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Misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in conspiracy theories and misinformation about the scale of the pandemic and the origin, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the disease.[1][2][3] False information, including intentional disinformation, has been spread through social media,[2][4] text messaging,[5] and mass media,[6] including the tabloid media,[7] conservative media,[8][9] and state media of countries such as China,[10][11] Russia,[12][13] Iran,[14] and Turkmenistan.[2][15] It has also been spread by state-backed covert operations to generate panic and sow distrust in other countries.[16][17][18] In some countries, such as India,[19] Bangladesh,[20] Ethiopia,[21] and Serbia,[22][23][24] journalists have been arrested for allegedly spreading fake news about the pandemic.[25]

Misinformation has been propagated by celebrities, politicians[26][27] (including heads of state in countries such as the United States,[28][29] Iran,[30] and Brazil[31]), and other prominent public figures.[32] Commercial scams have claimed to offer at-home tests, supposed preventives, and "miracle" cures.[33][34] Several religious groups have claimed their faith will protect them from the virus.[35][36][37] Some people have claimed the virus is a bio-weapon accidentally or purposefully leaked from a laboratory,[38][39] a population control scheme, the result of a spy operation,[3][4][40] or linked to 5G networks.[41]

The World Health Organization has declared an "infodemic" of incorrect information about the virus, which poses risks to global health.[2]

Types and origin and effect

On 30 January, the BBC reported about the increasing spread of conspiracy theories and false health advice in relation to 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 origin in bat soup and the outbreak being planned with the participation of the Pirbright Institute.[1][42] 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.[43]

In an attempt to speed up research sharing, many researchers have turned to preprint servers such as arXiv, bioRxiv, medRxiv or SSRN. Papers can be 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 the controversy, the paper was withdrawn.[44][45][46]

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", while less misinformation "was completely fabricated". The study found no deep fakes in the studied sample. 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%) includes "misleading or false claims about the actions or policies of public authorities, including government and international bodies like the WHO or the UN".[47]

A natural experiment correlated coronavirus misinformation with increased infection and death; of two similar television news shows on the same network, one took coronavirus seriously about a month earlier than the other. People and groups exposed to the slow-response news show had higher infection and death rates.[48]

The misinformations have been used by politicians, interest groups, and state actors in many countries to scapegoat other countries for the mishandling of the domestic responses, as well as furthering political, financial agenda.[49][50][51]

Combative efforts

On 2 February, the World Health Organization (WHO) described a "massive infodemic", citing an over-abundance of reported information, accurate and 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.[52][53][54] 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.[55]

In early February, Facebook, Twitter and Google said they were working with WHO to address "misinformation".[56] In a blogpost, Facebook stated they would remove content flagged by global health organizations and local authorities that violate its content policy on misinformation leading to "physical harm".[57] Facebook is also giving free advertising to WHO.[58] 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.[59]

At the end of February, Amazon removed more than a million products 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.[60]

Millions of instances of COVID-19 misinformation have occurred across a number of online platforms.[61] 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 separate common claims seen online.[62][63][64][65]

The media has 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.[66][67][68]

Many local newspapers have been severely affected by losses in advertising revenues from coronavirus; journalists have been laid off, and some have closed altogether.[69]

Many newspapers with paywalls lowered them for some or all their coronavirus coverage.[70][71] Many scientific publishers made scientific papers related to the outbreak open access.[72]

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".[73] Iran's military said 3600 people have been arrested for "spreading rumors" about coronavirus in the country.[74] In Cambodia, some individuals who expressed concerns about the spread of COVID-19 have been arrested on fake news charges.[75][76] Algerian lawmakers passed a law criminalising "fake news" deemed harmful to "public order and state security".[77] In the Philippines,[78] China,[79] India,[80][81] Egypt,[82] Ethiopia,[83] Bangladesh,[84] Morocco,[85] Pakistan,[86] Saudi Arabia,[87] Oman,[88] Iran,[89] Vietnam, Laos,[90] Indonesia,[81] Mongolia,[81] Sri Lanka,[81] Kenya, South Africa,[91] Cote d’Ivoire,[92] Somalia,[93] Mauritius,[94] Zimbabwe,[95] Thailand,[96] Kazakhstan,[97] Azerbaijan,[98] Montenegro,[99] Malaysia[100] Singapore,[101][102] and Hong Kong, people have been arrested for allegedly spreading false information about the coronavirus pandemic.[103][81] The United Arab Emirates have introduced criminal penalties for the spread of misinformation and rumours related to the outbreak.[104]

Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories have appeared both in social media and in mainstream news outlets, and are heavily influenced by geopolitics.[105]

Accidental leakage

Virologist and immunologist Vincent R. Racaniello said that "accident theories – and the lab-made theories before them – reflect a lack of understanding of the genetic make-up of Sars-CoV-2."[106]

