Coronavirus conspiracy theories and myths debunked

COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus, is the biggest story in the world right now, a global pandemic forcing radical changes in society. With people constantly talking about it, it’s no surprise that rumors and conspiracy theories are circulating all over the internet. Here are some of the more popular conspiracy theories and rumors, and what they get wrong.

5G is spreading the virus

The rumor: The latest generation of cellular network technology, 5G, has inspired conspiracy theories in the past, with people claiming the radio waves can cause cancer, among other things. Now that the coronavirus is the biggest public health crisis in the world, conspiracy theorists are claiming that 5G is contributing to the problem, either by weakening peoples’ immune systems or even transmitting the virus. The theory is getting boosted by celebrities like Woody Harrelson, and arsonists have set fire to a number of 5G antennas in the United Kingdom, prompting YouTube to remove 5G conspiracy videos.

The truth: First, let’s tackle the idea that 5G can transmit the virus. At the moment, public health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe the transmission mechanism like so: “The virus is thought to spread mainly between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.”

It should be noted that 5G is a spectrum of electromagnetic waves, not droplets. Although viruses can survive for a limited time outside of a host, it’s generally a short period (research indicates that coronavirus can survive for up to 72 hours on stainless steel or plastic surfaces). There is no evidence that radio waves can transmit the virus, nor that 5G towers could sustain the virus for any significant amount of time.

As for whether 5G weakens the immune system: According to the World Health Organization, “to date, and after much research performed, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies.” Finally, 5G falls under the non-ionizing portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, meaning that the waves lack the power to damage cells.

Ibuprofen is bad for coronavirus victims

The rumor:  The Lancet, an old and distinguished medical journal, published a letter hypothesizing that anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen, might increase the risk of coronavirus infection by spurring the increase of a particular enzyme called ACE2.

French Health Minister Olivier Véran gave the idea an official backing with a tweet warning that ibuprofen could be dangerous.

The truth: The ibuprofen hypothesis was just that, a hypothesis. The Lancet letter was calling for investigation into the effects of drugs that stimulate ACE-2 .

One of the researchers involved, professor Michael Roth, later said, the letter “does not constitute a recommendation to use certain drugs or not. Patients should always follow the instructions given by their physicians.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) stated on March 18 that it does not currently have any evidence that ibuprofen exacerbates coronavirus. That said, ibuprofen has always had some negative side effects, and you should talk to your doctor if you’re worried about them.

The virus is a biological weapon/made in a lab

The rumor: Conspiracy theories make for great drama, and what could be more dramatic than learning that the coronavirus was engineered in a lab, a mad experiment run amok, or even released on society intentionally. This theory is surprisingly popular: According to a Pew survey, 23 percent of Americans think the virus was created intentionally in a lab, while an additional 6 percent think it was made accidentally.

The truth: While it might be fun to imagine coronavirus is a government creation (it would certainly make for a great HBO miniseries), science suggests the truth is that coronavirus came about through boring, old-fashioned natural selection.

In a study published in Nature, researchers analyzed the structure of the coronavirus to glean insights into how it may have evolved, and whether it might really have been man-made. First, they examined the virus’s ability to bind to an enzyme called ACE2, which is found in the lungs, heart, and other organs. Although the coronavirus binds well to ACE2, the researchers noted that “computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal” and that the combination of high affinity with room to improve “is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.”

The researchers also noted that, if humans had made the coronavirus, they would have used one of the previous human-compatible coronaviruses as a foundation, yet the genetic data indicates that COVID-19 was not derived “from any previously used virus backbone.” Instead, they find it likely that this coronavirus adapted, making the leap from animals (such as bats or pangolins) to humans.

Vitamin C, bleach, and supplements can cure it

The rumor: In times of plague, people naturally grow desperate for cures. Social media, with its lack of fact-checking, has been a breeding ground for rumors about miracle treatments to ward off the virus, including, shockingly enough, people recommending you drink bleach (don’t). President Donald Trump has even speculated exploring whether to inject household cleaners into patients to treat the virus.

The truth: Bleach is great for disinfecting household surfaces, not the inside of your body. People have turned to other supplements, such as colloidal silver, in the hopes of preventing the virus, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that these products are fraudulent and may even harm you.

Vitamin C has long had a reputation for boosting the immune system, and as a result, people are spreading claims that big doses of it can cure coronavirus. As Peter McCaffery, a professor of biochemistry, writes in The Conversation, although vitamin C is important for your body, past evidence indicates “it’s unlikely that taking vitamin C will prevent or cure you of a COVID-19 infection.”

And the makers of Lysol have warned users never to drink or inject household cleaners into their bodies.

The virus is not that bad

The rumor: Coronavirus is no worse than the flu, and maybe even less dangerous. This is a common thread you’ll see in public discussions about the disease. Even President Donald Trump has compared the coronavirus to the flu, pointing out that the U.S. never shuts down over the latter.

The truth: There are certainly similarities between the coronavirus and the flu. Both can have similar symptoms (fever, cough, body aches, fatigue, pneumonia) and both can be spread through droplets.

For coronavirus skeptics, the flu’s high yearly numbers are a reason to dismiss coronavirus panic. There are a few reasons that the coronavirus is causing so much more panic, however. First, what we call the flu is actually a variety of different strains of viruses, whereas the coronavirus is just one virus, yet capable of doing all this damage. Second, coronavirus appears to spread more than the flu; the coronavirus has a reproductive number between 2 and 2.5, meaning that each person who gets it will infect 2 to 2.5 others, whereas the seasonal flu has about a 1.3 reproduction rate.

Finally, while the flu does kill a staggering number of people every year, it has a much lower mortality rate than the coronavirus so far. In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified to Congress that coronavirus has a mortality rate 10 times that of the flu.

The U.S. Army started the virus

The rumor: An official in China’s Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, suggested that the U.S. Army started the virus, pointing to its presence at the Military World Games in Wuhan (where the pandemic began) in October.

The truth: All evidence points to Wuhan as the origin of the outbreak, but China first reported cases December 31. As for the soldiers involved in the Military World Games, the Pentagon reported “no illnesses have been tied to American service members from October,” according to the New York Times. One might suspect that, given its early failings in trying to downplay and suppress information about the virus, the Chinese government is now looking to keep the world’s attention elsewhere while it rehabilitates its image.

For the latest updates on the novel coronavirus outbreak, visit the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 page.

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