Special Report: COVID-19 Myths

Trail of Deceit: The 13 Most Popular COVID-19 Myths and How They Emerged

by John Gregory and Kendrick McDonald

Editor’s Note: This report was updated on April 28, 2020, to add three additional COVID-19 myths that have become prominent online.

As COVID-19 has spread across the globe, NewsGuard’s team of journalists has been tracking, rating, and flagging websites spreading information about the disease in the Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center. The tracker lists a growing number of websites that have published false claims about COVID-19, from false cures and phony treatments to conspiracy theories about the disease’s origins.

Many of the sites in the tracking center publish the same hoaxes and myths as misinformation spreads virally from one domain to another and through social media posts that amplify false articles.

Here, we document and debunk the top 10 COVID-19 myths that have spread across these sites—and trace how each myth emerged and began to spread across the internet.

Click each myth below to see its entry. Or scroll down to browse through the full list.

  1. MYTH: “The COVID-19 virus was stolen out of a Canadian lab by Chinese spies.”
  2. MYTH: “The COVID-19 virus contains ‘HIV-like insertions,’ suggesting it was engineered.”
  3. MYTH: “The COVID-19 pandemic was predicted in a simulation.”
  4. MYTH: “A group funded by Bill Gates patented the COVID-19 virus.”
  5. MYTH: “The COVID-19 virus is a manmade bioweapon.”
  6. MYTH: “5G cell phone technology is linked to the coronavirus outbreak.”
  7. MYTH: “Colloidal silver can cure COVID-19.”
  8. MYTH: “Miracle Mineral Solution can cure COVID-19.”
  9. MYTH: “Garlic can cure COVID-19.”
  10. MYTH: “High doses of vitamin C have been proven to be an effective treatment for COVID-19.”
  11. MYTH: “Lemon and hot water can cure COVID-19.”
  12. MYTH: “The Italian Government is preventing migrants from being tested for COVID-19.”
  13. MYTH: “Bill Gates plans to use COVID-19 to implement a mandatory vaccine program with microchips to surveil people.”



MYTH: “The COVID-19 virus was stolen out of a Canadian lab by Chinese spies.”

THE TRUTH:

PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. all concluded that there is no evidence that the COVID-19 virus was stolen by Chinese spies from a Canadian lab. The evidence provided for the claim was that two Chinese scientists were escorted from the lab in July 2019. The CBC did, in fact, report that two Chinese scientists were escorted from the lab that month. However, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) told the CBC that they were asked to leave due to an investigation of what it described as a “policy breach” and “administrative matter,” and that the matter was not connected to the COVID-19 virus outbreak. “This is misinformation and there is no factual basis for claims being made on social media,” PHAC spokesperson Eric Morrissette told the CBC in January 2020.

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

As NewsGuard’s Washington correspondent Gabby Deutch documented in Wired, the earliest example of this claim was a January 26, 2020 article on GreatGameIndia.com titled “Coronavirus Bioweapon–How China Stole Coronavirus From Canada And Weaponized It.” The article was then republished, word-for-word, on Red-rated misinformation site ZeroHedge.com, then one of the top 900 sites in the U.S., whose version was subsequently reposted on RedStateWatcher.com, an anonymously-run conservative site that is among the top 140 U.S. news sites as measured by engagement.




MYTH: “The COVID-19 virus contains ‘HIV-like insertions,’ suggesting it was engineered.”

THE TRUTH:

This claim was attributed to research posted on the website BioRxiv.org, where users can submit scientific studies before they have been peer-reviewed and published. According to a February 2020 article on the fact-checking website HealthFeedback.org, the study’s finding that there is a similarity between the new strain of coronavirus and HIV “was detected using extremely short protein sequences, a practice that often gives rise to false positive results,” and the authors failed to note that the same sequences are found in many other organisms. The authors of the study withdrew it from BioRxiv.org two days after it first appeared on the website. 

