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How 5 corrosive conspiracy theories made our fight against COVID-19 even harder

2020 wasn’t just a pandemic—it was an “infodemic.”

How 5 corrosive conspiracy theories made our fight against COVID-19 even harder
[Source photos: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay; Steve Halama/Unsplash; engin akyurt/Unsplash; Satheesh Sankaran/Unsplash]
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Conspiracy theories usually hide in the shadows, but this year they became mainstream. Because so little was known about COVID-19 when it emerged, people became more susceptible to narratives of which they might otherwise be skeptical. In the absence of authoritative, clear information, falsities floated to the top. By mid-February, the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was warning the world about an “infodemic.” Speculation and active misinformation about COVID-19 had become as dangerous as the disease itself.

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It has proven incredibly difficult to tamp down misinformation about coronavirus and the surrounding public health initiatives to stop its spread. Over the course of this year, experts have been cautious to make definitive statements about COVID-19 until all the facts are in, while speculators have stepped in to fill the void with confident, baseless opinions. In addition to the usual purveyors of misinformation, President Trump amplified certain false stories, giving them a much bigger audience than they would ordinarily find. And while social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have stepped up with more efforts to identify, label, and take down COVID-19 misinformation, their work has been imperfect. The lack of consensus on COVID-19 has made even the most harmless of measures, like wearing a mask, look leery.

For opportunistic conspiracy theorists, COVID-19 also offered up fresh angles on old material. Anti-vaccination propagandists saw an opportunity to create an odious specter out of a future vaccine. Meanwhile, factions that had already been sowing doubt about the safety of 5G technology tried to give their disinformation campaign new life by tying it to COVID-19.

While disinformation has had a running start this year, there is a growing body of verified, trustworthy information about COVID-19. Doctors are learning how to respond to the myriad symptoms brought on by COVID-19. Two vaccines have been approved for emergency use under the Food and Drug Administration and several others are underway. There is now hope that sometime next year Americans may be able to leave the fox dens we’ve been confined to and finally catch a breath of fresh air. To do that, we’ll have to beat back the conspiracy theories and remind Americans that vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, are safe and confer a great benefit to public health.

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Here are the five conspiracies that most impacted the public’s understanding of COVID-19 in 2020.

COVID-19 was made in a lab

Not long after the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 had reached pandemic levels of infection, a conspiracy theory started to swirl around where the disease came from. Early in the pandemic, conservative publications started to link the outbreak to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has studied coronaviruses.

However, scientists agree that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, very likely occurred in nature and was not engineered. If the virus were engineered, there would be evidence of the original genetic code in COVID-19’s DNA as well as any additions or deletions. There’s also no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 accidentally escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. While there are other coronaviruses at the institute, SARS-CoV-2 was not among them. There’s also no evidence that COVID-19 descended from one of the other coronaviruses the institute was studying.

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Despite its baseless claims, this conspiracy theory stuck in public consciousness because it had the backing of President Trump as well as certain conservatives. It has served as a distraction from the American government’s failure to adequately respond to the rising threat of COVID-19 when it first became public in January. This conspiracy theory is also dangerous because it foments racist distrust of China.

COVID-19 comes from 5G

A lie connecting 5G high speed wireless technology to COVID-19 symptoms started spreading across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram not long after the pandemic struck. By early April, in the United Kingdom, people started protesting and setting fire to 5G towers. There is no evidence that 5G is dangerous to human health. The technology works on higher frequency millimeter wave lengths that don’t appear to penetrate human skin, according to researchers. In addition, the virus spread far beyond the meager footprint of this nascent technology, to places where there is no 5G.

Conspiracy theories about 5G technology were brewing before COVID-19 emerged, though they were much less visible. Reporting from The New York Times suggests these narratives may be politically motivated. The technology is poised to make download speeds, upload speeds, and everything in between a lot faster—which could give countries with 5G an economic edge. While there are some people who believe without evidence that radiation associated with wireless technology has negative health impacts, there are also propagandists who may be trying to slow the adoption of this technology in countries that stand to benefit from it. Prior to the pandemic, Russian news outlet RT was pushing false stories linking 5G to adverse health affects. More disinformation about this technology is likely coming in future.

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COVID-19 is the same as the flu

In the first few months of the pandemic, both public officials and media outlets drew comparisons between COVID-19 and seasonal influenza. President Trump repeatedly compared COVID-19 to influenza. The intent seemed to be to quell public hysteria over the rapidly spreading illness. However, this perspective provided fodder for conspiracy theorists to propagate the idea that COVID-19 is a hoax.

Now we know that COVID-19 is much more deadly than the flu. While seasonal influenza has killed as many as 61,000 Americans in a given year, it is not nearly as deadly as COVID-19. The CDC estimates that by January 9, 2021, COVID-19 will have claimed somewhere between 357,000 to 391,000 American lives. While the two diseases have similar symptoms, about 15% of people will experience severe disease with COVID-19—a much higher percentage than seasonal flu. In order to tamp down the disease’s spread, Americans must treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

Masks don’t work

In comparison to the elaborate theories some have concocted to explain COVID-19, the falsity that masks don’t protect people from the coronavirus is one of the most banal pieces of misinformation about the pandemic—and simultaneously the most insidious.

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The idea that masks don’t work to shield people from COVID-19 or prevent its spread was born out of a public health mishap. Because of a shortage of medical masks early on in the pandemic, surgeon general Jerome M. Adams tweeted that masks would not prevent the general public from contracting COVID-19 and people should stop buying masks. Scientists and public health officials have since learned that masks, even cloth masks, are quite effective at preventing transmission of COVID-19 because masks block the wearer’s potentially contagious respiratory droplets from hitting the air. When two people who are interacting wear masks, they are effectively protecting one another. The CDC has since updated its guidance on masks.

Vaccines change your genetic code

Pharmaceutical companies had barely begun working on an COVID-19 vaccine when anti-vaccine propagandists started saying it was harmful. Much of the antagonism towards a COVID-19 vaccine has been built on existing anti-vaccine sentiment, which falsely sees vaccines as unnatural or potentially harmful.

There have been myriad lies concocted about COVID-19 vaccines. One even involved billionaire Bill Gates and a plot to microchip the masses (which has been thoroughly debunked as false). In reality, the Gates Foundation has been putting massive amounts of funding into several pandemic efforts including testing, vaccines, and ensuring that under-resourced countries have access to necessary medical resources. Some attacks on vaccines have come from religious groups and figures.

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The new narrative anti-vaxxers are pushing about the COVID-19 vaccine, which uses different technology than past vaccines, is that it permanently changes a person’s DNA—which is simply not true. So far the FDA has approved vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer under emergency use authorization. Both use messenger RNA, which teaches the body how to develop antibodies to fight COVID-19. This technology does not fundamentally change a person’s DNA. Moreover, these vaccines have so far shown to be highly effective against symptomatic COVID-19.

There is still more to learn about both Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines and whether they prevent against asymptomatic infection and how long they offer protection from the disease. What we do know is that they are safe. Outside of handwashing, social distancing, and wearing a mask, these vaccines represent the best opportunity to bring the virus under control.

About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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