By Bertalan Meskó, MD, PhD
One person in Wuhan eats an uncooked bat, and your local Walmart runs out of toilet paper. This is such a surreal scenario, no wonder people are looking for alternative answers to how their normal lives got blown into pieces in the matter of weeks. And while conspiracy theories are usually a marginal phenomenon, in this age of misinformation, these theories seem to take over the place of truth and science.
While the truth is usually complex and often hard to understand, these clean-cut conspiracy narratives are designed to prey on pre-established suspicions, so they can seem like viable alternatives. And unfortunately, in our ever-connected social networks, these theories have a tendency to spread just as rapidly as COVID-19 does.
CONSPIRACY THEORY: COVID-19 escaped from a Chinese lab
FACT: No, it didn’t
Let’s start with the most widespread theory: that the virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory. This rumour came to life because Wuhan has China’s only Level-4 bio-laboratories, where researchers have been studying coronaviruses for a long time, along with lots of other more nasty viruses; and also, because Donald Trump himself believes and spreads this theory. There are maps that show how close the laboratory is to the Wuhan wet market, the suspected epicentre of the outbreak. Since the human brain is naturally wired to look for patterns, people can see this proximity as finding a missing piece of the puzzle.
A Level-4 bio-laboratory has the highest level of bio-containment precautions to isolate dangerous biological agents. This is a universal standard set by the CDC. There IS no Level-5. This is as good as it gets. Therefore, chances of viruses escaping a Level-4 environment are extremely low. But with most conspiracy theories, facts won’t disturb people who want to believe in them.
The idea that the new coronavirus is originated from the Wuhan lab came from a documentary produced by the Epoch Times, an English-language news outlet with links to a Chinese religious cult that has long been persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In their documentary, they insisted on calling COVID-19 as “the CCP-virus.” And since this notion went mainstream, it has even been used by the Trump administration to cast blame on the Chinese, pushing the two countries’ relationship to an all-time low. By helping to spread this theory, people only helped a Chinese anti-government, religious cult they probably didn’t even know exists.
CONSPIRACY THEORY: Coronavirus is a biological weapon
FACT: No, it isn’t
As early as January 2020, conservative Washington Times gave space to a news piece from its national security correspondent Bill Gertz, stating no less than “coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China’s biowarfare program.” In an article in a tabloid back in February, Steven Mosher (an anthropologist, and author of Bully of Asia: Why China’s ‘Dream’ Is the New Threat to World Order) also wrote that the coronavirus may have leaked from a lab in Wuhan. Only one more step from here and many people started to believe that the virus was actually engineered by Chinese scientists as a biological weapon. There was no end to it from this point: news, blogs, social media sites were flooded with this misinformation.
It seems it’s harder to accept that a global catastrophe like this pandemic could happen as easily and coincidentally as it did. But as Neil deGrasse Tyson said,
“The good thing about science is that it’s true
whether or not you believe in it.“
Science clearly proved that COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus, meaning it has spread to people from an animal. Several independent laboratories around the world verified this fact, and even an investigation by the United States military concluded that “the weight of evidence indicates that the virus’ origin is ‘natural'”. But that won’t stop people spreading misinformation, and now nearly three-in-10 Americans believe that COVID-19 was made in a lab.
CONSPIRACY THEORY: COVID-19 is a USA-virus
FACT: No, it isn’t
In response, China deployed its own propaganda machine to push their own agenda. China’s foreign ministry spokesman tweeted that it’s possible that the US military brought the virus to Wuhan. This went widespread in China. As much as Americans believe that the virus came from the Wuhan lab, a lot of people in China believe it was American military personnel who had brought the virus to China during their participation in the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan last October.
Just as Trump was pushing the name “China virus”, there was an accompanying attempt in China to rename COVID-19 the “USA virus”. This blame-shifting has not stopped since and we can only hope things will get better – at least after the November elections.
And now, let’s travel from the land of plausible lies to straight up crazytown.
CONSPIRACY THEORY: 5G networks are accelerating the spread of coronavirus
FACT: No, they aren’t
One of the biggest new conspiracy theories is that 5G networks spread the virus. This theory clearly shows that no PhD is required to create a Twitter account. It should be needless to say that it is biologically impossible for viruses to spread using the electromagnetic spectrum. The latter are waves or photons, while the former are biological particles composed of proteins and nucleic acids. It’s mind-boggling that even a single person buys this.
Source: Financial Times
But that’s how conspiracy theories work.
