One of the things that the internet has allowed to happen is the very rapid spread of lies and misinformation about all sorts of subjects. Before the internet, someone with a conspiracy theory had to do a lot of work to have their ideas heard by the public. This usually involved publishing some sort of pamphlet or book, or standing on the street and yelling about their idea to the people passing by. Today, all one needs to get a conspiracy going is internet access and a social media account. We’ve seen it with vaccines, and now we are seeing it with the novel coronavirus situation originating in China.
Please note that we are not linking to these conspiracy theory sites in order not to give them traffic revenue nor boost their rankings on search engines. If you would like more information on them, please ask in the comment section.
Some less harmful conspiracy theories come from people reading labels on disinfectants and misunderstanding the situation. Because some disinfectants read that they kill the human coronavirus, people are questioning why such a big deal is being made of the one coming out of China. They fail to understand that six coronavirus types are known to cause disease in humans. Four of them are not a big deal since they cause cold-like symptoms. Two are capable of causing severe disease: SARS and MERS. Now, we have a seventh virus capable of causing disease in humans, and it joins SARS and MERS in its level of severity. The reason why it is called “novel” (“new”) is that it is new to humans, having previously existed in animals and recently jumped species to us.
Coronaviruses are also known to cause disease in dogs. In some countries, a vaccine against canine coronavirus is available. That has led other people to theorize that vaccine manufacturers somehow mutated the virus to sell more vaccines (the same vaccine as that given to dogs) to the public. For this conspiracy, they use images of the canine coronavirus vaccine box:
More serious conspiracy theories seek to associate the coronavirus epidemic to — what else? — vaccination. As David Gorski, MD, has noted, there is a conspiracy theory now circulating that those vaccinated against influenza are more likely to contract coronavirus:
Um, no. Not exactly. Is viral interference a thing? The very study cited by this antivaxxer notes that the evidence is conflicting, with two large vaccine safety studies having failed to find an increased risk of non-influenza viral ARI after flu vaccination. The idea is that various viruses “interfere” with each other’s ability to cause infection, possibly through nonspecific immunity to one virus inhibiting other viruses, possibly by other mechanisms, meaning that if you eliminate one viral source of infection of ARI (e.g., the flu) then other viruses will fill in the gap to cause more infections.
I note that this was a cohort subanalysis of the community-based study, Mobile Surveillance of Acute Respiratory Infections and Influenza-Like Illness in the Community (MoSAIC), which follows 250 households a year for ARI (acute respiratory infection) surveillance. Cases of ARI were ascertained by twice-weekly text messages to household to identify members with ARI symptoms. Nasal swabs were obtained from ill participants and analyzed for respiratory pathogens using multiplex PCR. The primary outcome measure was the hazard ratio of laboratory-confirmed ARI in individuals post-vaccination compared to other time periods during three influenza seasons. And, yes, the investigators found an increased risk of ARI in those who had had the flu vaccine, with:
“The hazard of non-influenza respiratory pathogens was higher during the same period (HR 1.65, 95% CI [1.14, 2.38]); when stratified by age the hazard remained higher for children (HR 1·71, 95% CI [1.16, 2.53]) but not for adults (HR 0.88, 95% CI [0.21, 3.69]).”
First, one notes that that’s a much smaller hazard ratio than the first cited study, also with a fairly wide 95% confidence interval. Again, it might indicate something going on, but it’s hardly slam-dunk evidence. Again, the numbers are small, and it’s not clear that all confounding factors have been accounted for.
Dr. Gorski also mentions another conspiracy, this one having to do with a “failed vaccine”:
”Yes, Lyons-Weiler is actually suggesting that the Chinese sensitized their population with a SARS vaccine and that the vaccine strain of virus escaped from the lab. He soon realizes that that possibility would mean that this outbreak would likely be short and quickly contained, as there is no evidence that China ever conducted a mass vaccination program against SARS. There is, after all, as yet no approved vaccine for SARS. So he has to add that bit about the “worst case scenario” in which 2019-nCoV is more contagious and lethal. The problem is that we already know that it’s definitely not more lethal than MERS (not even close, given that MERS is 34% fatal) and likely not more lethal than SARS. He’s just pulling these speculations out of his nether regions. Whatever the origin of 2019-nCoV, Institut Pasteur has not only isolated and sequenced the responsible strain, but figured out how to grow large amounts of it in culture, paving the way to studies to determine the mechanism for its pathogenicity and to develop an effective vaccine.
James Lyons-Weiler’s speculations and fear mongering just go to show how even a scientist can fall under the spell of antivaccine pseudoscience (or any other conspiracy theory-driven pseudoscience). My guess is that the Lyons-Weiler who once ran a genomics core would have recognized that the “science” that the antivaccine Lyons-Weiler of today is laying down is nothing more than wild speculation that’s based on only the thinnest of scientific gruel and highly unlikely to be true. More’s the pity. Even worse, because he has a background in molecular biology, his conspiracy theory will sound plausible to most lay people.”
Another rumor about the coronavirus epidemic is that a patented vaccine or virus (depends on the website you’re reading) is responsible for the epidemic. As FactCheck.org states, there is no evidence that any of this has anything to do with the current epidemic:
“One patent is for a genetic sequence of the virus that causes SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, a disease that spread to dozens of countries in 2003, sickening more than 8,000 people and killing 774.
“The sequencing was done at the CDC during the SARS outbreak and they were the ones that filed the patent,” Matthew Frieman, a coronavirus researcher at the University of Maryland, explained in an email.
The CDC told the Associated Press in 2003 that the agency was claiming ownership to ensure access, and to prevent others from controlling the technology. In a phone interview, Columbia law professor Harold Edgar told us that following a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 2013, U.S. patent law no longer allows for patents on viral sequences as they exist in nature.
The other supposedly related patent is for a mutated form of avian infectious bronchitis virus, or IBV, which infects poultry, but not people. The patent was filed by the Pirbright Institute, a research institute in the U.K. whose mission is to prevent and control “viral diseases of livestock.” The mutations were created to attenuate, or weaken, the virus, so that it could be used as a vaccine to protect chickens from the disease.
“Neither of these has anything to do with the new 2019-nCoV virus,” said Frieman. “This is clearly a bogus theory that this virus was created in a lab, patented and has a vaccine already made to it.”
Researchers are still working to understand the origin, spread and severity of the latest coronavirus. The outbreak began in early December in Wuhan, a city of around 11 million people in central China.”
As this epidemic continues to develop, there will probably be more misinformation circulating about it. For the latest information, check out these verified and trusted sources:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
- World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
- Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy: http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/infectious-disease-topics/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov
And, of course, we will continue to update you as more information (or disinformation) comes to light.