Confronting COVID-19 Misinformation by José Pedro Enz, M.D. (Revised July 7, 2021)
Twenty years ago an Internet protest movement called the Yes Men created a parody website pretending to be the World Trade Organization on the Internet. This hoax made critical claims about the organization and was so successful they realized that they could pull similar pranks using mimicry on official websites. The Yes Men understood the power of the Internet as a new network terrain where battles over truth could be fought.
Similarly, many insidious falsehoods about the novel coronavirus circulated in a snowball fashion since March 2020. Here are seven fallacies about Covid-19 describing their lack of scientific content and their adoption as fact nevertheless by the general public.
- The Covid-19 virus was engineered in a laboratory in China.
Former President Donald Trump asserted the China origin story without any evidence and some conspiracy theorists contend that the virus was engineered as a bio weapon. The US intelligence agencies had categorically denied the possibility that the virus was engineered in a lab, in consensus with wide scientific circles. Therefore, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the virus was man-made or genetically modified. Chinese bat virologist Shi Zhengeli compared the pathogen sequence of coronaviruses that she sampled from bat caves and found that the novel coronavirus did not match any of them. Although accidental lab releases of pathogen do sometimes occur, this scenario is unlikely. Yet the Biden Administration has authorized further investigation into the laboratory origin theory.
- Covid-19 is no worse than the flu.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, President Trump lied about the disease severity saying that it is no more dangerous than the seasonal influenza. He admitted so to journalist Bob Woodward in an interview in February and March 2020. The precise infection fatality rate of Covid-19 is hard to measure but epidemiologists suspect it is far higher than the influenza, somewhere between 0.5 and 1% mortality
rate compared to 0.1% for influenza. Many people have partial immunity to influenza because of vaccinations or prior infections but most of the world has never encountered Covid-19 and does not have natural immunity. The Biden Administration and federal Covid-19 response team accepts the science that Covid-19 is indeed much more harmful than the common flu.
- You don’t need to wear a mask.
Many people in the Trump Administration, including the former President, refused to wear protective masks, politicizing the issue through the first year of the pandemic. Epidemiologists always understood that wearing masks have provided source control to prevent spreading disease. Multiple published studies found that facemasks do prevent Covid-19 infections and it is widely established that people without symptoms can also spread the disease, which is why those who are not vaccinated and the
vaccinated in a setting with large numbers of unvaccinated people should wear a mask. Early guidance on masks from the CDC and the world health organization was confusing and inconsistent and some people continue to refuse to wear one because they consider it a violation of their civil liberties and others because they are not convinced that masks are effective. Now with the advance of vaccinations
in some parts of the US, there are more settings where masks can become optional.
- Wealthy elites are using the virus to protect from vaccines.
This conspiracy theory was posited in a film, Plandemic, that makes unsubstantiated claims that Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates were using their power to profit from Covid-19 vaccines. This film was widely shared by anti-VAXers and the conspiracy theory group QAnon. It had been viewed 8 million times on YouTube before it was taken down. There is no evidence that either Fauci or Gates benefited or profited from the vaccine production. Former President Trump’s followers believe that Fauci is
exaggerating the severity of the outbreak rather than acknowledge that the Trump Administration failed to contain it. Now the Biden Administration has restored credibility to Dr. Fauci, who continues in his role as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the federal Covid-19 Task Force and Chief Medical Advisor to the President under Joseph Biden.
- Increases in cases are the result of increased testing
Former President Trump frequently claimed that the spike in cases was the result of more people being tested. He tweeted on multiple occasions that without testing we would be showing very few cases. Testing analyses show that the percentage of positive tests increased over time and highlighted the pattern of outbreaks across the US. Also, hospitalizations and deaths have increased along with positive
test results providing evidence that the national increase in positive tests reflected a true increase in cases. With the relative decline of cases in the wake of vaccinations prior to the emergence of the Delta strain, testing serves the function of tracking outbreaks in areas of low vaccination rates and monitoring the health condition of travelers or those exposed in “spreader” incidents.
- Herd immunity will protect us if we let the virus through the population
Early in the pandemic, authorities in the United Kingdom and Sweden were planning to let the coronavirus circulate through the population until it reached herd immunity. Both governments were late to issue a full lockdowns. The fundamental flaw in this approach is that 70% of people need to get Covid-19 for herd immunity to be possible. Given the high mortality this could lead to millions of deaths. This tragedy happened in the 1918 influenza pandemic in which 50 million people died in the world. Now the presence of vaccines offers an opportunity to achieve the equivalent of herd immunity, although large numbers of unvaccinated people in parts of the country make it difficult to achieve herd immunity in large parts of the country.
- The COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe
There are many people who have refused to receive the anti Covid-19 vaccines available in the United States. Conspiracy theories about the vaccine approval process have circulated among anti-VAXers. The viral conspiracy video, Plandemic, falsely claims that a Covid-19 vaccine will kill millions. Another conspiracy theory makes the ludicrous assertion that Bill Gates has a secret plan to use vaccines to
implant traceable microchips in people. One Gallup poll found that one in three Americans refused to be vaccinated and Republicans are less likely to be vaccinated than Democrats. Vaccines save millions of lives every year. Three phases of clinical testing must show that a vaccine is safe and effective in a large number of people. The three major vaccines available in the US have not led to major adverse effects,
and larger trials for safety and efficacy are currently being completed, showing vaccine effectiveness even for the recent Delta strain. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have now met all FDA requirements for full approval.