Be it Trump saying “looking into reports that the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab” or some Chinese officials accusing that it was the US army that brought the virus to Wuhan, as the novel Corona virus spreads around the world, conspiracy theories are spreading just as fast. While some people claim that the coronavirus is actually a bio-weapon engineered by the CIA to wage war on China, some others believe that the virus was the effect of 5G networks.
DO PEOPLE ACTUALLY BELIEVE SUCH THEORIES?
Although many of these conspiracy theories seem far-fetched, there are people who actually believe such stories. For example, a 2019 YouGov poll found 16% of the respondents in Spain believe that HIV was created and spread around the world on purpose by a secret group or organization. And 27% of French and 12% of British respondents were convinced that “the truth about the harmful effects of vaccines is being deliberately hidden from the public”.
The spread of fake news and conspiracy theories around the coronavirus is such a significant problem that the World Health Organization (WHO) had to create a dedicated a whole “myth busters” web-page to tackle them.
THE SPREAD OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Research shows that conspiracy theories have a tendency to arise in relation to moments of crisis in society – like terrorist attacks, rapid political changes or economic crisis. Conspiracy theories bloom in periods of uncertainty and threat, where we seek to make sense of a chaotic world. These are the same conditions produced by virus outbreaks, which explains the spread of conspiracy theories in relation to Corona virus.
Similar conditions occurred with the 2015-16 outbreak of Zika virus. Some Zika conspiracy theories proposed that the virus was a biological weapon rather than a natural occurrence. Research examining comments on Reddit during the Zika virus outbreak found conspiracy talk emerged as a way for people to cope with the extreme uncertainty they felt over Zika.
THE PROBLEM WITH SUCH THEORIES
Trust in the recommendations from health professionals and organizations is an important resource for dealing with a health crisis. But people who believe in conspiracy theories generally do not trust groups they perceive as powerful, including managers, politicians and drug companies. If people do not trust, they are less likely to follow medical advice.
Researchers have shown that medical conspiracy theories have the power to increase distrust in medical authorities, which can impact people’s willingness to protect themselves. People who endorse medical conspiracy theories are less likely to get vaccinated or use antibiotics and are more likely to take herbal supplements or vitamins. Plus, they are more likely to say they would trust medical advice from non-professionals such as friends and family.
People who endorse conspiracy theories about the coronavirus may be less likely to follow health advice like frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap, or self-isolating after visiting high-risk areas. Instead, these people may be more likely to have negative attitudes towards prevention behavior or use dangerous alternatives as treatments. This would increase the likelihood of the virus spreading and put more people in danger.
Already, we can see “alternative healing approaches” to coronavirus cropping up – some of which are dangerous. Promoters of the popular QAnon conspiracy theory, for example, have claimed the virus can be warded off by drinking bleach.
THEORIES ON CORONA
It’s a tempting theory in the face of the strengthening COVID-19 pandemic, that a sophisticated laboratory in China developed the deadly virus for potential use as a bioweapon, but somehow, the virus leaked. A global pandemic arose and the world found itself on the brink of catastrophe. Nearly every day over the past couple of months, this variant of the theory has gone “viral” on social media. In all such stories, the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), an actual high-profile establishment in Wuhan, the town where the virus originated.
WIV — the focal point of all rumors — is located in the same city as the wet market, that is considered to be the origin of the virus. It contains China’s only biosafety level 4 lab. Biosafety levels are biocontainment protocols that are in place to isolate potentially dangerous biological agents. The highest level is 4, and this is the likely reason why the rumors originated. According to one version of the rumors about the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese spies stole the virus from a lab in Canada, then edited and mutated it into a biological weapon. They then leaked it from the state-owned WIV.
This isn’t the first disease suspected to be a bioweapon either. When the 2002-03 outbreak occurred, a Russian scientist claimed that the SARS virus was a mixture of measles and mumps, and was made in a Chinese lab. But it’s not just China that’s being accused. Many Chinese citizens and even officials have claimed that COVID-19 is a bioweapon made by the United States. The mutual distrust between the two countries has seen officials from both sides trading allegations.
Two more developments fueled the imagination of the masses as well as the classes. Discovery of a 1981 work of fiction, the Eyes of Darkness, whose description of a viral outbreak extraordinarily matches with the Covid-19 pandemic, was the first. The writer named the virus as Wuhan-400 calling the Chinese city its epicenter. Almost two decades later, Wuhan in fact played that role.
The second is more intriguing. An American singer, Keri Hilson linked the novel coronavirus outbreak with the China’s new technology headway with 5G network of telecommunication. China launched its 5G technology in November 2019. The novel coronavirus outbreak was registered in December 2019. Now, a study has found that the first novel coronavirus patient could have got the infection in November itself. And all this was way more ammunition than required to trigger a conspiracy theory blast.
Geopolitical analysts have stated that funding for biodefence research has dwindled in China since it entered the nuclear programme in the 1960s. And scientists have condemned the idea that the virus originated in a lab.
Latest scientific studies debunk all such theories of Corona being a bio-weapon, by addressing the question directly and also by exploring the real makeup of the novel coronavirus. In a paper, published in the Nature, the researchers analyzed the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 and compared it with its cousins from the coronavirus family. The scientists confirmed that the virus came from wildlife. In an article for The New England Journal of Medicine, US researchers have confirmed that the virus’ genetic material “implicates a bat-origin virus infecting unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets”.
Swiss scientists, used their own statistical model to work on the publicly available genome databases. “The widespread hypothesis that the first person was infected at an animal market in November is still plausible,” the institute said in a statement. An international team of researchers from the US, UK and Australia have suggested that SARS-CoV-2 is a brand-new virus and could in no way have been engineered by humans.
Therefore, the must virus jumped from a bat to humans through an intermediate animal, which was initially suspected to be a snake and later a pangolin as suggested by researchers at the South China Agricultural University. An endangered animal, the pangolin is used in traditional Chinese medicine, which makes it a common target for illegal trafficking. This means it could have been present in the wet market where the virus is believed to have originated.
The main reason the virus originated in Wuhan is the coincidental presence of a carrier animal in one of the many big wet markets there. Hence, the main reason the virus originated in Wuhan is the coincidental presence of a carrier animal in one of the many big wet markets there. The fact that China’s only level 4 biosafety lab is located in the same place is simply a coincidence.
HOW TO TACKLE?
It is very much possible to intervene and halt the spread of conspiracy theories. Research shows that campaigns promoting counterarguments to medical conspiracy theories are likely to have some success in rectifying conspiracy beliefs. Games such as Bad News, in which people can take the role of a fake news producer, have been shown to improve people’s ability to spot and resist misinformation.
Several researches showed that medical conspiracy theories have the potential to be just as dangerous for societies as the outbreak itself. Refuting this bio-weapon theory is important as the unscientific speculations have fueled racism in approach to blame China and people with particular physical features for Covid-19 pandemic. Such reports have come not only from the US, but also from India. A woman from the Northeast was racially harassed in Delhi. An NGO cited 22 similar incidents of attacks on people from the Northeast linking them with virus outbreak. So, besides combating the spread of the virus, the governments must be vigilant enough to stop misinformation and conspiracy theories relating to the virus from getting out of hand.