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Investigating the most convincing COVID-19 conspiracy theories

In this blog, originally published on Inspire the Mind on June 17 2020, Anna McLaughlin, Clinical Neuroscience PhD student at King's College London, explores current conspiracy theories around COVID-19.

Let’s take a look at the flawed science underlying conspiracy theories and who is behind them...

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I published a blog debunking the top 10 most dangerous coronavirus myths, to combat widespread early misunderstanding of the virus.

As the pandemic has progressed in the two months since my first blog, it has become clear it provides the perfect environment for false rumours and fake news to flourish. Concrete evidence about the virus has been frustratingly slow to emerge and the advice given by public health organisations and governments has often felt inconsistent and peppered with caveats. With more of us spending time at home and online, many of us feel compelled to conduct research ourselves. The issue is that when people are under heightened stress and they want to resolve uncertainty, they can lose their ability to weigh and judge information effectively.

This means we may not be able to discern reliable information from inaccurate or biased information, especially when search engines and social media algorithms are optimised to prioritise content that aligns with our existing values and beliefs.

Even our responses to news coverage can be biased, with emotional response being the driving factor in whether a news article will go viral. One study even found that false news reached more people and spread significantly faster than the truth (particularly when politics are involved).

We are all prone to believing information when it is repeated, easy to process and when it aligns with our prior attitudes and world views.– Full Fact - the UK's independent fact checking organisation

Conspiracy theories tend to be grounded in unusual coincidences or misunderstood science, and they use highly emotional language to appeal to others. In a time when public mistrust is at an all-time low, it is important to counter false information with clear, high-quality evidence.

It is also important that people are made aware that some of the conspiracy theories being pushed into the mainstream media are often backed by hidden agents with ulterior motives. The hysteria generated by many of these conspiracies detracts from very real issues such as how COVID-19 disproportionately affects BAME ethnicities, exacerbates inequality, and is associated with air pollution.

In this blog, I address the flawed science underlying some of the most famous COVID-19 conspiracy theories, covering everything from the rumours about the pandemic being created in China or planned by Bill Gates, to its associations with 5G and the hype around hydroxychloroquine.

conspiracy fact checking

Source: Nature

Conspiracy 1: The COVID-19 pandemic was planned.

Everything about the COVID-19 pandemic is confusing, starting with how it has been named.

The first misunderstanding, which led to the emergence of several different conspiracy theories, is quite a fundamental one. Most people had never heard the term ‘coronavirus’ before the pandemic. Surprisingly, we are already intimately familiar with milder strains of coronaviruses, which we experience in the form of common colds every winter. These seasonal coronaviruses have been documented in humans as far back as 1976. Animals are also highly susceptible to coronaviruses and several strains are known to be carried by cows, pigs, horses, and bats.

Due to so many different strains of animal coronaviruses circulating in livestock, vaccines for animal coronaviruses have existed for several years. Many cleaning products are also labeled as designed to kill ‘coronaviruses’ from surfaces. Some people have wrongly assumed that the existence of these cleaning products and vaccines means that somehow manufacturers were warned about the pandemic or that a secret cure for COVID-19 already exists.

To break it down:

· SARS-CoV-2 virus is a brand-new strain of coronavirus that only started circulating in the human population in late 2019.

· COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) is the name of the disease people develop after being infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

· SARS-CoV-2 is the only coronavirus strain that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

· SARS-CoV-2 is different from other coronavirus strains because it is a brand-new type of coronavirus.

· SARS-CoV-2 is much more dangerous than the milder coronavirus strains and we are still learning how it transmits and affects the human body.

After an earlier coronavirus strain (SARS-CoV) led to the SARS scare in 2003, many organisations started conducting hypothetical ‘pandemic planning’ events to try and prepare for the next contagious disease outbreak. One of the most vocal people with concerns was Bill Gates, who gave a TED talk in 2015 warning us that the world was not prepared for the next pandemic. His TED talk has now been used as proof that he was somehow behind this pandemic, but fortunately, Full Fact, an independent fact-checking charity, has debunked this theory.

Research into coronaviruses has been funded for over 20 years:

conspiracy coronavirus Cash

Source: Nature

Conspiracy 2: The virus was engineered by humans or it escaped from a laboratory.

Rumours that the virus was engineered in a lab have been circulating since January, despite any concrete evidence supporting these claims.

These rumours were further fuelled by the Trump administration accusing the Chinese government, and Chinese officials accusing the US army. Unfortunate coincidences, such as the proximity between the Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory and the Wuhan seafood market, led some people to believe the virus may have escaped from the lab into the market.

