Australia

The most common conspiracy theories about coronavirus debunked

A man and his dog in Turin, Italy, during the coronavirus outbreak Source: Getty

From the origins of the virus to how it transmits, an Australian health security expert and an immunology professor address some of the conspiracy theories and myths being shared about COVID-19.

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens day by day, conspiracy theories and myths about the virus have become rife.

From social media threads to thought bubbles put out by world leaders, there is an array of misinformation that experts say could end up being life-threatening.

"People's lives are at stake ... This misinformation is complicating the response in unhelpful ways," University of Sydney health security expert Adam Kamradt-Scott told SBS News. Here are just some examples. 

'Coronavirus is man-made'

Since the beginning of the outbreak late last year, there has been wild conjecture about the origins of COVID-19.

Former Australian Liberal minister Bronwyn Bishop suggested China created the virus for its own nefarious reasons.

"It is to get rid of non-productive Chinese ... So they don't have to be fed," Ms Bishop told Sky News.

She also said China planned to "export the virus into the United States" and "test whether or not it is possible for this sort of action to send the rest of the world into recession".

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In a similar vein, a conspiracy theory has been widely shared on social media that COVID-19 originated from a Chinese laboratory and was connected to biological weapons research.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have floated their own conspiracy theories. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian suggested it might be US army who "brought the epidemic" to China.

Iran's former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also wrote to the World Health Organization (WHO) to urge an investigation into the "biological war against humanity", questioning why US adversaries have been so badly hit.

Another conspiracy theory suggests American business magnate and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates planned the whole coronavirus outbreak as he stands to profit from it.

The list goes one. But none of these point to how COVID-19 actually originated.

People wear protective masks and suits at Beijing Railway Station.
People wear protective masks and suits at Beijing Railway Station.
Getty

According to WHO, "the evidence is highly suggestive" that the outbreak is associated with exposures at a seafood and animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

Some of the first people that were identified to have COVID-19 visited or worked the market.

It has widely been reported that the virus originated after the consumption of a bat, but Associate Professor Kamradt-Scott said it's not that simple.

He said a bat may have been the source, as other coronaviruses have originated in bats, but there could have been another "intermediary animal" between bats and humans.

He said the Wuhan market was a perfect storm of conditions for the spread of a virus from bat to beyond.

There was a range of live and dead animals in close proximity, wet spaces "which viruses and bacteria love", and huge numbers of people coming and going from the market. 

"That creates the opportunity for ... zoonotic diseases - those diseases that originate in animals - to go on and infect humans," Associate Professor Kamradt-Scott said.

Disinfection work at Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market.
Disinfection work at Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market.
Getty

Stuart Tangye is head of the Immunology and Immunodeficiency Lab at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney. He said the animal to human transmission "is certainly not unprecedented".

"The SARS virus in 2002-2003 did exactly the same thing and we've seen swine flu and bird flu, which are viruses that have originated in animals and have crossed into humans."

"When you have people [like Bronwyn Bishop on Sky News] talking to a large population base and spreading misinformation, it really does a disservice to the community, to public policy, to public health and to scientists."

"You don't want ex-politicians or shock jocks being the faces or voices of public health emergencies."

'The virus is in the air'

Associate Professor Kamradt-Scott said there is a troubling amount of misinformation around how COVID-19 is transmitted. 

"There's been a lot of focus on, and people have been postulating, that the coronavirus is airborne," he said.

"But there's no evidence of that internationally."

He said the misinformation blurs people's understanding of how they can catch the virus and what they can do to prevent its spread.

Health authorities say the virus is spread by "contaminated droplets".

"Human coronaviruses are spread from someone infected with COVID-19 virus to other close contacts with that person through contaminated droplets spread by coughing or sneezing, or by contact with contaminated hands, surfaces or objects," NSW Health material said.

"Most people catch COVID-19 from close contact with someone who has it ... [But] studies suggest that coronaviruses, including preliminary information on the COVID-19 virus, may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days."

Research in the New England Journal of Medicine found COVID-19 was still found on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic and steel for up to 72 hours. But the amount of virus decreased over these time periods.

