Since the coronavirus pandemic started, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and fake news about COVID-19 have spread. Is it true that the virus escaped a Chinese military laboratory? Or was it created in an American laboratory just to hit China? Is it true that it was foreseen by a novel, by Nostradamus, on The Simpsons, or by the medium Sylvia Browne? And is it true that behind everything there was the mastermind of … Bill Gates?
In the past few months, we have seen and heard all kinds of conspiracy theories and hoaxes. Every single day brought a new one, and it would require at least a book to examine them all. However, the basic idea behind many of these claims is that they are not telling us everything, meaning that important information is kept hidden from us.
Especially during the early stages of the epidemic when the Chinese government proved reluctant to share the news, anyone could say anything—and it would be hard to disprove. Among the most common and enduring beliefs was the idea that the virus was artificially produced in a laboratory. It was said that a microbiological research center is located in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the epidemic, that was supposedly involved in “China’s secret biological weapons program.”
Faced with statements of this kind, one must always ask: What is the evidence? Clearly, it is not theoretically impossible for a virus created in a laboratory to get out of control and spread outside causing disasters. But the question is: How do people who talk about it on Facebook or make videos or WhatsApp voice messages know that the coronavirus was created in a laboratory as part of a biological weapons program?
Well, it seems that the main source of this rumor is an Israeli secret service officer, Dany Shoham. The Israeli secret services, of course, are among the characters who never fail to indulge in conspiracy theories, even if in this case it is a former secret agent. Shoham gave an interview to the Washington Times (Gertz 2020)—not the Washington Post, the serious newspaper responsible for many investigations that revealed real conspiracies (starting with the investigation into Watergate, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon). No, here we are talking about the Washington Times, which is actually an extremist newspaper accustomed to feeding absurd conspiracy theories such as the idea that smoking doesn’t actually hurt the lungs, that there is no climate change going on, or that former President Barack Obama was not American but instead African.
It is therefore not surprising that such a newspaper interviewed a character such as Dany Shoham. But back to the main question: What evidence did Shoham provide? He revealed that a top-secret bacteriological laboratory existed in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus. But actually, that’s not really secret information, considering that three years ago Nature magazine dedicated an article to it and told about the research that takes place inside the lab (Cyranoski 2017).
What about the evidence that COVID-19 was created in a lab? And, specifically, in Wuhan’s lab? Well … there is none. After all, Shoham is not new to these type of claims; in the past he had tried to get some publicity by spreading other conspiracy theories, which then turned out to be totally unfounded. This, of course, did not prevent TV and newspapers all over the world from picking up the fake news and reporting it as if it were real. But the job of a serious journalist is to inquire and verify before giving news. Go back to the source, ascertain where a video, photo, or recording comes from, who the people talking really are, their competences, and what they are really talking about.
Instead, some newspapers made no effort to ascertain the news and simply spread it instead. Why? Because obviously during an emergency, sensationalistic titles attract viewers, and maybe there will be more people who will click on their links, increasing advertising revenues.
But it is precisely because of journalists who do not do their job properly that traditional media—newspapers and TV—risk losing credibility and seeing their audience drop. And it is no wonder, then, that when people get information online, they absorb all kinds of nonsense.
It is true, in short, that often certain theories are born and propagate on social networks, but it is only thanks to traditional media—and particularly television—that they often manage to assume a mass relevance that turns them into the subject of discussion.
Today, it is a lot more difficult to argue that coronavirus is an artificial product of a laboratory, because the structure of its DNA has been analyzed, and what can be seen excludes that it is an artificial product. For example, a study in Nature Medicine showed that on the entire COVID-19 DNA sequence, numerous randomly distributed point variations are observed that differentiate it from other known coronaviruses—a trademark of natural selection (Andersen et al. 2020). Contrary to the beliefs of conspiracists, if the virus had been created in the laboratory, it would not have been difficult to identify in well-located parts of its sequence, the insertion of entire blocks of foreign DNA, which is a trademark instead of genetic manipulation.
