From a human-made virus to vaccine conspiracy theories, we rounded up the most insidious false claims about the pandemic
1 THE VIRUS WAS ENGINEERED IN A LABORATORY IN CHINA.
Because the pathogen first emerged in Wuhan, China, President Donald Trump and others have claimed, without evidence, that it started in a lab there, and some conspiracy theorists believe it was engineered as a bioweapon.
Why It’s False: U.S. intelligence agencies have categorically denied the possibility that the virus was engineered in a lab, stating that “the Intelligence Community … concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.” Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli—who studies bat coronaviruses and whose lab Trump and others have suggested was the source of COVID-19—compared the pathogen’s sequence with those of other coronaviruses her team had sampled from bat caves and found that it did not match any of them. In response to calls for an independent, international investigation into how the virus originated, China has invited researchers from the World Health Organization to discuss the scope of such a mission.
Why People Believe It: People want a scapegoat for the immense suffering and economic fallout caused by COVID-19, and China—a foreign country and a competitor of the U.S.—is an easy target. Accidental lab releases of pathogens do sometimes occur, and although many scientists say this possibility is unlikely, it provides just enough legitimacy to support a narrative in which China intentionally engineered the virus to unleash it on the world.
2 COVID-19 IS NO WORSE THAN THE FLU.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has lied about the disease’s severity, saying it is no more dangerous than seasonal influenza. Trump himself admitted to journalist and author Bob Woodward in recorded interviews in early February and late March that he knew COVID-19 was more deadly than the flu and that he wanted to play down its severity.
Why It’s False: The precise infection fatality rate of COVID-19 is hard to measure, but epidemiologists suspect that it is far higher than that of the flu—somewhere between 0.5 and 1 percent, compared with 0.1 percent for influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the latter causes roughly 12,000 to 61,000 deaths per year in the U.S. In contrast, COVID-19 had caused 200,000 deaths in the country as of mid-September. Many people also have partial immunity to the flu because of vaccination or prior infection, whereas most of the world has not yet encountered COVID-19. So no, coronavirus is not “just the flu.”
Why People Believe It: Their leaders keep saying it. In addition to his repeated false claims that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, Trump has also said—falsely—that the numbers of deaths from COVID-19 are exaggerated. In fact, reported deaths from COVID-19 are likely an undercount.
3 YOU DON’T NEED TO WEAR A MASK.
Despite a strong consensus among public health authorities that masks limit transmission of coronavirus, many people (the president included) have refused to wear one. Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp went so far as to sign an executive order banning city governments from implementing mask mandates. He even sued Atlanta’s mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms when she instituted one, although he has since dropped the lawsuit. Nevertheless, as coronavirus cases spiked around the U.S. during the summer, even states that were once staunch holdouts implemented mask orders.
Why It’s False: Masks have long been known to be an effective means of what epidemiologists call source control (preventing a sick patient from spreading a disease to others). A recent analysis published in the Lancet looked at more than 170 studies and found that face masks can prevent COVID-19 infection. It has also been widely established that people can be infected with and spread COVID-19 without ever developing symptoms, which is why everyone should wear a mask to prevent asymptomatic people from spreading the virus.
Why People Believe It: Early guidance on masks from the CDC and the WHO was confusing and inconsistent, suggesting that members of the general public did not need to wear masks unless they had symptoms of an infection. The guidance was in part driven by a shortage of high-quality surgical and N95 masks, which the agencies said should be reserved for health care workers. Even though face coverings are now mandated or recommended in many states, some people refuse to wear one because they consider it emasculating or a violation of their civil liberties.
4 WEALTHY ELITES ARE USING THE VIRUS TO PROFIT FROM VACCINES.
In a book and in the conspiracy theory film Plandemic, Judy Mikovits, who once published a high-profile but eventually retracted study on chronic fatigue syndrome, makes the unsubstantiated claim that National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates could be using their power to profit from a COVID-19 vaccine. She also asserts without evidence that the virus came from a lab and that wearing masks “activates your own virus.” An excerpt from the film was widely shared by anti-vaxxers and the conspiracy theory group QAnon. The video was viewed more than eight million times on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram before it was taken down.
Why It’s False: There is no evidence that Fauci or Gates has benefited from the pandemic or profited from a vaccine. In fact, Fauci has sounded alarms throughout the pandemic about the risks of the virus, and Gates has a long history of philanthropy geared toward eliminating communicable diseases. Mikovits’s claims about the virus’s origin and the efficacy of masks also have no scientific support.
Why People Believe It: Wealthy or influential figures such as Gates and Fauci are often the target of conspiracy theories. Trump has at times attacked Fauci, a member of his own coronavirus task force, calling him an “alarmist.” Some of the president’s followers may find it more palatable to believe that Fauci is exaggerating the severity of the outbreak than to acknowledge the Trump administration’s failure to contain it.