Professor Tangye said "shelves in supermarkets, handrails on busses, door handles to get into buildings, all these surfaces can harbour the virus for a short period of time in an infections state".

"So it's really important to maintain not only the social distancing but also good hygiene, wiping down surfaces using alcohol-based cleaners or sanitisers to destroy the virus."

And he said while "socially, psychologically, it's not great", staying at home apart from essential outings will be "far better [for curbing the spread of COVID-19] than business as usual".

'I can catch coronavirus from my dog'

Speculation is rife that pets can get COVID-19 and pass it on to humans. The rumour began after a woman and her dog in Hong Kong both returned positive test for coronavirus.

The Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said the dog had a "low-level of infection with the virus" but the internet lit up with theories about pets and COVID-19, resulting in grim real-world consequences.

A man and his dog in Italy.
No animals have become sick with COVID-19 in Australia.
Getty

"It led to people throwing their pets out of tall buildings," Associate Professor Kamradt-Scott said.

But he said, "there is no evidence of pets being infected and serving as a vector to infect humans".

The point is echoed by NSW Health.

"There is no reason to think that any animals including pets in Australia might be a source of infection with this new virus. There have been no reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19 in Australia," NSW Health material said.

And in the fallout, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department stressed, "there is currently no evidence that pet animals can be a source of infection of COVID-19 or that they become sick".

'There are DIY home remedies for coronavirus'

Countless remedies of how to prevent or treat COVID-19 have been shared on social media.

Popular theories include that eating garlic or drinking more alcohol will stave off coronavirus. 

In China, a respiratory expert recommended rinsing your mouth with a saltwater solution to prevent infection while US President Donald Trump pushed unproven treatments, recently saying malaria treatments hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are potential remedies.

Eating garlic will not help with COVID-19
Eating garlic will not help with COVID-19
World Health Organization

But the World Health Organisation is definitive.

"To date, there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus," WHO material said.

"Those infected with the virus should receive appropriate care to relieve and treat symptoms, and those with severe illness should receive optimised supportive care."

"Some specific treatments are under investigation, and will be tested through clinical trials."

Donald Trump talks to reporters.
Donald Trump talks to reporters.
Getty

While home remedies and hearsay around treatments may seem harmless, Associate Professor Kamradt-Scott said they are "extremely concerning".

He pointed to how one man in the US had already died after self-medicating with the toxic chemical chloroquine phosphate, after hearing Mr Trump's comments. 

"Trump kept saying it was basically pretty much a cure," the man's wife claimed in an interview with NBC.

Mr Trump later said at a press conference: "We have a pandemic. We have people dying now. If we're going to go into labs and test all of this for a long time, we can test it on people right now who are in serious trouble, who are dying. If it works, we've done a great thing. If it doesn't work, you know, we tried". 

Associate Professor Kamradt-Scott said myths around COVID-19 treatments are "based on conjecture or flimsy evidence and can actually cause more medical harm than good".

"As soon as we have evidence that there are treatments that are going to be effective, in reducing the severity of illness and ideally even develop a cure in the form of a vaccine, the Australian government will let people know."

He said there was the "equivalent of an arms race in terms of vaccination development around the world at the moment", with billions of dollars being spent internationally.

Liberian police officers tand next to a poster that reads 'ebola is real'.
Liberian police officers tand next to a poster that reads 'ebola is real'.
Getty

Conspiracy theories and myths around health emergencies are not new, especially in the social media age.

During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, a conspiracy theory claimed it was a fake crisis created by then-US President Barack Obama to nationalise the country's health care system.

Another conspiracy theory was that the virus was engineered by the CIA to help US Congress justify the repurchasing of pandemic preparedness supplies.

While during the ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2013–2016, there were rumours the virus was a government plot to depopulate poor people, then an international plot to depopulate the region for resources.

Associate Professor Kamradt-Scott, who was in West Africa during the crisis, said misinformation and counter misinformation got so bad that governments ended up using a simple three-word slogan: ebola is real.

"We need to listen to reputable medical advice, rather than what people read on the internet or what they've heard from a neighbour's son who has a cousin who heard their neighbour say something," he said.

"COVID-19 is a life and death situation. We need people to take this seriously." 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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