with Woodward on 19 March, Trump revealed that he wanted to downplay the viral outbreak in order to not create a panic. The revelation of the recordings led to criticism that Trump had deliberately downplayed the threat of the virus to the public, while he actually knew the severity of the virus.
As reported cases reached new record highs in October 2020, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy named “ending the Covid-19 pandemic” as a top accomplishment of the Trump administration.
Through social media, Maduro has supported the use of herbal infusions to cure COVID-19. On March, Twitter deleted a tweet by Maduro that quoted the works of Sergio Quintero, a Venezuelan doctor that claims having found a natural antidote against the sickness, as well as argued that the virus was created by the United States as a biological weapon. The Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC) rejected his publication, and both Agence France-Presse and other fact checking sites have described Quintero's publications as false and misleading.
Maduro's administration has authorized the use of chloroquine, a medication to treat malaria that can cause heart problems if not used properly, and interferon alfa-2b, an antiviral used on a small scale in China that has been promoted by Cuba's government, labeled sometimes even as a "vaccine". Chloroquine and interferon alfa-2b's efficacy against COVID-19 has not been demonstrated by international organizations.
On 24 March, Maduro accused Colombia of promoting the "intentional infection" of Venezuelan migrants that returned to their country, saying they were "biological weapon" and threatening them with quarantine. Local authorities have repeated the accusations since.
Efforts to combat misinformation
On 2 February 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) described a "massive infodemic", citing an over-abundance of reported information, which was false, about the virus that "makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it". The WHO stated that the high demand for timely and trustworthy information has incentivised the creation of a direct WHO 24/7 myth-busting hotline where its communication and social media teams have been monitoring and responding to misinformation through its website and social media pages. The WHO specifically debunked several claims as false, including the claim that a person can tell if they have the virus or not simply by holding their breath; the claim that drinking large amounts of water will protect against the virus; and the claim that gargling salt water prevents infection.
In early February 2020, Facebook, Twitter, and Google announced that they were working with WHO to address misinformation. In a blog post, Facebook stated that it would remove content flagged by global health organizations and local authorities that violate its content policy on misinformation leading to "physical harm". Facebook is also giving free advertising to WHO. Nonetheless, a week after Trump's speculation that sunlight could kill the virus, the New York Times found "780 Facebook groups, 290 Facebook pages, nine Instagram accounts and thousands of tweets pushing UV light therapies," content which those companies declined to remove from their platforms. On 11 August 2020, Facebook removed seven million posts with misinformation about COVID-19.
At the end of February 2020, Amazon removed more than a million products that claimed to cure or protect against coronavirus, and removed tens of thousands of listings for health products whose prices were "significantly higher than recent prices offered on or off Amazon", although numerous items were "still being sold at unusually high prices" as of 28 February.
Millions of instances of COVID-19 misinformation have occurred across a number of online platforms. Other fake news researchers noted certain rumors started in China; many of them later spread to Korea and the United States, prompting several universities in Korea to start the multilingual "Facts Before Rumors" campaign to evaluate common claims seen online.
The media have praised Wikipedia's coverage of COVID-19 and its combating the inclusion of misinformation through efforts led by the Wiki Project Med Foundation and the English-language Wikipedia's WikiProject Medicine, among other groups. WHO began working with Wikipedia to provide much of its infographics and reports on COVID-19 to help fight misinformation, with plans to use similar approaches for fighting misinformation about other infectious diseases in the future.
Newspapers and scholarly journals
A number of governments have made transmitting misinformation about the virus illegal. This may be the extent of the virus within a country, or the inadequacy of preparations for and measures taken against the virus.
The Turkish Interior Ministry has been arresting social media users whose posts were "targeting officials and spreading panic and fear by suggesting the virus had spread widely in Turkey and that officials had taken insufficient measures". Iran's military said 3600 people have been arrested for "spreading rumors" about coronavirus in the country. In Cambodia, some individuals who expressed concerns about the spread of COVID-19 have been arrested on fake news charges. Algerian lawmakers passed a law criminalising "fake news" deemed harmful to "public order and state security".
In the Philippines, China, India, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Montenegro, Serbia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, people have been arrested for allegedly spreading false information about the COVID-19 pandemic. The United Arab Emirates has introduced criminal penalties for the spread of misinformation and rumours related to the outbreak. Myanmar blocked access to 221 news websites, including several leading media outlets.