5 HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE IS AN EFFECTIVE TREATMENT.
When a small study in France suggested the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine might be effective at treating the disease, Trump and others seized on it. The study is now widely criticized, but some people have continued to tout the medication despite growing evidence that it does not benefit COVID-19 patients. In a tweet, Trump called the hydroxychloroquine treatment “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,” and he has mentioned it repeatedly in his public coronavirus briefings, continuing to hype the drug. In late July he retweeted a video featuring Stella Immanuel, a Houston, Tex.–based physician (who has made questionable assertions in the past, including that doctors had used alien DNA in treatments and that demons cause certain medical conditions by having sex with people in their dreams), claiming that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for COVID-19. The video was viewed tens of millions of times before social media companies took it down.
Why It’s False: Several studies have shown that hydroxychloroquine does not protect against COVID-19 in those who are exposed. The Food and Drug Administration initially issued an emergency use authorization for the drug, but the agency later warned against its use because of the risk of heart problems and ultimately revoked its authorization. And in June the National Institutes of Health halted its clinical trial of the medication, stating that although it was not harmful to patients, it did not provide any benefit.
Why People Believe It: Initial reports suggested hydroxychloroquine might be a potentially promising drug, and people are most likely to believe the first things they learn about a topic, a phenomenon called anchoring bias. And because Trump has repeatedly claimed that the drug is effective, his supporters may be more likely to believe reports that confirm their views rather than those that challenge them.
6 INCREASES IN CASES ARE THE RESULT OF INCREASED TESTING.
As coronavirus cases surged in the U.S., Trump frequently claimed that the spikes were merely the result of more people being tested. He has tweeted that “without testing … we would be showing almost no cases” and has said in interviews that the reason numbers appear to have gone up is that testing has increased.
Why It’s False: If this scenario were true, one would expect the percentage of positive tests to decrease over time. But numerous analyses have shown the opposite. The rate of positive tests rose in many states (such as Arizona, Texas and Florida) that had big outbreaks this past summer, and it decreased in states (such as New York) that controlled their outbreaks. In addition, hospitalizations and deaths increased along with cases, providing more evidence that the national increase in positive tests reflected a true increase in cases.
Why People Believe It: There was a severe shortage of tests in the U.S. early on during the pandemic, and their availability has increased (although actual testing remains far short of what is needed). It is logical to wonder whether more cases are simply being detected—if you look only at total cases and not at the proportion of positive tests or the rates of hospitalization and death.
7 HERD IMMUNITY WILL PROTECT US IF WE LET THE VIRUS SPREAD THROUGH THE POPULATION.
Early on in the pandemic, some speculated that the U.K. and Sweden were planning to let the coronavirus circulate through their populations until they reached herd immunity—the point at which enough people are immune to the virus that it can no longer spread. (Both nations’ governments have denied that this was their official strategy, but the U.K. was late to issue a full lockdown, and Sweden decided against widespread restrictions.)
Why It’s False: There is a fundamental flaw with this approach: experts estimate that roughly 60 to 70 percent of people would need to get COVID-19 for herd immunity to be possible. Given the high mortality rate of the disease, letting it infect that many people could lead to millions of deaths. That tragedy is what happened during the 1918 influenza pandemic, in which at least 50 million people are thought to have perished. The U.K.’s COVID-19 death rate is among the world’s highest. Sweden, for its part, has had significantly more deaths than neighboring countries, and its economy has suffered despite the lack of a shutdown.
Why People Believe It: They want to get back to normal life, and without a widely available COVID-19 vaccine, the only way to achieve herd immunity is to let a substantial number of people get sick. Some have speculated that we may have already achieved herd immunity, but population-based antibody studies have shown that even the hardest-hit regions are far from that threshold.
8 A COVID-19 VACCINE WILL BE UNSAFE.
Worrying reports have emerged that many people may refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine once it is available. Conspiracy theories about potential vaccines have circulated among anti-vaxxer groups and in viral videos. In Plandemic, Mikovits falsely claims that any COVID-19 vaccine will “kill millions” and that other vaccines have done so. Another conspiracy theory makes the ludicrous assertion that Gates has a secret plan to use vaccines to implant trackable microchips in people. Most Americans still support vaccination, but the few voices of opposition have been growing. A recent study observed that although clusters of anti-vaxxers on Facebook are smaller than pro-vaccination groups, they are more heavily interconnected with clusters of undecided people. One Gallup poll found that one in three Americans would not get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available today and that Republicans were less likely to be vaccinated than Democrats.
Why It’s False: Vaccines save millions of lives every year. Before a vaccine is approved in the U.S., it must generally undergo three phases of clinical testing to show that it is safe and effective in a large number of people. The top COVID-19 vaccine candidates are currently being tested in large-scale trials in tens of thousands of people.
Why People Believe It: There is good reason to be cautious about the safety of any new vaccine or treatment, and the politicization of the fda under the Trump administration has raised legitimate concerns that any vaccine approval will be rushed. Nevertheless, previous safety trials of the top vaccine candidates did not find major adverse effects; larger trials for safety and efficacy are now underway. Nine pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines have pledged to “stand with science” and not release one unless it has been shown to be safe and effective.