The new coronavirus outbreak originating in Wuhan, China, has lit up the Internet. Twitter and Facebook feeds are clogged with news, advice, and most troubling, insane conspiracy theories.
Relax. If it sounds a little crazy, it probably is. There is no global conspiracy bioengineering a killer virus. Just like with every crisis, there will be people trying to confuse, frighten, or simply profit off the suffering of others.
Here are just a few of the current conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus outbreak that have surfaced so far, as well as what experts know about the disease so far.
1. The coronavirus is a new and deadly disease
Based on all of the media reports, you would think that coronavirus is an exotic new disease with the potential to kill half the planet.
FALSE. Coronaviruses are common and have been part of human history for thousands of years. Scientists first discovered the Coronavirus in the 1960s, and estimate that 10–30% of all upper respiratory tract infections are caused by a coronavirus. In fact, most of the time when you encounter a coronavirus you just say you have a cold.
What’s important to understand with this particular strain, labeled 2019-nCoV, is that it is a more dangerous form of the virus, and has led to patients developing pneumonia and other secondary infections that can be deadly. It is especially dangerous in elderly patients as well as anyone with a compromised immune system.
2. The coronavirus originated from people eating bats
I’ll admit, this one had me going for a while. As Foreign Policy explains, there was a news story featuring a woman eating bat soup that circulated soon after the outbreak first hit the news, and it seemed legit. Problem is, the photos weren’t even recent or from China.
PROBABLY FALSE. It’s true that Chinese “wet markets” are known for the wide variety of live animals (note: link includes disturbing images of live animals sold for food) and similar viruses have been traced back to an animal origin. But in reality, scientists have not yet determined where this strain came from, and if it made the jump from an animal species to humans (and if so, which animal). It could have been bats, or snakes, or something else. Popular Science has a good article explaining why it might have come from an animal and why it’s so hard to know for sure in this case.
3. Bill Gates planned the coronavirus outbreak and plans to profit on it
Oh no, the founder of Microsoft wants us all dead! In this conspiracy theory, people are freaking out because Bill Gates predicted the coronavirus in a Netflix documentary. Some wingnuts on Infowars and QAnon then take an extraordinary leap and suggest that Gates himself may have had something to do with creating and releasing the virus in the first place. Then, the story goes, he will release a vaccine to cure it and make billions on the epidemic.
FALSE. This theory is preposterous. Hundreds of people have predicted various outbreaks over the years in articles, books, and movies. It doesn’t take an epidemiologist to suggest that a densely-populated country might be the crucible for a new contagious disease. That means it is entirely reasonable that someone educated about how diseases originate and spread might guess that at some future point a mutated strain could lead to an epidemic. But it doesn’t mean that Bill Gates had something to do with it.
However, Bill Gates has been playing a role in the coronavirus epidemic. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced this week that they will “commit $10 million to aid first responders in China and Africa, including $5 million for international cooperation, treatment and vaccine development”
4. Lysol had inside information about the outbreak
There are photos floating around on social media of containers of Lysol that people have had in their houses for years. On the label it states that Lysol will kill “Human coronavirus.” But how could they have known?
These theories suggest that Lysol somehow knew in advance that the Coronavirus outbreak was coming and planned for it on their packaging.
FALSE. Again, Coronaviruses were first discovered in the 1960s. Just because Lysol lists these viruses as one of many different microbes that their sprays and wipes can eliminate therefore doesn’t mean that the company had anything to do with the outbreak—just that you can use Lysol on hard surfaces to eradicate the virus.
5. Drinking bleach will ‘cure’ the Coronavirus
This is one of those malevolent conspiracy theories that got its start on QAnon. According to the Daily Beast, some of the members of that group claim that consuming chlorine bleach (what they call the ‘Miracle Mineral Solution’ or ‘MMS’) will cure the illness. In reality, drinking bleach will do serious damage to your internal organs, burn your esophagus, and could even kill you.
FALSE. And I hope I didn’t need to tell you not to drink bleach.
Other frauds, fakes, and hoaxes continue to pop up
Every day—indeed, almost every hour—there’s a new Coronavirus hoax appearing in the news or on social media. A new one just surfaced on TikTok with teenagers claiming to have Coronavirus, fake articles from California suggested high schoolers had been diagnosed with the virus, and many others have already surfaced, as collected by Science Alert.
If you see a story that sounds strange or worries you, be sure to look at the source, and perhaps try Google for a respected news outlet like a major newspaper, CNN, or other reporting on the incident. Do not trust stories from known conspiracy sites or websites you’ve never heard of before. You might also check Snopes, though it may take them some time to investigate all of these false reports.
Social media is fighting back against conspiracy theories
Because of the prevalence of coronavirus stories on social media, it’s affecting young people disproportionately. The Los Angeles Times points out that this population has no experience with pandemics, and the constant news about the virus can be particularly frightening.
Fortunately, Facebook and Instagram are taking an active role in shutting down the spread of false information. The Head of Health at Facebook stated in a blog post that when false information appears on their platform:
we limit its spread on Facebook and Instagram and show people accurate information from these partners. We also send notifications to people who already shared or are trying to share this content to alert them that it’s been fact-checked.
In addition, they will start removing “content with false claims or conspiracy theories” to try to stem the spread of inaccurate information.
Don’t panic about news reports
It’s true that whenever a new virus or other disease appears, especially when it jumps continents, there are reasons for concern. When people die, it’s natural to get nervous and start wondering how you can protect your family. But there is no reason to panic just yet.
According to the most recent information on WebMD, there have been confirmed cases in Illinois, Washington, California, and Arizona. So far six people have tested positive in the US, with 165 more being monitored. CNN reports that as of early on February 8 there have been 34,400 cases reported across 27 countries and 720 deaths worldwide.
While it’s unfortunate that people are dying, it’s important to keep everything in perspective. Each year between 12,000–79,000 people in the US alone die from the flu.
Having said all that, this coronavirus is definitely something to take seriously. NPR reports that the virus has so far killed about 3% of those infected, though that number might increase. (They point out that a similar virus, SARS, had a 10% fatality rate). This is higher than the average mortality rate for the flu, which the Centers for Disease Control estimate at about 0.1%.
The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global health emergency to help keep it from spreading. Although it sounds terrifying, that designation simply helps countries deal with the spread of the disease by having virus checkpoints at the borders and other steps necessary to contain the virus.
Do you have coronavirus?
As you’re reading this, I bet you feel a tickle in your throat.
The symptoms of the coronavirus are mostly respiratory in nature and can mimic the flu. They include coughing, a fever, and shortness of breath, and the illness can quickly turn into pneumonia. Symptoms can appear anywhere from 2–14 days after exposure. If you have been in contact with anyone who recently traveled from China or someone else with a confirmed Coronavirus exposure, you should contact your doctor immediately.
There is no vaccine or medication for this coronavirus. Treatment for coronavirus is the same as the flu or a cold: rest, plenty of fluids, and NSAID pain relievers as needed for aches or fever.
If you found this useful, you might check out my article about the flu.
Jackie Dana is a freelance writer, editor, and novelist based in St. Louis. Although she has eclectic interests, her focus is on articles designed to help people find their way through an uncertain world. She published her first novel in 2015. In addition to writing, Jackie might be brewing herbal potions or reading a great YA novel. For her latest articles and other tantalizing goodness, be sure to subscribe to her mailing list.