COVID-19Fact Check

Conspiracy Theory: COVID-19 linked to 5G, Billgates, USA Military & Chinese Lab

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. 

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.

As the COVID-19 crisis worsens, the world also faces a global misinformation pandemic. Conspiracy theories that behave like viruses themselves are spreading just as rapidly online as SARS-CoV-2 does offline. Here are the top 10 conspiracy theories making the rounds.


#1. The virus escaped from a Chinese lab

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.

This one at least has the benefit of being plausible. It is true that the original epicenter of the epidemic, the Chinese city of Wuhan, also hosts a virology institute where researchers have been studying bat coronaviruses for a long time. One of these researchers, Shi Zhengli, a prominent virologist who spent years collecting bat dung samples in caves and was a lead expert on the earlier SARS outbreak, was sufficiently concerned about the prospect that she spent days frantically checking lab records to see if anything had gone wrong. She admits breathing a “sigh of relief” when genetic sequencing showed that the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus did not match any of the viruses sampled and studied in the Wuhan Institute of Virology by her team.

However, the sheer coincidence of China’s lead institute studying bat coronaviruses being in the same city as the origin of the COVID outbreak has proven too juicy for conspiracists to resist. The idea was seeded originally via a slick hour-long documentary produced by the Epoch Times, an English-language news outlet based in the United States with links to the Falun Gong religious cult that has long been persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Epoch Times insists on calling COVID “the CCP virus” in all its coverage. The theory has now tipped into the mainstream, being reported in the Washington Post, the Times (UK) and many other outlets.

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.

Fact Check: NOT TRUE


#2. COVID was created as a biological weapon

A spicier variant is that COVID not only escaped from a lab, but it was intentionally created by Chinese scientists as a biowarfare weapon. According to Pew Research, “nearly three-in-10 Americans believe that COVID-19 was made in a lab,” either intentionally or accidentally (the former is more popular: specifically, 23 percent believe it was developed intentionally, with only 6 percent believing it was an accident).

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.

This theory that the Chinese somehow created the virus is particularly popular on the US political right. It gained mainstream coverage thanks to US Sen. Tom Cotton (Republican,  Arkansas) who amplified theories first aired in the Washington Examiner (a highly conservative media outlet) that the Wuhan Institute of Virology “is linked to Beijing’s covert bio-weapons program.”

This theory can be easily debunked now that there is unambiguous scientific evidence — thanks to genetic sequencing — that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has entirely natural origins as a zoonotic virus originating in bats. The Examiner has since added a correction at the top of the original piece admitting the story is probably false.

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.

Fact Check: NOT TRUE


#3. The US military imported COVID into China

The Chinese government responded to the anti-China theories with a conspiracy theory of its own that seeks to turn blame back around onto the United States. This idea was spread initially by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who Tweeted “it’s possible that the US military brought the virus to Wuhan.” These comments, according to Voice of America news, “echoed a rumored conspiracy, widely circulated in China, that US military personnel had brought the virus to China during their participation in the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan last October.” For China, as the Atlantic reported, this conspiracy theory, and an accompanying attempt to rename COVID the “USA virus,”’ was a transparent “geopolitical ploy” — useful for domestic propaganda but not widely believed internationally.

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.

Fact Check: NOT TRUE


#4. GMOs are somehow to blame         

Genetically modified crops have been a target of conspiracy theorists for years, so it was hardly a surprise to see GMOs blamed in the early stages of the COVID pandemic. In early March, Italian attorney Francesco Billota penned a bizarre article for Il Manifesto, falsely claiming that GM crops cause genetic pollution that allows viruses to proliferate due to the resulting environmental “imbalance.” Anti-GMO activists have also tried to blame modern agriculture, which is strange, since the known path of the virus into the human population — as with Ebola, HIV and many others — was through the very ancient practice of people capturing and killing wildlife.

Ironically, GMOs will almost certainly be part of any vaccine solution. If any of the ongoing 70 vaccine projects work (which is a big if), that would be pretty much the only guaranteed way the world can get out of the COVID mess. Vaccines could be based on either GM attenuated viruses or use antigens produced in GM insect cell lines or plants. If GMOs do help save the world from the curse of COVID, maybe they’ll stop being a dirty word.

Fact Check: NOT TRUE


#5. Blaming 5G

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.

This conspiracy theory should be easy to debunk: it is biologically impossible for viruses to spread using the electromagnetic spectrum. The latter are waves/photons, while the former are biological particles composed of proteins and nucleic acids. But that isn’t really the point — conspiracy theories are enticing because they often link two things which at first might appear be correlated; in this case, the rapid rollout of 5G networks was taking place at the same time the pandemic hit. Cue a viral meme linking the two, avidly promoted by anti-vaccine activists who have long been spreading fears about electromagnetic radiation, egged on by the Kremlin.

It’s worth repeating, as the World Health Organization (WHO) points out, that viruses cannot travel on mobile networks, and that COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in many countries that do not have 5G networks. Even so, this conspiracy theory — after being spread by celebrities with big social media followings — has led to cellphone towers being set on fire in the UK and elsewhere.

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?

Fact Check: NOT TRUE


#6. Bill Gates as scapegoat

Most conspiracy theories, like the viruses they resemble, constantly mutate and have several variants circulating at any one time. Many of these plots and subplots seem to involve Bill Gates, who became a new target of disinformation after gently criticizing the defunding of the World Health Organization. According to the New York Times, anti-vaxxers, members of QAnon and right-wing pundits have seized on a video of a 2015 Ted talk given by Gates — where he discussed the Ebola outbreak and warned of a new pandemic — to bolster their claims he had foreknowledge of the COVID pandemic or even purposely caused it.

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.

A recent variant of this conspiracy theory, particularly beloved by anti-vaccination activists, is the idea that COVID is part of a dastardly Gates-led plot to vaccinate the world’s population. There is some truth in this, of course: vaccinating much of the world’s population may well be the only way to avoid an eventual death toll in the tens of millions. But anti-vaxxers don’t believe vaccines work. Instead some have spread the myth that Gates wants to use a vaccination program to implant digital microchips that will somehow track and control people. The spread of misinformation has meant that ID2020, a small non-profit that focuses on establishing digital IDs for poorer people around the world, has had to call in the FBI. (The Cornell Alliance for Science is partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

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.

Fact Check: NOT TRUE


#7. The virus escaped from a Chinese lab

This one at least has the benefit of being plausible. It is true that the original epicenter of the epidemic, the Chinese city of Wuhan, also hosts a virology institute where researchers have been studying bat coronaviruses for a long time. One of these researchers, Shi Zhengli, a prominent virologist who spent years collecting bat dung samples in caves and was a lead expert on the earlier SARS outbreak, was sufficiently concerned about the prospect that she spent days frantically checking lab records to see if anything had gone wrong. She admits breathing a “sigh of relief” when genetic sequencing showed that the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus did not match any of the viruses sampled and studied in the Wuhan Institute of Virology by her team.

However, the sheer coincidence of China’s lead institute studying bat coronaviruses being in the same city as the origin of the COVID outbreak has proven too juicy for conspiracists to resist. The idea was seeded originally via a slick hour-long documentary produced by the Epoch Times, an English-language news outlet based in the United States with links to the Falun Gong religious cult that has long been persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Epoch Times insists on calling COVID “the CCP virus” in all its coverage. The theory has now tipped into the mainstream, being reported in the Washington Post, the Times (UK) and many other outlets.

Fact Check: NOT TRUE


#8. The virus was created to make money

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.

Fact Check: NOT TRUE


Final Verdict

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.

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. 

 

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