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.[107] In January 2020, editors at the scientific journal Nature affixed a cautionary warning to an article written by Richard H. Ebright about the WIV in 2017; the editors warned that unverified theories, unsupported by scientists, were being promoted to suggest that the WIV was the source of COVID19.[108] In an interview with BBC China, 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."[109] Disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz from the Wilson Center indicates the lab leakage claim entered mainstream media in United States during April, propagated by news outlets.[51]

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.[110] 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."[111][112] Several newspapers have referenced the paper.[110] 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.[113]

In February, it was alleged that the first person infected may have been a researcher at the institute named Huang Yanling.[114] Rumours circulated on Chinese social media that the researcher had become infected and died, prompting a denial from WIV, saying she was a graduate student enrolled in the Institute until 2015 and is not the patient zero.[115][114] In April, the conspiracy theory started to circulate around on Youtube and got picked up by conservative media, National Review.[116][6]

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".[117] 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".[118] 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."[106]

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."[119] 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.[51] 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."[120] 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."[120] 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."[120] Washington Post's article and subsequent broadcasts drew criticism from virologist Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University, which she states "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."[51] 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."[121] 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."[109]

Days later, multiple media outlets confirmed that US intelligence officials were investigating the possibility that the virus started in the WIV.[122][123][124][125] On 23 April, Vox presented disputed arguments on lab leakage claims from several scientists.[126] Scientists suggested that virus samples cultured in the lab have significant amount of difference compare to SARS-CoV-2. The virus institution sampled RaTG13 in Yunnan, the closest known relative of the novel coronavirus with 96% shared genome. Edward Holmes, SARS-CoV-2 researcher at the University of Sydney, explained 4% of difference "is equivalent to an average of 50 years (and at least 20 years) of evolutionary change."[126][127] Virologist Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, which studies emerging infectious diseases, noted the estimation 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."[109][126]

On 30 April, The New York Times reported the Trump administration demanded intelligence agencies to 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 responsible for tracking weapons of mass destruction, expressed frustration during a video conference that C.I.A. was unable to form conclusive answer on the origin of the virus. According to current and former government officials, as of 30 April, C.I.A has yet to gather any information beyond circumstantial evidence to bolster the lab theory.[128][129] United States intelligence officers suggested that Chinese officials tried to conceal the severity of the outbreak in early days, but no evidence had shown China attempted to cover up a lab accident.[130] One day later, Trump claimed he has evidence of the lab theory, but offered no further details on it.[131][132] 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."[133]

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 theory was ongoing.[134][135] 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."[136][137][138]

On 4 May, 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.[139] Fox News, and national security commentators in the US, quickly followed up The Telegraph story,[140][141] raising tensions within the international intelligence community.[142] 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.[143] The German intelligence community denied the claim of the leaked dossier, instead supporting the probability of a natural cause.[144][145] 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.[142] 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.[142][143][140]

Beijing rejected the White House's claim, calling the claim "part of an election year strategy by President Donald Trump's Republican Party".[146] 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."[146][147] The Chinese ambassador, in an opinion published in the Washington Post, called on the White House to end the "blame game" over the coronavirus.[148][149] 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.[150]

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 ...".[151][152] As of 18 May 2020, an official UN investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 virus, supported by over 120 countries, was being considered.[153]

In the weeks following his April article, Josh Rogin continued criticizing China's actions, tweeting on 20 May 20, "The Chinese government admits it ordered Wuhan labs to destroy early samples of the coronavirus but says it was for “safety” to avoid a lab accident. But they say it’s impossible the outbreak could be from a lab accident. Think about that."[154]

Anti-Israeli and antisemitic

Iran's Press TV asserted that "Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of coronavirus against Iran".[14] Similarly, various Arab media outlets accused Israel and the United States of creating and spreading COVID-19, avian flu, and SARS.[155] Users on social media offered a variety of theories, including the supposition that Jews had manufactured COVID-19 to precipitate a global stock market collapse and thereby profit via insider trading,[156] 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".[157]

Israeli attempts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine prompted mixed reactions. Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi denied initial reports that he had ruled that a Zionist-made vaccine would be halal,[158] and one Press TV journalist tweeted that "I'd rather take my chances with the virus than consume an Israeli vaccine".[159] A columnist for the Turkish Yeni Akit asserted that such a vaccine could be a ruse to carry out mass sterilization.[160]

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.[161]

Anti-Muslim

In India, Muslims have been blamed for spreading infection following the emergence of cases linked to a Tablighi Jamaat religious gathering.[162] There are reports of vilification of Muslims on social media and attacks on individuals in India.[163] Claims have been made Muslims are selling food contaminated with coronavirus and that a mosque in Patna was sheltering people from Italy and Iran.[164] These claims were shown to be false.[165] 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.[166]

Bioengineered virus

It has been repeatedly claimed that the virus was deliberately created by humans.

