explainer

From bioweapon claims to Oprah's 'arrest': 5 major conspiracies about COVID-19, debunked.

The number of cases of Novel coronavirus in Australia is rising. And quickly. In Australia, as of reporting, there are 565 confirmed cases of the COVID-19, with 111 new infections reported in the last 24 hours. There have been six fatalities.

Worldwide, as of March 18, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 stands at 207,860 over 166 countries.

But this outbreak of Novel coronavirus has happened in tandem with the rapid spread of something else: disinformation.

Watch: Mamamia’s Claire Murphy breaks down your most asked questions about COVID-19. Post continues below. 

Video by Mamamia

Social media has provided the perfect platform for falsehoods to circulate, fuelling needless panic and suspicion.

Here, we bust some of the most pervasive conspiracies spread about Novel coronavirus, so you can play a part in halting the hysteria.

Myth: COVID-19 was created to cover celebrity pedophile ring.

Over the weekend, a bizarre — and utterly false — conspiracy theory surfaced on Facebook that COVID-19 was created in a lab and is actually a “covert U.S. intelligence operation” designed to cover for the arrests of ‘elites’ involved in a global pedophile ring.

The absurd claim, which The Washington Post linked to the far-right conspiracy group QANON, claimed that sex offender Harvey Weinstein testified against several celebrities, CEOs and politicians as part of a deal with American authorities. Among the list of names was Oprah Winfrey, who became a trending topic on Twitter on Tuesday.

Proponents of theory claimed that the journalist and talk show host’s home was raided by police and that she is currently behind bars and not, in fact, sensibly practising social-distancing to help minimise the spread of COVID-19.

Such was the scale of the disinformation, that Winfrey was forced to issue a firm denial via Twitter:

Listen: The Spill breaks down the Oprah/coronavirus/sex trafficking conspiracy.

ADVERTISEMENT

Myth: COVID-19 was released by America as a biological weapon.

Twitter has played host to persistent claims that COVID-19 was engineered in a lab and released by the United States government. Why? To cripple China’s economic development.

The exact source of the false conspiracy is unclear. But according to Reuters, Russian bots have had a big part to play in spreading it.

A European Union report seen by the news agency found evidence that Russia was posting fake news such as the “bioweapon theory” on social media in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French, as part of a deliberate and “significant disinformation campaign” to generate panic and distrust in the West.

“The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries… in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies,” the report said, according to Reuters.

There is precedent. In the 80s, Russia’s state security service, the KGB, infamously waged a concerted disinformation campaign that attempted to persuade people that the HIV/AIDS virus was created by the U.S. Army. In that case, Russia seeking to stoke anti-American sentiment.

Myth: There are far more cases of coronavirus than China is letting on.

A video was widely circulated on YouTube and social media in January and early February in which a woman, who claimed to be based in the Wuhan region, said that the number of cases of Novel coronavirus is actually more than 10 times the official reported figure. She also alleged that the disease is far more contagious than people are being told.

“I’m in the area where the coronavirus started,” the masked woman said. “I’m here to tell the truth. At this moment, Hubei province, including (the) Wuhan area, even China, 90,000 people have been infected by the coronavirus.”

China has declared the video fake. Image: YouTube.
ADVERTISEMENT

Subtitles on the most popular versions of the clip suggest the woman is a nurse, despite the fact that she actually never identifies herself as such. And, according to the BBC, her suit and mask are different to those worn by medical staff in Hubei.

It's believed the video is either a hoax or that, because of a lack of effective communication by Chinese authorities, the woman is simply parroting misinformation she believes to be true.

Regardless, the claims play into memories of China's stunning mishandling of the deadly SARS outbreak nearly two decades ago. When the disease emerged in the country in 2002, the authoritarian government concealed information from the public and did not inform the WHO of the outbreak for several months, presumably to maintain the status quo and prevent economic fallout.

But experts say that doesn't appear to have been repeated with Novel coronavirus.

As Dr Matt Killingsworth, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Tasmania, told Mamamia, China would be fully aware of the risk of a repeat offence: "If China is caught in a cover-up again, it undermines China’s legitimacy at a really important time in how China is evolving both economically and socially, and undermines its ability to conduct business internationally."

Indeed, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised China's response to COVID-19.

"The speed with which China detected the outbreak, isolated the virus, sequenced the genome and shared it with WHO and the world are very impressive. So is China’s commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries."

Myth: Coronvirus was created by the pharmaceutical industry, so it could sell a vaccine.

This is a popular one with conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers.

It stems largely from a lengthy Twitter thread posted by YouTuber Jordan Sather in January, who described Novel coronavirus as a "fad disease". He pointed to a patent filed by the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, England, in 2015 that outlines using a weakened version of coronavirus for potential use as a vaccine to prevent or treat respiratory illnesses.

He goes on to question whether the fact that the institute is partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a possible sign that the outbreak was "coordinated all along" to attract funding for vaccine development.

The patent he refers to does exist. In fact, it was granted in 2018. But it has nothing to do with the current outbreak.

ADVERTISEMENT

Coronavirus is an umbrella term for a group of viruses that are responsible for a host of common illnesses. That's why the current outbreak is referred to as Novel (new) coronavirus or COVID-19. The one referred to in the patent, meanwhile, relates to 'avian infectious bronchitis virus', a type of coronavirus that infects poultry.

A possible vaccine for COVID-19 is in the pipeline. But needs to go through clinical trials before it can be released — a process that is expected to take at least 12-18 months.

Myth: Coronavirus was transmitted to humans via people eating bat soup.

This was among the earliest and most persistent falsehoods of what is now the COVID-19 pandemic.

It sprung from the fact that a) coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they jump from animals to humans, and b) health authorities traced the first human infections of COVID-19 to a seafood market in Wuhan that illegally sold live animals.

Despite the precise animal source of those infections still being under investigation, speculation flourished.

So, when a video surfaced of a woman eating bat soup, which was then spread by several western tabloids (some with misleading or even racist headlines), a number of internet users started making wild accusations that the virus is the result of eating habits in Wuhan.

Their speculations were also fuelled by research from China's Institut Pasteur of Shanghai that identified bats as a likely "natural host" for the virus.

Only, the bat soup video wasn't even shot in Wuhan, or even in China. It was filmed in 2016 and features a popular blogger named Mengyun Wang during a trip to Palau, an archipelago in the Micronesia region of the Pacific.

Feature Image: Getty.

For more on this topic:

The Australian Government Department of Health advises that the only people who will be tested for COVID-19 are those with symptoms who have either returned from overseas in the past 14 days or been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case in the past 14 days.

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.

This post was originally published on February 1, 2020, and updated on March 19, 2020.


Sign up for the "Mamamia Daily" newsletter. Get across the stories women are talking about today.


00:00 / ???