explainer

From bat soup to a Bill Gates conspiracy: The biggest myths about coronavirus, debunked.

The number of cases of Novel coronavirus in China is rising. And quickly. In a little over a week, the number of confirmed infections has jumped from over 500 to more than 7,800. Tragically, the number of deaths has also climbed to 170 — ten times that reported late last week.

At least 98 cases have also been reported in other countries, including a small number who have contracted the virus despite not having been to the Wuhan region (the popular Chinese transport hub where the outbreak began last December).

Watch: Why WHO declared coronavirus a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’.

Video by World Health Organisation

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

Social media has provided the perfect platform for falsehoods and wild conspiracy theories to circulate, fuelling totally needless panic about everything from contaminated noodles to ‘infected air’ at Sydney train stations. Sadly, some of these untruths also appear to be stoking stigma and encouraging discrimination toward Chinese people.

Here, we bust some of the most pervasive (and some of the most harmful) myths being spread about Novel coronavirus, so you can play a part in halting the hysteria.

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

A video was widely circulated on YouTube and social media last weekend 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.
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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’s unlikely to be 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."

Just today, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised China's response to Novel coronavirus.

"We would have seen many more cases outside China by now — and probably deaths — if it were not for the government’s efforts, and the progress they have made to protect their own people and the people of the world," he told a press conference.

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

The exact source of the Novel coronavirus outbreak is still being investigated, though health authorities traced the first human infections to a seafood market in Wuhan that illegally sold live animals.

This has allowed room for speculation to flourish.

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.

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Some media made the connection between the bat soup video and coronavirus. There is no evidence for such a link.

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.

Again, the source of the Novel coronavirus outbreak remains unknown.

Myth: You can catch coronavirus from imported food.

A post has been circulated on social media in Australia that falsely claims Novel coronavirus has been found in imported Chinese products, including rice, Mi Goreng noodles, fortune cookies, ice tea, and energy drinks.

The post, which has been shared dozens of times, alleges that the virus has also been detected at a number of train stations in Western Sydney. But, there's an obvious problem... well, problems:

1. The post cites the source of the 'information' as the "Bureau of Diseasolgy Paramatta". There is no such thing;

2. It is riddled with grammatical mistakes and even refers to Novel coronavirus as "corna’s disease" and "corona’s virus";

3. The NSW Department of Health has dismissed it as a hoax.

Australian health authorities have not issued any warnings about consuming Chinese products and there is no evidence to suggest they are unsafe.

The only recommendation regarding food has come from the World Health Organisation, which advises people travelling to China to avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products: "Even in areas experiencing outbreaks meat can be safely consumed if these items are cooked thoroughly and properly handled during food preparation."

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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 last week by YouTuber Jordan Sather, 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.

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 2019-nCoV. The one referred to in the patent, meanwhile, relates to 'avian infectious bronchitis virus', a type of coronavirus that infects poultry.

The World Health Organisation has reiterated that there is no vaccine available for Novel coronavirus.

"To date, there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus," it says on its website.

"However, those infected with the virus should receive appropriate care to relieve and treat symptoms, and those with severe illness should receive optimised supportive care. Some specific treatments are under investigation, and will be tested through clinical trials."

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The facts are clear.

If you have not travelled to the Wuhan region, the risk of contracting the virus remains incredibly low. So far, only nine confirmed cases have been reported in Australia, none of which were contracted here.

If you do wish to take steps to minimise your risk, the WHO recommends washing your hands regularly and avoiding close contact with anyone displaying flu-like symptoms.

But importantly, remember, the World Health Organisation is confident that the spread of the virus can and will be stopped, and the global health community is working around the clock to make that happen as quickly as possible.

Just last week, scientists at Melbourne's Doherty Institute managed to grow a version of the virus in their lab. This has now been sent out across the globe via the World Health Organisation so that other labs can test potential vaccines to see if they work.

Go ahead and share that instead.

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