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".[167] 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.[167] 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.[168]

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".[169] 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".[169]

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".[170]

Chinese biological weapon

India

Amidst a rise in Sinophobia, 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.[171]

Ukraine

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.[172]

United Kingdom

Tobias Ellwood said, "It would be irresponsible to suggest the source of this outbreak was an error in a Chinese military biological weapons programme ... But without greater Chinese transparency we cannot [be] entirely completely sure."[173]

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".[173][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[citation needed]) 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.

United States

In January 2020, BBC News published an article about coronavirus misinformation, citing two 24 January articles from The Washington Times that said the virus was part of a Chinese biological weapons program, based at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).[1] The Washington Post later published an article debunking the conspiracy theory, citing US experts who explained why the WIV was unsuitable for bioweapon research, that most countries had abandoned bioweapons as fruitless, and that there was no evidence the virus was genetically engineered.[174]

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".[175] Twitter later permanently suspended the blog's account for violating its platform-manipulation policy.[176]

Logo of the fictional Umbrella Corporation, which some internet rumours linked to the pandemic. The corporation was invented for the Resident Evil game series.

In January 2020, Buzzfeed News reported on an internet meme of a link between the logo of the WIV and "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".[177] 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".[177]

In February 2020, US Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) suggested the virus may have originated in a Chinese bioweapon laboratory.[178] Francis Boyle, a law professor, also expressed support for the bioweapon theory suggesting it was the result of unintended leaks.[179] 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.[180] 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.[181][182]

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".[183] American magazine Foreign Policy said Xi Jinping's "political agenda may turn out to be a root cause of the epidemic" and that his Belt and Road Initiative has "made it possible for a local disease to become a global menace".[105]

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."[184]

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.[185][186]

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.[187] He also said people were overreacting to the coronavirus outbreak and that Democrats were trying to use the situation to harm President Trump.[188]

Hospital ship attack

The hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) deployed to the Port of Los Angeles to provide backup medical 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.[189][190] According to US 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".[191]

Population control scheme

According to the BBC, Jordan Sather, a conspiracy theory YouTuber supporting the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory and the anti-vax movement, has falsely claimed the outbreak was a population control scheme created by Pirbright Institute in England and by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. This belief is held mostly by right-wing libertarians, NWO conspiracy theorists, and Christian Fundamentalists.[1][192]

Spy operation

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 conspiracy theory had "no factual basis".[193] The stories seem to have been derived[194] from a July 2019 news article[195] stating that some Chinese researchers had their security access to a Canadian Level 4 virology facility revoked in a federal police investigation; Canadian officials described this as an administrative matter and "there is absolutely no risk to the Canadian public."[195]

This article was published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC);[194] 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, Canada to Beijing, China, 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.[193][196][197]

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.[198]

United States biological weapon

Arab world

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".[199] 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.[199]

China

The Xinhua News Agency is among the news outlets that have published false information about COVID-19's origins.

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.[200] 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.[201] 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.[202] Global Times and Xinhua News Agency have similarly been implicated in propagating disinformation related to COVID-19's origins.[203][204]

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.[205]

On 26 January, Chinese military enthusiast website Xilu published an article, claimed how the US artificially combined the virus to "precisely target Chinese people".[206][207] 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 bio-weapons".[208] 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.[208] 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.[208]

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.[209]

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.[210][211][212][213] On 13 March, the US government summoned Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai to Washington over the coronavirus conspiracy theory.[214] 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.[215][216]

Iran

Reza Malekzadeh, deputy health minister, rejected bioterrorism theories.

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.[217]

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.[218] 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.[219][220]

Hossein Salami, the head of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), claimed the coronavirus outbreak in Iran may be due to a US "biological attack".[221] Several Iranian politicians, including Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Rasoul Falahati, Alireza Panahian, Abolfazl Hasanbeigi and Gholamali Jafarzadeh Imanabadi, also made similar remarks.[222] Iranian Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made similar suggestions.[223]

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".[224]

The late[225] 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."[226]

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.[223]

Philippines

In the Philippine Senate, Tito Sotto has promoted his belief that COVID-19 is a bioweapon.

A Filipino Senator, Tito Sotto, played a bioweapon conspiracy video in a February 2020 Senate hearing, suggesting the coronavirus is biowarfare waged against China.[227][228]

Russia

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.[229][12][230] 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."[229] Russia denies the allegation, saying "this is a deliberately false story".[231]

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.[232] 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.[232] 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.[232] An EU-document claims 80 attempts by Russian media to spread disinformation related to the epidemic.[233]

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.[234]

Venezuela

Constituent Assembly member Elvis Méndez declared that the coronavirus was a "bacteriological sickness created in '89, in '90 and historically" and that it was a sickness "inoculated by the gringos". Méndez theorized that the virus was a weapon against Latin America and China and that its purpose was "to demoralize the person, to weaken to install their system".[235]