The UN WHO has warned of criminal scams involving perpetrators who misrepresent themselves as representatives of the WHO seeking personal information from victims via email or phone. Also, the Federal Communications Commission has advised consumers not to click on links in suspicious emails and not to give out personal information in emails, text messages or phone calls. The Federal Trade Commission has also warned on charity scams related to the pandemic, and has advised consumers not to donate in cash, gift cards, or wire transfers.
Cybersecurity firm Check Point stated there has been a large increase in phishing attacks to lure victims into unwittingly installing a computer virus under the guise of coronavirus-themed emails containing attachments. Cyber-criminals use deceptive domains such as "cdc-gov.org" instead of the correct "cdc.gov", or even spoof the original domain so it resembles specific websites. More than 4,000 coronavirus-related domains have been registered.
Police in New Jersey, United States reported incidents of criminals knocking on people's doors and claiming to be from the CDC. They then attempt to sell products at inflated prices or otherwise scam victims under the guise of educating and protecting the public from the coronavirus.
Since the passage of the CARES Act, criminals have taken advantage of the stimulus bill by asking people to pay in advance in order to receive their stimulus payment. Because of this, the IRS has advised consumers to only use the official IRS coronavirus web address to submit information to the IRS (and not in response to a text, email, or phone call). In response to these schemes, many financial companies, like Wells Fargo and LoanDepot, as well as health insurers, like Humana, for example, have posted similar advisories on their websites.
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- On 8 May 2020 the lab leak theory was reported by NBS News, citing a "private analysis of cellphone location data" that "purports to show" that WIV shut down from 7 October through 24 October 2019, which in turn was being used to support the claim that there may have been a "hazardous event" sometime between 6 and 11 October. NBC's reporters noted, however, that the private analysis "offers no direct evidence of a shutdown, or any proof for the theory that the virus emerged accidentally from the lab."
- On 14 February 2020, Chinese scientists explored the possibility of accidental leakage and published speculations on scientific social networking website ResearchGate. The paper was neither peer-reviewed nor presented any evidence for its claims. On 5 March, the author of paper told Wall Street Journal in an interview why he decided to withdraw the paper by the end of February, stating: "the speculation about the possible origins in the post was based on published papers and media, and was not supported by direct proofs." Several newspapers have referenced the paper. Scientific American reported that Shi Zhengli, the lead researcher at WIV, started investigation on mishandling of experimental materials in the lab records, especially during disposal. She also tried to cross-check the novel coronavirus genome with the genetic information of other bat coronaviruses her team had collected. The result showed none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves.
- Caixin reported Shi made further public statements against "perceived tin foil hat theories about the new virus's source", quoting her as saying: "The novel 2019 coronavirus is nature punishing the human race for keeping uncivilized living habits. I, Shi Zhengli, swear on my life that it has nothing to do with our laboratory". Immunologist Vincent Racaniello stated that virus leaking theories "reflect a lack of understanding of the genetic make-up of Sars-CoV-2 and its relationship to the bat virus". He says the bat virus researched in the institution "would not have been able to infect humans—the human Sars-CoV-2 has additional changes that allows it to infect humans."
- Amidst a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment, there have been conspiracy theories reported on India's social networks that the virus is "a bioweapon that went rogue" and also fake videos alleging that Chinese authorities are killing citizens to prevent its spread.
- According to the Kyiv Post, two common conspiracy theories online in Ukraine are that American author Dean Koontz predicted the pandemic in his 1981 novel The Eyes of Darkness, and that the coronavirus is a bioweapon leaked from a secret lab in Wuhan.
- In February, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee of the UK House of Commons, publicly questioned the role of the Chinese Army's Wuhan Institute for Biological Products and called for the "greater transparency over the origins of the coronavirus".[non-primary source needed] The Daily Mail reported in early April 2020 that a member of COBRA (an ad-hoc government committee tasked with advising on crises) has stated while government intelligence does not dispute that the virus has a zoonotic origin, it also does not discount the idea of a leak from a Wuhan laboratory, saying "Perhaps it is no coincidence that there is that laboratory in Wuhan"; the story was later reported by Asia Times.