The origin of COVID-19, therefore, is natural. It is a virus that does not appear to cause problems in animals, but once it passes to humans—who are devoid of the specific antibodies with which to defend themselves—it can have lethal consequences. However, in the case of COVID-19, it is not yet clear which animals are involved in the species jump. Bats—which, like us, are mammals—are thought to have functioned as biological reservoirs: animals that usually do not get sick but can harbor several coronaviruses.
Also, based on this news, the hoax engine was immediately unleashed. For example, Daily Mail, a British tabloid newspaper, wrote that the virus was spread by Chinese people who eat bat soup. They also published a video (apparently) proving it (Thomson 2020). The news was immediately shared tens of thousands of times on the newspaper’s social networks. But it is a classic example of misinformation that mixes authentic facts, taken out of context, and prejudices that confirm a certain vision of the world.
In this case, the video shows a Chinese woman eating bat soup. But she is not a victim of the virus but instead a famous travel blogger who is tasting a specialty of the Palau archipelago—far from China. Oh, and all this happened in 2016, four years before the spread of the coronavirus.
But the video takes advantage of the hypothesis that the virus comes from bats, and this can help create a narrative that fits in with a certain morbid and often racist Western curiosity about the eating habits of the Chinese people. A title such as “Revolting Footage Shows Chinese Woman Eating a Whole Bat at a Fancy Restaurant as Scientists Link the Deadly Coronavirus to the Flying Mammals” (Thomson 2020)—which is exactly what Daily Mail titled their story—is not totally false. But it’s not even true.
The British newspaper the Guardian, in response to this way of presenting things, suggests going to YouTube and looking for videos of Westerners who feed on black pudding. You can find many such videos, but nowhere will you find one titled “Disgusting Footage Shows Englishmen Guzzling Pig’s Blood as Europeans Depart Country in Disgust” (Wong 2020). It’s not totally untrue, but it’s also not true.
We should encourage the public to make it customary to ask for evidence every time claims are being made about health issues, such as the ones related to COVID-19. It is necessary to refer only to the facts that are scientifically ascertained. One should not listen to just a single scientist—who can always be wrong—but evaluate the complete set of studies. Although the studies were few at the beginning of the pandemic, and therefore the uncertainty was very high, now they are more numerous and allow us to improve the knowledge we have about this phenomenon every day.
Of course, those who leap to scientific certainties overnight perhaps do not understand how science works. Research needs to verify, test hypotheses, observe the evolution of phenomena, and replicate studies—all things that require time and patience, just as the development of a vaccine capable of protecting us from this type of virus will take time. In the meantime, let’s avoid websites or “news” channels that scream sensationalism. Let’s not share yet another hoax that we see circulating on social networks. And let’s try to evaluate only objective and verified facts, referring, for example, to reliable sites such as that of the World Health Organization. (A list of resources can also be found at the Center for Inquiry’s Coronavirus Resource Center, https://centerforinquiry.org/coronavirus/.)
This way, we will all do our small part in limiting the “infodemic” of misinformation, an epidemic that, unfortunately, at the moment has proven to be unstoppable.
- Andersen, Kristian G., Andrew Rambaut, W. Ian Lipkin, et al. 2020. The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nature Medicine 26: 450–452. Available online at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9.
- Cyranoski, David. 2017. Inside the Chinese lab poised to study world’s most dangerous pathogens. Nature (February 22). Available online at https://www.nature.com/news/inside-the-chinese-lab-poised-to-study-world-s-most-dangerous-pathogens-1.21487.
- Gertz, Bill. 2020. Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China’s biowarfare program. The Washington Times (January 26). Available online at https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/jan/26/coronavirus-link-to-china-biowarfare-program-possi/.
- Thomson, Billie. 2020. Revolting footage shows Chinese woman eating a whole bat at a fancy restaurant as scientists link the deadly coronavirus to the flying mammals. Daily Mail (January 23). Available online at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7920573/Revolting-footage-shows-Chinese-woman-eating-bat-scientists-link-coronavirus-animal.html.
- Wong, Julia Carrie. 2020. As the coronavirus spreads, misinformation is spreading even faster. The Guardian (February 1). Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/31/coronavirus-misinformation-spread-facebook-conspiracy-theories.