Statistics

Alleged leak of death toll

On 25 February, Taiwan News published an article, claiming Tencent accidentally leaked the real numbers of death and infection in China. Taiwan News suggests 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.[236] The article was referenced by other news outlets such as Daily Mail and widely circulated on Twitter, Facebook, 4chan, sparked a wide range of conspiracy theories that the screenshot indicates the real death toll instead of the ones published by health officials.[237] 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 of Tencent responded to the news article, claiming the image was doctored, and it features "false information which we never published".[238]

Keoni Everington, author of the original news article, defended and asserted the authenticity of the leak.[237] Brian Hioe and Lars Wooster of New Bloom Magazine debunked the theory from data on other websites, which were using Tencent's database to generate custom visualizations while showing none of the inflated figures appearing in the images promulgated by Taiwan News. Thus, they concluded the screenshot was digitally fabricated.[237]

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.[239] One of the explanations for the drop may be cancellations of phone services by migrant workers due to a downturn in the social and economic life during the outbreak.[239] China Unicom experienced a 1.2 million decline in January, while China telecom lost 5.6 million just in February.[240]

Misinformation against Taiwan

On 26 February 2020, Taiwanese Central News Agency reported that large amounts of misinformation had appeared on Facebook claiming the pandemic in Taiwan had lost 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 and mainland China vocabulary. The organization warns the purpose of the misinformation is to attack the government.[241][242][243]

In March 2020, Taiwan's Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau warned that mainland 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 Communist Party of China. 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".[244] According to The Washington Post, China has used organized disinformation campaigns against Taiwan for decades.[245]

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 making to decision to allow the information to spread beyond China's Great Firewall which he described as "malicious".[246] According to Taiwan News, nearly one in four cases of misinformation are believed to be connected to mainland China.[247]

On 27 March 2020 the American Institute in Taiwan announced that it was partnering with the Taiwan FactCheck Center to help combat misinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak.[248]

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)[249] 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.[249]

Nurse whistleblower

On 24 January, a video circulated online appearing to be of a nurse named Jin Hui[250] in Hubei describing a far more dire situation in Wuhan than purported by Chinese officials. The video claimed that more than 90,000 people had been infected with the virus in China, the virus can spread from one person to 14 people (R0=14) and the virus is starting the second mutation.[251] 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.[1] The claimed R0 of 14 in the video was noted by BBC to be inconsistent with the expert estimation of 1.4 to 2.5 at that time.[252] The video's claim of 90,000 infected cases is noted to be 'unsubstantiated'.[1][251]

Medical misinformation

Country-specific

Rumours are often language-bound, spreading in only one language, including many rumours not found in this section.

Canada

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.[253][254][255]

China

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.[256]

Since its third version, the COVID management guidelines from the National Health Commission recommends using TCM to treat the disease.[257] In Wuhan, the local authorities have pushed for a set of TCM prescriptions to be used for every case since early February.[258] One formula was promoted at the national level by mid February.[259] 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.[260]

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.[261]

Estonia

On 27 February 2020, the Estonian Minister of the Interior Mart Helme said at a government press conference 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.[262]

France

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.[263]

Greece

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.[264] 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."[264]

New Democracy MP Elena Rapti also said she was going and that if there was deep faith, Communion was healing.[265] The Church furthermore refused to restrict Christians from taking Holy Communion.[266] In public statements, several clerics urged worshippers to continue taking Holy Communion, justifying it by saying Jesus never got sick,[267] while the Bishop of Piraeus Seraphim announced that only those who took part in masses without true faith could be affected.[265] There were furthermore reports that the COVID-19 hotline was informing concerned believers there was no risk of contagion at the sacrament.[265]

Some high-profile Greek medical doctors publicly supported the continuation of practicing Holy Communion, causing a sharp reaction by the Greek Association of Hospital Doctors.[267] Eleni Giamarellou, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Athens, announced that there was no danger, and that she was accepting communion with faith in God, so she could not become infected.[265] The Greek Association of Hospital Doctors criticized these professionals for putting their religious beliefs before science.[267]

India

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.[268][269] WHO's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan criticised politicians incautiously spreading such misinformation without an evidence base.[270]

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.[271] The notion that the vibrations generated by clapping together during Janata curfew will kill the virus was debunked by the media.[272] 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.[273] Misinformation has spread that the lifetime of SARS-CoV-2 is only 12 hours and staying home for 14 hours during Janata curfew would break the chain of transmission.[274] Another message claimed that observing Janata curfew will result in the reduction of COVID-19 cases by 40%.[274]

In India, fake news circulated that the World Health Organization warned against eating cabbage to prevent coronavirus infection.[275] The poisonous fruit of the Datura plant as 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.[276][277]

There were also claims that a 30-year-old Indian textbook lists aspirin, anti-histamines and nasal spray as treatments for COVID-19. The textbook actually talks about coronaviruses in general, as a family of viruses.[278]

Kuwait

Fouz Al Fahad, one of the most popular social media influencers in Kuwait, was arrested for promoting an unlicensed 15-minute coronavirus test.[279]

Madagascar

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.[36][280]

