Beware the super-spreaders of coronavirus conspiracy theories

2 March 2020

2:28 AM

2 March 2020

2:28 AM

When a new virus is discovered, conspiracy theories often spread faster than the disease. I’ve been following the debate in China and the latest theory doing the rounds on social media is: what if the coronavirus didn’t come from China, but originated in the US instead? It would be classic CIA, wouldn’t it?

The outbreak of this particular rumour can be traced to a medical pundit on Taiwanese TV two days ago. He referenced an academic paper which shows five different ‘families’ of coronavirus:  A to E. But all 80,000 Chinese coronavirus cases belonged to one group: C. In the US, there are only 70 cases but a far greater variety with all five ‘families’ present. Now comes the conspiracy theory; surely this proves that America is the home of coronavirus, with one strain – C – being (deliberately or otherwise) released in China?

The pundit speculated that while there have been 14,000 deaths of the flu in America over the last winter already – do we really know all of these cases are down to the flu, and not the coronavirus? Might Americans be downplaying the extent of this? Charitably, one can put this theory down to a misreading of the paper in question and a lack of proper scientific understanding. Some American officials suspect the hand of Moscow stirring the pot; pumping out anti-American fake news.

But digital media is also pretty good at debunking the fake news. It didn’t take long for experts to point out that the first case in America was a man from Wuhan, or that the flu death toll isn’t much higher than previous winters. Or that there are four, not only the one, families of coronavirus in mainland China, and mutation can be easily traced from China to the US. Yet lies continue to make their way around the world before truth gets its boots on, as Mark Twain knew. In this case, China’s patriotic keyboard warriors didn’t need much prompting to accuse the CIA of letting the disease loose in China and covering up the American death toll.

But it’s not just the Chinese who fall foul to fake news. Over in America, there’s a mirror image conspiracy: that the coronavirus came from a virology lab in Wuhan. Here is Senator Tom Cotton in a call-and-answer Fox interview asking the important questions:

Needless to say, the theory dissolves on contact with research into the genetic makeup of the virus, with 27 public health scientists from outside of China taking to the Lancet journal to condemn the speculations.

Plenty of other theories abound. Including…

  • That there are mass graves built just outside Wuhan for incineration of the dead, based on higher than normal sulphur levels in the air (debunked here)
  • That Bill Gates is funding the pandemic because it helps business for Big Pharma (debunked here)
  • And – my personal favourite – that the 5G rollout of internet access in Wuhan and across the world is causing ‘5G related illnesses’, which are covered up as the coronavirus (debunked here).

The Internet is so rife with conspiracies that the social media platform Reddit has had to place its forums ‘r/Wuhan_Flu’ and ‘r/CoronavirusConspiracy’ under quarantine, only letting registered users in after they click through a health warning screen.

As Ross Clark wrote this week, the coronavirus is less of a threat to our respiratory tracts than it is to ‘our inner sense of angst’. With British officials braced for a big coronavirus week, it’s likely that the super-spreading of conspiracy theories is just getting started.

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