- On 29 January, financial news website and blog ZeroHedge suggested without evidence that a scientist at the WIV created the COVID-19 strain responsible for the coronavirus outbreak. Zerohedge listed the full contact details of the scientist supposedly responsible, a practice known as doxing, by including the scientist's name, photo, and phone number, suggesting to readers that they "pay [the Chinese scientist] a visit" if they wanted to know "what really caused the coronavirus pandemic". Twitter later permanently suspended the blog's account for violating its platform-manipulation policy.
- In January 2020, Buzzfeed News reported on an internet meme of a link between the logo of the WIV and the "Umbrella Corporation", the agency that created the virus responsible for a zombie apocalypse in the Resident Evil franchise. Posts online noted that "Racoon [sic]" (the main city in Resident Evil) was an anagram of "Corona". Snopes noted that the logo was not from the WIV, but a company named Shanghai Ruilan Bao Hu San Biotech Ltd (located some 500 miles (800 km) away in Shanghai), and that the correct name of the city in Resident Evil was "Raccoon City".
- In February 2020, US Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) suggested the virus may have originated in a Chinese bioweapon laboratory. Francis Boyle, a law professor, also expressed support for the bioweapon theory suggesting it was the result of unintended leaks. Cotton elaborated on Twitter that his opinion was only one of "at least four hypotheses". Multiple medical experts have indicated there is no evidence for these claims. Conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh said on The Rush Limbaugh Show—the most popular radio show in the US—that the virus was probably "a ChiCom laboratory experiment" and the Chinese government was using the virus and the media hysteria surrounding it to bring down Donald Trump. Conservative commentator Josh Bernstein claimed that the Democratic Party and the "medical deep state" were collaborating with the Chinese government to create and release the coronavirus to bring down Donald Trump. Bernstein went on to suggest those responsible should be locked in a room with infected coronavirus patients as punishment.Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, promoted a conspiracy theory on Fox News that North Korea and China conspired together to create the coronavirus. He also said people were overreacting to the coronavirus outbreak and that Democrats were trying to use the situation to harm President Trump.
- During the coronavirus pandemic, the practice of publishing scientific preprints—early drafts of research findings that are not peer-reviewed—has increased in order to share findings that might have a public benefit, more rapidly. However, Yan's September 14 preprint explicitly claimed that, due to worldwide censorship, papers reaching her conclusions "can only exist as preprints or other non-peer-reviewed articles" and as of September 21 had not been submitted to any peer-reviewed scientific publication. and in her October 8 preprint Yan reiterated her claims of censorship.
- Multiple conspiracy articles in Chinese from the SARS era resurfaced during the outbreak with altered details, claiming SARS is biological warfare. Some said BGI Group from China sold genetic information of the Chinese people to the US, which then specifically targeted the genome of Chinese individuals. On 26 January, Chinese military enthusiast website Xilu published an article, claimed how the US artificially combined the virus to "precisely target Chinese people". The article was removed in early February. The article was further distorted on social media in Taiwan, which claimed "Top Chinese military website admitted novel coronavirus was Chinese-made bioweapon". Taiwan Fact-check center debunked the original article and its divergence, suggesting the original Xilu article distorted the conclusion from a legitimate research on Chinese scientific magazine Science China Life Sciences, which never mentioned the virus was engineered. The fact-check center explained Xilu is a military enthusiastic tabloid established by a private company, thus it doesn't represent the voice of Chinese military. Some articles on popular sites in China have also cast suspicion on US military athletes participating in the Wuhan 2019 Military World Games, which lasted until the end of October 2019, and have suggested they deployed the virus. They claim the inattentive attitude and disproportionately below-average results of American athletes in the games indicate they might have been there for other purposes and they might actually be bio-warfare operatives. Such posts stated that their place of residence during their stay in Wuhan was also close to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the first known cluster of cases occurred. In March 2020, this conspiracy theory was endorsed by Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China. On 13 March, the US government summoned Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai to Washington over the coronavirus conspiracy theory. Over the next month, conspiracy theorists narrowed their focus to one US Army Reservist, a woman who participated in the games in Wuhan as a cyclist, claiming she is "patient zero". According to a CNN report, these theories have been spread by George Webb, who has nearly 100,000 followers on YouTube, and have been amplified by a report by CPC-owned newspaper Global Times.