To clarify any doubts on the possible “non-natural” origin of the virus, a group of infectious disease researchers, from a non-profit medical research organisation in the US, decided to investigate the genetic sequence of the virus. By looking at the DNA sequence they were able to determine, without any doubt, that the virus naturally evolved in animals, with the most likely culprits being bats or pangolins.

Another study published in May further confirmed that the virus likely originated in bats and then jumped to pangolins. A worldwide genetic analysis of humans carrying the virus has very strong evidence that the virus jumped to humans in November or December of 2019.


conspiracy bat
Credit: Richard Borge

While it may seem strange that a bat virus could somehow jump to humans, via pangolins no less, bats regularly fly over human homes and nest in urban areas, while pangolins are consumed as a delicacy or used for medicinal purposes throughout Asia and Africa.

As early as 2015, one study found that 3% of Chinese villagers living close to bat caves were carrying antibodies to a similar, less contagious, version of coronavirus, similar to SARS-COV-2.

In 2012, six miners in China contracted a pneumonia-like disease and two died, from a mine shaft infested with different bat species and bat coronaviruses.

Scientists are now so certain that the origin of the virus is natural, that they teamed up and wrote a statement of support, published in one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, confirming that the virus jumped from animals to humans. To date, there are now 11 independently published studies (yes — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 & 11 studies), from around the world that have determined the virus came from animals.

Notably, there are no published studies that have been able to contradict these findings or suggest otherwise.

Conspiracy 3: 5G caused the COVID-19 pandemic

The theory supporting the association between 5G and COVID-19 emphasises the false link between the first outbreak in Wuhan coinciding with the rollout of 5G in the city.

In fact, many cities in China (and throughout the world) had been involved in the 5G rollout prior to the outbreak in Wuhan. Genetic studies have also shown that COVID-19 spread to different countries via air travel.

Another incorrect premise of the 5G theory is that 5G weakens the immune system’s cellular defence, making people more vulnerable to COVID-19. Let’s take a look at the science behind this…

The electromagnetic spectrum is made up of ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. It is well known that ionizing radiation becomes more dangerous as frequencies increase (such as UVA and UVB rays in sunlight) and that this radiation can damage DNA, and repeated DNA damage over time can lead to cancer (such as too much exposure to X-rays).

In contrast, non-ionizing radiation is not powerful enough to penetrate and damage our DNA. 5G technology is non-ionizing radiation and its frequency lies between microwaves and remote controls on the electromagnetic spectrum (see the graph below).

conspiracy radiation

Source: Vox

Although 5G is higher on the non-ionizing spectrum than 3G and 4G technology, it is still not powerful enough to alter DNA. For those who still believe that the high frequencies of non-ionizing radiation are dangerous, they should logically be much more concerned about lightbulbs, which emit much higher frequencies than 5G (and we all know that lightbulbs are safe).

conspiracy 5G kills
Credit: Andre Castelucci

Unfortunately, most people’s fears about mobile phone radiation is based on an early (and now widely discredited) study that used flawed data to find a strong association between radiation and tissue damage.

While there is a lack of high-quality research into overall mobile phone safety, even after decades of exposure to mobile phone radiation there has not been a marked increase in the prevalence of brain tumours and cancers, meaning that if there is any risk from mobile phone use it would likely be weak and inconsistent.

Ultimately, there is no association between the rollout of the 5G network and COVID-19 outbreaks.

In contrast, the negative effect of air pollution on the environment and health of humans is a far more worrying, with far more scientific evidence to back it up. It has also been shown to compound the negative effects of COVID-19.

Conspiracy 4: Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle cure for COVID-19.

Although not a conspiracy theory, the hype around hydroxychloroquine started on March 14 when a Google word document was circulated on Twitter touting the potential use of repurposing the old anti-viral Malaria drug hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19.

The document claimed to be written in consultation with prestigious medical schools and scientific institutions, and by March 16 it had gone viral on Twitter. Unfortunately, it was only realised much later that the author of the document was actually a blockchain investor, who had inaccurately claimed to write it in consultation with medical schools and scientists.