Nigeria

Following the first reported case of COVID-19 in Nigeria on 28 February, untested cures and treatments began to spread via platforms like WhatsApp.[281] There were also claims that chloroquine was used to cure more than 12,000 COVID-19 patients.[282]

South Korea

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.[283]

Senegal

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.[284]

Thailand

Claims that Vitamin D pills could help prevent the coronavirus circulated on social media in Thailand.[285]

A widely shared post on Facebook claimed that Italian doctors who were infected with COVID-19 were nevertheless still treating patients in Italy.[286]

United States

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".[287]

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."[288] 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.[289][290]

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 can kill the virus and had been verified by federal officials,[291] causing a Jones spokesman to deny the products had been sold for the purpose of treating any disease.[34] 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.[292]

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.[293][294]

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested actor Keith Lawrence Middlebrook for selling a fake COVID-19 cure.[295]

The hypothesis of Stanford military historian Victor Davis Hanson, that the coronavirus was circulating in California in fall 2019, was widely shared but debunked by genetic analysis.[296]

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.[297][298] For misinformation that is a direct claim of a method to prevent, diagnose, or treat COVID-19, see List of unproven methods against COVID-19.

COVID-19 recovery

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.[297]

COVID-19 xenophobic blaming by ethnicity and religion

UN video warns that misinformation against groups may lower testing rates and increase transmission.

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.[299][300][301] Within China, there has been discrimination (such as evictions and non-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.[302][303][304] 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.[305] White supremacist groups have blamed COVID-19 on non-whites and advocated deliberately infecting minorities they dislike, such as Jews.[306]

5G mobile phone networks

5G towers have been burned by people wrongly blaming them for COVID-19.
Openreach engineers appealed on anti-5G Facebook groups, saying they aren't involved in mobile networks, and workplace abuse is making it difficult for them to maintain phonelines and broadband.

In February 2020 BBC News reported that conspiracy theorists on social media groups alleged a link between coronavirus and 5G mobile networks, claiming that Wuhan and Diamond Princess outbreaks were directly caused by electromagnetic fields and by the introduction of 5G and wireless technologies. Some conspiracy theorists also alleged that the coronavirus outbreak was a cover-up for a 5G-related illness.[41] 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 coronavirus 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.[307][308] Cowan also falsely alleged that the viruses were wastes from cells that are poisoned by electromagnetic fields and historical viral pandemics coincided with the major developments in radio technology.[308] The video of his claims went viral and was recirculated by celebrities including Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, and singer Keri Hilson.[309] 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.[310] The claims were criticized on social media and debunked by Reuters,[311] USA Today,[312] Full Fact[313] and American Public Health Association executive director Georges C. Benjamin.[307][314]

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".[315] Viruses cannot be transmitted by radio waves. COVID-19 has spread and continues to spread in many countries that do not have 5G networks.[297]

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".[316] Vodafone announced that two Vodafone masts and two it shares with O2 had been targeted.[317][318]

By Monday 6 April 2020 at least 20 mobile phone masts in the UK had been vandalised since the previous Thursday.[319] Because of slow rollout of 5G in the UK, many of the damaged masts had only 3G and 4G equipment.[319] 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.[319] There have been eleven incidents of attempted arson at mobile phone masts in the Netherlands, including one case where "Fuck 5G" was written, as well as in Ireland and Cyprus.[320][321] Facebook has deleted multiple messages encouraging attacks on 5G equipment.[319]

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.[322] 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.[322] 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.[322]

YouTube announced that it would reduce the amount of content claiming links between 5G and coronavirus.[317] 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.[317] 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.[323][324]

On 13 April 2020, Gardaí were investigating fires at 5G masts in County Donegal, Ireland.[325] Gardaí and fire services had attended the fires the previous night in an attempt to put them out.[325] Although Gardaí were awaiting results of tests they were treating the fires as deliberate.[325]

There were 20 suspected arson attacks on phone masts in the UK over the Easter 2020 weekend.[315] 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.[315]

Ofcom issued guidance to ITV following comments by Eamonn Holmes after comments made by Holmes about 5G and coronavirus on This Morning.[326] Ofcom said the comments were "ambiguous" and "ill-judged" and they "risked undermining viewers' trust in advice from public authorities and scientific evidence".[326] Ofcom also local channel London Live in breach of standards for an interview it had with David Icke who it said had " expressed views which had the potential to cause significant harm to viewers in London during the pandemic".[326]

Some telecoms engineers have reported threats of violence, including threats to stab and murder them, by individuals who believe them to be working on 5G networks.[327] West Midlands Police said the crimes in question are being taken very seriously.[327]

On 24 April 2020 The Guardian revealed that an evangelical pastor from Luton had provided the male voice on a recording blaming 5G for deaths caused by coronavirus.[328] Jonathon James 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.[328] He left the company after less than a year.[328]

Hydroxychloroquine

On March 11, 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.[329]