- The acting assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, Philip Reeker, said "Russia's intent is to sow discord and undermine U.S. institutions and alliances from within" and "by spreading disinformation about coronavirus, Russian malign actors are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response." Russia denies the allegation, saying "this is a deliberately false story". According to US-based The National Interest magazine, although official Russian channels had been muted on pushing the US biowarfare conspiracy theory, other Russian media elements do not share the Kremlin's restraint. Zvezda, a news outlet funded by the Russian Defense Ministry, published an article titled "Coronavirus: American biological warfare against Russia and China", claiming that the virus is intended to damage the Chinese economy, weakening its hand in the next round of trade negotiations. Ultra-nationalist politician and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, claimed on a Moscow radio station that the virus was an experiment by the Pentagon and pharmaceutical companies. Politician Igor Nikulin made rounds on Russian television and news media, arguing that Wuhan was chosen for the attack because the presence of a BSL-4 virus lab provided a cover story for the Pentagon and CIA about a Chinese bio-experiment leak. An EU-document claims 80 attempts by Russian media to spread disinformation related to the epidemic. According to the East StratCom Task Force, the Sputnik news agency was active publishing stories speculating that the virus could've been invented in Latvia, that it was used by Communist Party of China to curb protests in Hong Kong, that it was introduced intentionally to reduce the number of elder people in Italy, that it was targeted against the Yellow Vests movement, and making many other speculations. Sputnik branches in countries including Armenia, Belarus, Spain, and in the Middle East came up with versions of these stories.
- Iraqi political analyst Sabah Al-Akili on Al-Etejah TV, Saudi daily Al-Watan writer Sa'ud Al-Shehry, Syrian daily Al-Thawra columnist Hussein Saqer, and Egyptian journalist Ahmad Rif'at on Egyptian news website Vetogate, were some examples given by MEMRI as propagators of the US biowarfare conspiracy theory in the Arabic world.
- According to Radio Farda, Iranian cleric Seyyed Mohammad Saeedi accused US President Donald Trump of targeting Qom with coronavirus "to damage its culture and honor". Saeedi claimed that Trump is fulfilling his promise to hit Iranian cultural sites, if Iranians took revenge for the airstrike that killed of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani. Iranian TV personality Ali Akbar Raefipour claimed the coronavirus was part of a "hybrid warfare" programme waged by the United States on Iran and China. Brigadier General Gholam Reza Jalali, head of Iranian Civil Defense Organization, claimed the coronavirus is likely a biological attack on China and Iran with economic goals.Hossein Salami, the head of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), claimed the coronavirus outbreak in Iran may be due to a US "biological attack". Several Iranian politicians, including Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Rasoul Falahati, Alireza Panahian, Abolfazl Hasanbeigi and Gholamali Jafarzadeh Imanabadi, also made similar remarks. Iranian Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made similar suggestions. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a letter to the United Nations on 9 March, claiming that "it is clear to the world that the mutated coronavirus was produced in lab" and that COVID-19 is "a new weapon for establishing and/or maintaining political and economic upper hand in the global arena". The late Ayatollah Hashem Bathaie Golpayegani claimed that "America is the source of coronavirus, because America went head to head with China and realised it cannot keep up with it economically or militarily."Reza Malekzadeh, Iran's deputy health minister and former Minister of Health, rejected claims that the virus was a biological weapon, pointing out that the US would be suffering heavily from it. He said Iran was hard-hit because its close ties to China and reluctance to cut air ties introduced the virus, and because early cases had been mistaken for influenza.
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Q: In a situation like this when we need scientific solution to a medical crisis, when you get in our country for examples, political leaders saying things like cow dung or cow urine can be beneficial in fixing something like coronavirus, do we end up taking a step back after such statements, as we need to deal with the issue in a modern scientific manner.
A: I completely agree, I think all the public figures including politicians need to be extra careful when it comes to making such statements, because they have such a huge following. It's really important for them to say things that are based on some scientific evidence ... when it comes to the claims of cures of this infection we should be extremely careful about our statements and it should be made by the people who know what they're talking about. And has to be backed by evidence.
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