The global hype around hydroxychloroquine had already been set in motion before the first clinical study testing it on COVID-19 patients was even published, on March 17, with the study only finding a 50% improvement in the extremely small sample size of 14 patients with COVID-19 taking hydroxychloroquine alone. These authors have now been criticised for not randomly assigning patients to treatment groups, their small sample size and lack of a control group (to compare the treatment groups with), meaning that the positive results could easily have occurred due to chance.

conspiracy hydroxychloroquine
Credit: Sharon McCutcheon

However, by March 19, US President Donald Trump was promoting the potential of the drug at press conferences, incorrectly stating it had already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat the virus. The FDA then had to release a statement cautioning people against using the drug off-label.

Later, when Trump stated he was taking a two-week course of hydroxychloroquine, despite any evidence showing it could prevent COVID-19, there was widespread concern from healthcare professionals about the dangerous example this could set.

A recent study confirmed a huge surge in ‘hydroxychloroquine/chloroquine prescription fills, likely due to off-label prescriptions for COVID-19.

Hospitals are now having to deal with the additional burden of treating people poisoning themselves after taking the drug, with one man fatally poisoning himself with a fish tank cleaning additive made with the same active ingredient as chloroquine. The bias towards this drug is even derailing clinical trials of COVID-19 treatments.

While studies done within cell dishes in labs show that both hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine can inhibit the virus, as with any medicine, studies in humans tend to be much more inconsistent.

The largest study of the drug was published in The Lancet on May 22, stating that the drug increased the risk of death in hospitalised COVID-19 patients. This paper has now been famously retracted because of serious concerns about the verification of the data sources, study design, and analysis used.

conspiracy retracted

Source: The Lancet

While the verdict on hydroxychloroquine is far from clear, now is not the time for anyone to be taking this drug off-label.

Where do conspiracies come from?

Ultimately, people get caught up in conspiracy theories for a multitude of reasons.

It might simply be that the theory aligns with their pre-existing beliefs and opinions, giving their feelings of anxiety an outlet to focus on. For others, placing the blame on a specific person, country, or organisation, may give a face to the invisible threat of the virus. They may even simply just provide a form of escapism that distracts from the bleak reality of the situation.

The reality is that the energy expended on conspiracy theories would be far more useful if directed at current public health emergencies whose negative effects are being further compounded by COVID-19.

As mentioned above, this includes the virus disproportionately affecting BAME ethnicities, how the pandemic exacerbates social inequality and air pollution contributing to COVID-19 fatalities. All of these issues are having a much more immediate and substantial impact on people today and are backed by scientific evidence and consensus.

So why do some people still prefer to get wrapped up in conspiracy theories?

Professor Colin Klein, who studies conspiracy theories, offered the explanation that conspiracy theories offer an "emotionally satisfying narrative, even if it’s not a true narrative".

However, it is important to highlight that, despite the potentially comforting narrative that conspiracy theories may provide, they have dangerous repercussions, such as inciting racism towards Chinese communities, promoting dangerous cures, or normalising acts of vandalism.

More generally, believing that the COVID-19 pandemic is a cover-up could have negative health ramifications on an enormous scale if people stop trying to prevent the spread of the virus.

Professor Neil Johnson, senior author of a study investigating malicious COVID-19 content said:

The rise of fear and misinformation around COVID-19 has allowed promoters of malicious matter and hate to engage with mainstream audiences around a common topic of interest, and potentially push them toward hateful views.– Professor Neil Johnson

Even more concerning, is that most people have no idea that some of the agents spreading them are doing so for their agendas. By exploiting the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic these agents attempt to push people towards divisive and politically polarising views, creating distrust in mainstream media and science.

This does not mean we should distance ourselves from people with alternate views to us. Instead, we need to counter false claims with clear facts and a compassionate approach.

conspiracy in this together

Credit: Andre Castelucci

If you find tuning into the breaking news cycle anxiety-inducing, you might want to reduce your consumption of media news coverage.

Remember to regularly check for updates from public health organisations local to you, as guidelines are updated according to the best available evidence and are based on current infections and hospital capacities relevant to your area.

And, if you need a trustworthy alternative to mainstream media, do look at reputable and independent science websites, such as Science News (which is also non-profit), Nature News, or Science Mag. These websites cover the latest scientific research and events, summarised in everyday language, by writers who are qualified to interpret the results of studies.

We need to recognise that conspiracy theories are flourishing due to a climate of fear, mistrust, and lack of knowledge about the virus.

Inspire the Mind is an online blogging community started by the Stress, Psychiatry and Immunology Laboratory (SPI Lab) King's College London, which is led by Professor Carmine Pariante. The blogs hosted on Inspire the Mind aim to use writing and creativity to open up a conversation about wellbeing, to teach and disseminate the science behind mental health and to encourage others to do the same.

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