Other false causes

Mosquitoes

It has been claimed that mosquitoes transmit coronavirus. There is no evidence that this is true; coronavirus spreads through small droplets of saliva and mucus.[297]

Petrol pumps

A warning claiming to be from the Australia Department of Health said coronavirus spreads through petrol pumps and that everyone should wear gloves when filling up petrol in their cars.[330]

Shoe-wearing

There were claims that wearing shoes at one's home was the reason behind the spread of the coronavirus in Italy.[331]

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.[332] 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.[333] This myth was cited as a contributing factor in the disproportionately high rates of infection and death observed among African Americans.[334][335]

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.[336]

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed the virus was genetically targeted at Iranians by the US, and this is why it is seriously affecting Iran. He did not offer any evidence.[337][30]

Religious protection

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",[338] which resulted in an 8 times faster rate of infection among some groups.[339] The Tablighi Jamaat movement 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.[340][37][341] 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."[342] 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,[343] 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.[344][345]

In Tanzania, President John Magufuli urged the faithfuls to go to pray in churches and mosques instead of banning congregations as 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).[346][347]

In Somalia, myths have spread claiming Muslims are immune to the virus.[348]

Unproven protective and aggravating factors

Vegetarian immunity

Claims that vegetarians are immune to coronavirus spread online in India, causing "#NoMeat_NoCoronaVirus" to trend on Twitter.[349][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.[350] 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.[351]

Efficacy of hand sanitiser, "antibacterial" soaps

Washing in soap and water for at least 20 seconds is the best way to clean hands. The second-best is a hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol.[352]

Claims that hand sanitiser 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.[353][354] Hand sanitizer is recommended against COVID-19,[297] though unlike soap, it is not effective against all types of germs.[355] 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.[352][356] 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.[357][358]

Alcohol (ethanol and poisonous methanol)

Contrary to some reports, drinking alcohol does not protect against COVID-19, and can increase health risks[297] (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.[359]

Iran has reported incidents of methanol poisoning, caused by the false belief that drinking alcohol would cure or protect against coronavirus;[360] alcohol is banned in Iran, and bootleg alcohol may contain methanol.[361] 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.[362] The number of deaths due to methanol poisoning in Iran reached over 700 by April.[363] 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,[360][364] 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.[360][361][362]

Similar incidents have occurred in Turkey, with 30 Turkmenistan citizens dying from methanol poisoning related to coronavirus cure claims.[365][366]

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."[367][368]

Cocaine

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 Organisation also debunked the claim.[369]

Ibuprofen

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[370] and the World Health Organization recommended COVID-19 patients keep taking ibuprofen as directed, citing lack of convincing evidence of any danger.[371]

Helicopter spraying

In some Asian countries, it has been claimed that one should stay at home on particular days when helicopters spray disinfectant over homes for killing off COVID-19; no such spraying is taking place.[372][373]

Cruise ships safety from infection

Claims by cruise-ship operators notwithstanding, there are many cases of coronaviruses in hot climates; some countries in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf are severely affected.

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".[374]

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.[375][376][377][medical citation needed] The COVID-19 coronavirus spread along international air travel routes, including to tropical locations.[378] Outbreaks on cruise ships, where an older population lives in close quarters, frequently touching surfaces which others have touched, were common.[379][380]

It seems that COVID-19 can be transmitted in all climates.[297] It has seriously affected many warm-climate countries. For instance, Dubai, with an 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.

Vaccine pre-existence

It was reported that 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.[381][4] The WHO reported as of 5 February 2020, that amid news reports of "breakthrough" drugs being discovered to treat people infected with the virus, there were no known effective treatments;[382] this included antibiotics and herbal remedies not being useful.[383] Scientists are working to develop a vaccine, but as of 18 March 2020, no vaccine candidates have completed Phase II clinical trials.[citation needed]

Government

Brazil

Brazilian president
Jair Bolsonaro

When the outbreak began in Brazil, many Brazilian states, including São Paulo, the hotspot of the outbreak in Brazil, imposed harsh social isolation measures that included shutting down schools and non-essential business. Fearing an economic crash caused by those measures and the collapse of popular approval, the Brazilian government, led by right-wing populist president Jair Bolsonaro, began to promote denial of COVID-19's severity, claiming the disease was just a "little flu" and accusing the media of promoting panic and hysteria.[31] Bolsonaro also said he "wouldn't feel anything" if infected, and has described quarantines and other measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 as "scorched-earth tactics".[384]

Bolsonaro openly attempted to force sub-national governments (both states and municipalities) into revoking the social isolation measures by launching a campaign called "o Brasil não pode parar" (Brazil can't stop), which received massive backlash both from the media and from the public and was blocked by a court order.[385][386]

Some analysts have noted that Bolsonaro's positions mimic the early positions of US president Donald Trump, who also tried to downplay the pandemic before adopting harsher measures.[387]

China

Mishandling of crisis

Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping (left) and State Council Premier Li Keqiang