Take something we fear – like the electromagnetic radiation of 5G networks. Add suspicion – like the notion that there is a hidden agenda behind the rapid rollout of 5G networks. Mix it up, and pour it over something that already preys on our mind – like the fear of COVID-19.
In this case, it was a guy named David Icke, who believes 5G is a global conspiracy to cull the population. His followers claim he is a world renowned scientist, being hunted by the medical industry for saying the truth. In reality, he’s a former football player, a BBC sports presenter – and someone who believes the Earth is run by shape-shifting reptilian humanoids. He also happens to publish twenty books about the most asinine conspiracy theories you can find out there.
And if anyone still believes that it’s 5G towers that spread the virus, ask yourself this: how come that 5G networks are only deployed in 34 countries, while COVID 19 is present in 212 countries at the moment?
CONSPIRACY THEORY: COVID-19 was unleashed by Bill Gates
FACT: No, it wasn’t
Billionaires are elusive figures. Some of them are detached from the rest of us. They are also perfect to be cast as villains. So when the video of Bill Gates resurfaced from 2015 where he warns of a pandemic, some people clearly didn’t understand what the founder of a computer company has to do with epidemiology. Unfortunately, that confusion led to theories, and those theories quickly got out of control. Now there are people who believe the virus was actually created by Bill Gates to make a few more billions on the vaccine.
Only but a few people listened when Bill Gates first talked about a pandemic in the coming – in 2010. In an interview with Stat in 2018, he mentioned that he urged Donald Trump to invest in pandemic preparedness. (The President didn’t listen.) This year the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged up to $100 million to improve detection, isolation and treatment efforts; protect at-risk populations in Africa and South Asia; and accelerate the development of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics.
Gates spent much of the second act of his career initiating and supporting efforts to prevent and control infectious diseases. His knowledge on viruses is on par with the world’s best epidemiologists.
As this COVID-19 conspiracy theory goes, Gates owns the “patent” for the new coronavirus that wasn’t even discovered until January 2020, and he has shares in companies that are currently working around the clock to come up with a vaccine. The latter part is actually true. Gates did help fund many potential coronavirus vaccines. And he’s spending billions of dollars by doing so.
CONSPIRACY THEORY: coronavirus is about money
FACT: really, it isn’t
To the layman, vaccine-production seems like the greatest business in the world. Most everybody’s going to need it sooner or later, so that must be paid by someone. Truth is, the search for and the development of a new vaccine is a highly risky philanthropic endeavour. In other words: it is extremely expensive, time-consuming and risky.
During the SARS epidemic, a team of Texas scientists started developing a promising vaccine against the virus. Years of effort and millions of dollars spent, they finally came close to having a vaccine. But by the time they had it, the SARS was gone and no-one was interested in their findings anymore. At the time there was no reason to continue the research, so the money and the effort was wasted. (Another thing is if they had continued, by now we’d be closer to a vaccine today.)
In an article for The Atlantic, Rachel M. Cohen put it right: “given how little we currently know about Covid-19, if the outbreak peaks and panic wanes, investors and the government could lose interest in funding further stages of Covid-19 clinical trials, just as they did for SARS in 2016.” So yes, some will earn money by making the vaccine, but it’s not a close bet.
Summing it all up
It’s easy to get lost in the theories. People can come up with an infinite number of intriguing narratives. Now, when trust in governments and the media is at an all-time low, there are plenty of conspiracy theorists who’d want to rise and push their own agenda for the susceptible population. And the only thing science can’t do is to fight fire with fire.
When someone claims that the virus was bioengineered, scientists are obliged to say stuff like “we didn’t find evidence” or the “weight of evidence indicates”, even though it’s a near 100 percent certainty. But that’s how science works. It’s subtle. It’s cautious. It’s soft speaking. And that’s its handicap too. But don’t forget:
“when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is usually the one that is true.”
In this case, COVID 19 is exactly what it looks like. An unfortunate, but statistically inevitable event that experts have been warning us for decades and for which our actions are long overdue.
If there’s anything this pandemic should teach us, is that our faith should always be in science, because that’s the only thing that doesn’t have an agenda, and actually is able to lead us out of a crisis. But for that, we need to come together, focus on the common goal, and not be subservient to the small but loud minority who claim they know better.
Because whenever we spread a conspiracy theory, chances are we have not discovered a missing puzzle piece, but we are accidentally pushing someone else’s agenda.
Dr. Bertalan Mesko, PhD is The Medical Futurist and Director of The Medical Futurist Institute analyzing how science fiction technologies can become reality in medicine and healthcare. As a geek physician with a PhD in genomics, he is a keynote speaker and an Amazon Top 100 author.
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