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Coronavirus: The truth about the conspiracy theories and fake news on China’s outbreak

Conrad Duncan
Wednesday 29 January 2020 17:52 GMT
(Getty Images)

As cases of the new strain of coronavirus have spread around the world this month, so too has fake news and conspiracy theories about the outbreak.

The virus, which was first identified in the city of Wuhan, China, has already caused more than 100 deaths and spread to Europe, North America and the Middle East.

Although health authorities outside of China have maintained that the threat to the public is low, misinformation has repeatedly gone viral on social media and stoked fears over the possibility of a devastating pandemic.

Fake news about the outbreak has ranged from wildly-inaccurate claims about the number of deaths from the virus to conspiracy theories about its origin.

Here are some of the most popular false claims about coronavirus and why they are untrue.

  1. Was coronavirus caused by Chinese people eating bats?

    The exact origin of the virus is unknown at this time – although it is thought to have emerged at a seafood market in Wuhan, China.

    It is also thought that the first people infected with the new coronavirus contracted it from animals, because coronaviruses are known to move from animals to humans.

    A report by the Wuhan Institute for Virology found that the new coronavirus’ genetic makeup was 96 per cent identical to the kind found in bats, which were also the original source of SARS.

    In light of this information, videos which appear to show Chinese people eating bats have circulated over the past few weeks, with some people blaming Chinese eating habits for the outbreak.

    In one widely-shared video, a young Chinese woman, Wang Mengyun, was shown biting into a bat and saying it tasted “like chicken meat”.

    However, Ms Wang has since said the video was filmed in Palau, not China, back in 2017 and is not connected to the recent outbreak.

    “[I] had no idea during filming that there was such a virus,” she said in an apology on Wednesday, adding that she was “just trying to introduce the life of local people.”

    “I didn’t know that bat is a primary reservoir of viruses... I really did not check the information or explain its dangerous nature.”

    Bats are not a particularly common food in China, according to the BBC, and the search for the exact origin of the virus is still ongoing.

  2. Does a patent show there is a vaccine for the virus?

    Several viral Facebook posts, tweets and articles have alleged that the new coronavirus outbreak is related to an expired patent, with some claiming that a vaccine for the virus already exists.

    Shiva Ayyadurai, a Republican running for the US Senate in Massachusetts, recently shared a post which claimed: “The Coronavirus PATENT is owned by the Pirbright Institute.” [The Pirbright Institute is a research establishment in Surrey.]

    The simple problem with this theory is that there are many types of coronaviruses – and seven kinds which can infect humans.

    The term describes a group of viruses which can cause respiratory infections, ranging from the common cold to more dangerous conditions such as SARS or MERS.

    The Wuhan coronavirus is a new strain and there is currently no vaccine for it.

    There is a patent from Pirbright but it is for a different type of coronavirus, the avian infectious bronchitis virus, that infects poultry and the institute does not currently work with strains of coronavirus that affect humans.

  3. Is Bill Gates linked to the outbreak?

    In connection with the Pirbright Insitute conspiracy, some people have attempted to link the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the outbreak, due to a multi-million dollar grant given to the research group by the foundation.

    However, this is what Teresa Maughan, a spokesperson for Pirbright, told Buzzfeed News when asked about the connection:

    “The patented work cited in the conspiracy theories involved infectious bronchitis virus (IBV) only, and we made four changes in the gene responsible for replicating the virus’s genetic material.

    “This has weakened the virus so it is no longer able to cause disease and has potential to be used as a vaccine, but has not yet been developed.

    “The patented work was completed in 2015 and is not funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

    The funding does nothing to prove, or even suggest, that the Gates Foundation knew about the coronavirus outbreak in advance or played a role in causing it.

    Coronavirus: Foreign Office warns against travel to China as UK nationals are set to return

  4. Did coronavirus come from a 'biological weapons programme'?

    Another baseless theory that has appeared on social media is the suggestion that the virus is linked to a “covert biological weapons programme” in Wuhan or that it was smuggled from a Canadian laboratory.

    Both claims have no evidence to support them.

    The Canadian laboratory in question is the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, which in 2013 investigated a new cluster of coronavirus infections.

    However, as mentioned earlier, there are many types of coronavirus and in this case the lab was examining MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).

    As for the supposed Chinese programme, some have linked the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory – a maximum security biolab which studies “the world’s most dangerous pathogens” - to a Chinese biological warfare programme, but China has denied having such a programme and the link between the lab and this outbreak of coronavirus is unproven.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said early reports suggest the virus originated at a seafood and animal market in Wuhan.

    Both the CDC and the World Health Organisation are still investigating the cause of the outbreak, but neither have suggested it is related to biological weapons.

  5. Can the virus be cured by drinking 'dangerous bleach’?

    One of the strangest claims linked to coronavirus has come from supporters of the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy.

    The Daily Beast reported yesterday that QAnon supporters have suggested drinking “Miracle Mineral Solution” – also known as chlorine dioxide, which is used in bleaching – as a way of fighting off coronavirus.

    Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned people not to drink MMS, which has been touted by fringe groups as a treatment for autism, cancer and HIV/AIDS, and described it as a “dangerous bleach” which can cause “serious and potentially life-threatening side effects.”

    “The FDA’s drug approval process ensures that patients receive safe and effective drug products,” an FDA statement said.

    “Miracle Mineral Solution and similar products are not FDA-approved, and ingesting these products is the same as drinking bleach.”

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