Whistleblowing from various Chinese doctors, including Li Wenliang publishing data from Ai Fen on 30 December 2019, revealed that Wuhan hospital authorities were already aware the virus was a SARS-like coronavirus and patients were already placed under quarantine.[388]

In the early stages of the outbreak, the Chinese National Health Commission said they had no "clear evidence" of human-to-human transmissions.[389] On 20 January, the Chinese National Health Commission announced that human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus had already occurred.[390] Later research published on 29 January 2020 indicated that among officially confirmed cases, human-to-human transmission may have started in December of the previous year, and the delay of disclosure on the results until then, rather than earlier in January, was met with criticism towards health authorities.[389] Wang Guangfa, one of the health officials, said that "There was uncertainty regarding the human-to-human transmission",[391] and he was infected by a patient within 10 days of making the statement.[391][392]

On 27 January 2020, The Daily Beast reported that the editor of state-owned People's Daily tweeted an image of a modular container building used for marketing purposes by Henan K-Home Steel Structure Co., Ltd. and not of the actual hospital. The tweet stated that the first building of the Huoshenshan Hospital had been completed in 16 hours. A Human Rights Watch researcher claimed that the post was part of the Chinese government's misinformation campaign to hype certain aspects of the government's response.[393] The tweet was later removed and replaced with a video of the modular container buildings being assembled at Huoshenshan Hospital again stating the first building had been completed in 16 hours.[394]

On 15 February 2020, China's paramount leader and Party general secretary Xi Jinping published an article which claimed he had been warned of the epidemic on 7 January 2020 and issued a request for information on activities to contain the spread of the disease on the same day. However, Yahoo! News reported that a public announcement of that 7 January 2020 meeting released before February had no mention of the epidemic, and claimed that Xi's claim was retroactively fit and thus untrue.[395][396]

Origin of virus

On Voice of America Geng Shuang promoted claims that the US had engineered a bioweapon.

Reports from CNN and The Washington Post said 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.[397][398] 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".[399] United States Department of State officials,[400] as well as sinologist Dali Yang have said the "Chinese campaign" appears intended to deflect attention away from the Chinese government's mishandling of the crisis.[399]

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 the US government, specifically the US Army, had spread the virus.[210][398] No evidence supports these claims.[398][401] 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, who use the platform to promote the Chinese government and defend it against criticism.[398] China's ambassador to South Africa also amplified these claims on Twitter.[397][402] 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.[403][404] In addition, articles from Counterpunch,[405] and Asia Times,[406] as well as the Chinese scientist Zhong Nanshan have brought up speculations that the virus may not have originated in China.[407]

An "intentional disinformation campaign" by China was discussed among the Group of Seven (G7),[408] and the Chinese efforts were condemned by the US Department of State,[397] which criticized Chinese authorities for spreading "dangerous and ridiculous" conspiracy claims.[400] The US summoned China's ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, to issue a "stern representation" over the Chinese government's claims;[400] Cui had disavowed the US military conspiracy theory as "crazy" in a February interview and affirmed his belief in another one in mid-March.[409]

It was 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 submitted for publication.[410]

Cuba

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.[1] The Chinese embassy in Cuba also made similar claims. Several Latin American news outlets[411][412] relayed the story, which was also relayed on social media, and the claims were eventually translated to Portuguese and French.[413] 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.[413]

Egypt

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."[414][415]

Iran

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested the US government was responsible for the spread of coronavirus.

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".[337][30]

Bahrain accused Iran of "biological aggression that is criminalised by international law" by lying about the extent of the outbreak in Iran.[416]

Mexico

Mexico's federal government has been slow to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic as of late March 2020, with a great deal of criticism.[417] 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.[26][418]

Russia

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".[419] On 18 March, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the findings.[420] 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."[13]

Serbia

As Coronavirus spread throughout Europe, on February 26, president Aleksandar Vučić called for 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.[421]

In April 2020, a decree that limited access to public information about COVID-19 was announced and a journalist has been 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, it was revoked and the journalist has been released.[22][23][24] The declared goal of the decree was to limit the spread of fake news about the coronavirus in Serbia. On April 21, Dr. Predrag Kon, being a guest on a TV show, "Ćirilica" on HAPPY TV confirmed that there was indeed a lack of medical supplies.[422][423]

Turkmenistan

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.[424][425] 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".[426] According to Chronicles of Turkmenistan, state media did not begin reporting on the measures that had been taken until 25 March.[427] 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.[428]

United Arab Emirates

According to the BuzzFeed News, "Twitter took down a pro–United Arab Emirates network of accounts that was pushing propaganda about the coronavirus".[429]

United Kingdom

The Mail on Sunday newspaper, which played a key role in disseminating the theory that the virus was developed by a Chinese lab in January 2020, claimed 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."[430][431]

United States

According to the Washington Post, Republican government members were largely influenced by series of articles by Richard A. Epstein of the Hoover Institution, who in a series of articles 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.[432]

