COVID-19 conspiracy theories

6th May 2020

Whilst the general professional consensus around the world is that SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) is zoonotic in nature (spreading from animals to people) and has been confirmed to not have been man-made or genetically engineered, there is still a prevalence of conspiracy theories surrounding the virus’ origins and causes.1  In some cases, conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 have been requisitioned to play a part in geopolitical ploys, whilst celebrities have also played a part in the spreading of COVID-19 related conspiracy theories. 2 When taking into account the accumulative sphere of influence these two communities enjoy, it is not surprising that some theories have made it into the mainstream. In a recent survey by CitizenMe, Kings College London found that 27% of respondents expressed a belief in one or more of three beliefs*.3  Globally the two conspiracy theories relating to COVID-19 gaining the most traction have been that the virus has been caused by the introduction of 5G technology and that the virus was made in a Chinese lab. Elsewhere, in China, the idea that COVID-19 originated in the USA has been discussed in China’s tightly controlled media. This article will go about debunking these theories that continue to persist at this time of writing.

In 2018, the Wuhan Institute of Virology came under scrutiny for perceived safety and management weaknesses at their facility and witnessed science diplomats from other countries called in to help.4 This, alongside the facilities proximity to the epicentre of this pandemic, has allowed for the theory that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese lab to grow. Further to this, media reports suggest that the Trump administration seems has been able to use these fears to undermine China on the world stage and to divert attention from Trump’s own failings closer to home.5 6 The administration-wide smear campaign attempting to link the ongoing 2019 coronavirus pandemic with a Chinese laboratory has seen key-figures such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump himself stating they had access to evidence proving that the pandemic began in a Chinese laboratory – despite the US intelligence community having issued a formal statement announcing the opposite.7 Further to this, the use of social media like Twitter means that influential figures can voice their opinions with little oversight that often results in these opinions being taken as fact.  A key example of this is Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton’s tweet in which he notes that ‘Wuhan has China’s only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus’ – the tweet has since been shared 2.1 thousand times and ‘liked’ 4.1 thousand times.8  With portions of the US government becoming an echo chamber for non-fact based ‘fact’ it is understandable that 29% of US adults say that the virus was most likely created in a lab, with 23% of this figure believing it to be intentional.9 A recent British survey has found that 21% of British adults also believe this to be true.10 Scientific research seems to have debunked this conspiracy theory through scientific research, including those at the Wellcome Trust and Scripps Research Institute, which show the virus to have natural origins.11 12 This is further explored in Nature Medicine Magazine which explains that the genomic structure of the virus ‘irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone’ meaning the only plausible origin is through natural selection in an animal prior to zoonotic transfer or in natural selection in humans after zoonotic transfer.13

Recently China has changed their discourse in relation to COVID-19. Whilst the Chinese government had previously recognised that the origin of the virus was in Wuhan, this stance has begun to change, due in part to President Donald Trump’s attempts to frame COVID-19 as a Chinese virus. This is most clearly shown by the Global Times, an offshoot of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily, writing articles about how US army representatives who attended the Military World Games in Wuhan in October 2019 brought COVID-19 with them to China.14 The article also called for the USA to ‘release health and infection’ information of the US military delegation that came to Wuhan for the Military World Games in October’ and cite their source as being ‘investigative journalist’ George Web, who has been described by the New York Times as a ‘far-right YouTube conspiracy theorist’.15 16 Further evidence to suggest that this conspiracy theory has been engineered by the Chinese government as retaliation for the ‘China virus’ claims is the fact that it has been amplified across the strictly regulated state media and outlets including WeChat. The state-boosted exposure of this conspiracy theory was so successful that it was picked up by Google trends allowing it to ‘run riot across Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in a range of languages’.17 Further to this, the deputy director-general of the Information Department of China’s Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, adding legitimacy to these claims, especially within China, when he tweeted to 500,000 of his twitter followers that the United States was secretly concealing early 2020 COVID-19 deaths in annual flu counts.18  Not only has the Pentagon reported that there were no illnesses tied to American service members from October 2019, the timeline also does not make sense for this conspiracy to work. Despite the 2019 Military World Games taking place from 18th October to 27th October the earliest reported case of COVID-19 was reported on 17th November.19 Furthermore, the first recorded case outside of China was reported in Thailand on 12th January 2020.20 If an American soldier with COVID-19 was participating in the World Military Games, in which over 140 Nations compete, it would be highly likely that the virus would have spread outside the USA at a far greater rate.

A final prevalent conspiracy theory, not linked to geopolitical grand strategy, regarding COVID-19 is the idea that it is connected to the introduction of 5G technology. The introduction of new technology into society has always been met with scepticism in some parts of the community with links to adverse health risks being made with the erection of mobile phone masts, as well as 3G and 4G.21 22  Since its arrival 5G has come under scrutiny, leading to the government having to release an office statement announcing that ‘exposure to radio waves has been carefully researched and reviewed. The overall weight of evidence does not suggest devices producing exposures within current guidelines pose a risk to public health’ after a March 2019 petition calling for the government to ‘launch an independent enquiry into the health and safety risks of 5G’ reached 32,454 signatures.23  The supposed link between COVID-19 and the role out of 5G only started appearing in mid-January 2020 mainly on anti-vaccination and anti-5G Facebook groups. Within these groups a number of conspiracy theories have emerged with the main ones being that 5G is making COVID-19 symptoms worse; that COVID-19 symptoms are actually caused by 5G; that the outbreak is ‘a gigantic hoax to enable the government to install 5G under the cover of lockdown’.24  With the COVID-19 pandemic has worsening, mobile phone masts have been targeted by vandals with a reported 60 masts set ablaze in the UK as well as reports of similar occurrences in Ireland, Cyprus and the Netherlands – telecommunications workers have also suffered abuse.25 26 The 5G conspiracy theory has also found its way onto mainstream television with ITV’s This Morning finding itself the subject of an OFCOM inquiry after host Eamon Holmes defended the theory against ‘the state-run narrative’.27 The theory has been further promoted by numerous celebrities who have warned their fan-bases about the dangers of 5G.28  Categorically 5G does not cause COVID-19 and as commented by the World Health Organisation viruses cannot travel on radio waves or mobile networks and COVID-19 has spread to many countries that do not have 5G mobile networks.29 The UK government have also made statements to address the issue of 5G stating that the radio waves which 5G works off of are non-ionising meaning they do not damage DNA inside the cells.30

As mentioned in the introduction, Kings College London found that 27% of those surveyed believed in one or more conspiracy theory the survey listed – 37% believed that there is no good reason for the lockdown.31 It is important to address conspiracy theories and deal with them logically especially in times of crisis such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. If left unaddressed conspiracy theories, no matter how outlandish, have the potential to gain traction and run rampant throughout society, severely limiting, both psychologically and practically, the effectiveness of measures put in place to deal with the issue.

* The beliefs listed in the CitizenMe survey were: that the virus that caused COVID-19 was probably created in a laboratory; the symptoms of COVID-19 seem to be connected to 5G mobile network radiation, and the COVID-19 pandemic was planned by certain pharmaceutical corporations and government agencies.