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.[433][434][435][436] For instance, 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).[437]

Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, was widely criticized for providing poor and misleading information to the public.[438][439][440] 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."[441] 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.[441]

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in April 2020 has refused to rule out the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 escaped from Wuhan Institute of Virology during experiments and China covered it.[442][443]

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.[444]

Presidential

In the early stages of the pandemic, Trump's pronouncements "evolved from casual dismissal to reluctant acknowledgment to bellicose mobilization".[445]

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."[446][447][448][449] At the time, SARS-CoV-2 had been spreading in the United States undetected for weeks,[450] and new vaccine development may require a minimum of a year to prove safety and efficacy to gain regulatory approval.[451] 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",[452][453][454] 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.[455][456] In a later tweet, Trump denied having made claims regarding infected individuals going to work, contrary to footage from the interview.[456]

14 March press briefing

The White House accused media of intentionally stoking fears of the virus to destabilize the administration.[457] 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."[458] 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.[459][460][461]

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."[462][463][464][465]

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".[466] The length of time is due in part to regulations and safeguards intended to guarantee efficacy and safety.[467]

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.[468]

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.[469][470]

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.[471] 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.[472] 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.[473] At a later press briefing, Trump prevented Fauci from answering a question about the medical evidence of the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine.[474] 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.[475] Potentially serious side effects from chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine include irregular heartbeats, tinnitus, blurred vision, muscle weakness or "mental changes".[475][476] Overdoses of these drugs have been documented in scientific literature, including fatal overdoses.[475] Demand for chloroquine in Lagos, Nigeria sharply increased after Trump's comments, with three people overdosing by 23 March.[477] 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.[478]

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.[479]

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 December 31, 2019.[480] The test was designed in 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control under the Trump administration.[481] Trump continued to make the false claim on 19 April.[482]

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.[483]

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.[484][485] The vice director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology called the accusations a "conspiracy theory".[486]

U.S. president Donald Trump suggested at a press briefing on 23 April that disinfectant injections or exposure to ultraviolet light might help treat COVID-19. There is no evidence that either could be a viable method.[487]

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".[488][489] The next day, the White House accused the media of taking Trump's words "out of context", while Trump defended himself by claiming he'd spoken in a "very sarcastic" manner and that he'd 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."[490] 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.[491] 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.[492]

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".[493] 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.[493][493] 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.[494] 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."[494]

Scams

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.[495] Also, the Federal Communications Commission has warned consumers not to click on links in suspicious emails or give out personal information in emails, text messages or phone calls claiming to be representatives from the CDC.[496] Many financial companies, like Wells Fargo[497] and LoanDepot,[498] have posted similar warnings on their websites.

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.[499]

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.[500]

Links that purportedly direct to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus map, but instead direct to a false site that spreads malware, have been circulating on the Internet.[501][502]

Miscellaneous

Name of the disease

Social media posts and internet memes claimed that COVID-19 means "Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease 19", or similar, as supposedly the "19th virus to come out of China".[503] 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).[504]

Bat soup

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.[505][506] 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.[505][506][507][508] Wang posted an apology on Weibo,[507][508] in which she said she had been abused and threatened,[507] and that she had only wanted to showcase Palauan cuisine.[507][508] The spread of misinformation about bat consumption has been characterized by xenophobic and racist sentiment toward Asians.[105][509][510] In contrast, scientists suggest the virus originated in bats and migrated into an intermediary host animal before infecting people.[105][511]

Hospital conditions

United States hospitals have been silencing doctors and other staff, threatening to fire them if they publicly speak about inadequacies in working-conditions and lack of equipment.[512][513] The Washington State Nurses Association says there is an effort by hospitals to preserve their image.[512]

Some conservative figures[who?] in the United States downplayed the scale of the pandemic, saying it has been exaggerated[by whom?] 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.[514]

Lions freed on the streets

A social media joke suggesting lions had been freed to keep people off the streets in Moscow was passed around as if it were true.[515][516]

Patient Zero

In March, conspiracy theorists started the false rumor that Maatje Benassi, a U.S. army reservist, was "Patient Zero" of the pandemic, or the first person to be infected with coronavirus. Benassi was targeted due to her participation in the Military World Games, held in Wuhan before the pandemic started, even though she never actually tested positive for the virus.[517] 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.

Return of wildlife

During the pandemic, many false and misleading images or news reports about the environmental impact of the coronavirus pandemic were shared by clickbait journalism sources and social media.[518]

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.[519] The state-owned China News Service[citation needed] 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.[518]

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.[518] 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 due to a lack of water pollution that was initially reported.[520]

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 more common small Indian civet.[521] 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.[522]

Simpsons prediction

Claims that The Simpsons had predicted the coronavirus 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 out to be false, with the claim being widely spread on social media.[523][524]

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 SARSCoV-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.[525][526][527]

See also

Notes

1.^ Granma is owned by the ruling political party in Cuba, the Communist Party of Cuba.

References

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