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

The preprint study on BioRxiv.org was first promoted by Harvard University epidemiologist and health economist Eric Feigl-Ding in a series of tweets on Jan. 31, 2020, though he did note the study had not been peer-reviewed. Ding’s tweets and the preprint study were then cited in a ZeroHedge.com article posted that same day, which was in turn republished in full on InfoWars.com, a Red-rated far-right website that falsely asserted that the mass shooting Sandy Hook Elementary was a hoax, among other false claims.




MYTH: “The COVID-19 pandemic was predicted in a simulation.” 

THE TRUTH:

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Gates Foundation did host a pandemic preparedness exercise called Event 201 in October 2019. However the scenario used in the exercise involved a fictional coronavirus with different characteristics than the COVID-19 virus. For example, in this simulation, the virus originated on pig farms in Brazil, not in China. 

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

This earliest example of this claim was Jan. 22, 2020 post on Reddit’s conspiracy subreddit channel, referencing October 2019 news articles about the simulation along with more recent articles about the outbreak in China. It was then more widely circulated in a Jan. 23 article from InfoWars. 




MYTH: “A group funded by Bill Gates patented the COVID-19 virus.”

THE TRUTH:

While it is true that the U.K.-based Pirbright Institute has accepted funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the patent referenced in these claims covers a separate strain of coronavirus that only affects chickens, not humans. “Pirbright does not currently work with human coronaviruses,” the institute said in a January 2020 post on its website responding to the patent conspiracy theory.  

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

Fact-checking websites FactCheck.org and Snopes pointed to a Jan. 21, 2020 tweet from Jordan Sather, a U.S. conspiracy theorist with 140,000 Twitter followers and 218,000 subscribers to his “Destroying the Illusion” YouTube channel, as the earliest example of this claim. InfoWars then repeated it in the Jan. 23 article about the simulation co-hosted by the Gates Foundation described above. 




MYTH: “The COVID-19 virus is a manmade bioweapon.”

THE TRUTH:

Scientific evidence points to the virus originating in bats. A study published in the journal Nature in February 2020 found the new virus’s genome is “96 percent identical” to a bat coronavirus. A March 2020 study published in the journal Nature Medicine concluded that the virus “is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

Similar conspiracy theories have been promoted by misinformation websites during earlier disease outbreaks. For example, NaturalNews.com, a Red-rated network of site promoting both medical and political conspiracies, previously labeled the Ebola virus as a “bioweapon” during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa. The earliest mention NewsGuard could find of the COVID-19 virus being called a “bioweapon” was a Jan. 23, 2020 video from U.S. conspiracy theorist David Zublick, titled “Breaking: Coronavirus Is Bioweapon For Population Control.” Zublick has 160,000 subscribers on YouTube.




MYTH: “5G cell phone technology is linked to the coronavirus outbreak.”

THE TRUTH:

There is no evidence that the health effects of the COVID-19 virus are related to 5G, according to articles from Reuters and FullFact.org. In an April 2020 article from the BBC, Dr. Simon Clarke, a microbiology professor at the University of Reading, described claims that 5G either transmits the virus, or suppresses the immune system, thus making people more vulnerable to it, as “complete rubbish.” A March 2020 report from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection found no evidence that 5G networks posed a risk to human health. 

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

The earliest mention NewsGuard could find tying 5G to the new coronavirus was a Jan. 20, 2020 article on the Red-rated, anonymously-run French conspiracy theory blog Les Moutons Enragés, according to data First Draft News shared with NewsGuard. The claims then spread across Facebook Groups and YouTube channels already steeped in misleading 5G claims (such as asserting that it can cause cancer) with a new angle highlighting the novel coronavirus. They were then amplified on social media by celebrities such as actor Woody Harrelson and boxer Amir Khan. Some in the U.K. eventually attacked 5G telephone poles, prompting the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport to call on platforms to take action against the spread of these conspiracies.




MYTH: “Colloidal silver can cure COVID-19.”

THE TRUTH:

Colloidal silver is a liquid substance containing silver particles. According to the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, “scientific evidence doesn’t support the use of colloidal silver dietary supplements for any disease or condition.” Using colloidal silver can cause a condition called argyria, a permanent bluish-gray discoloration of the skins, nails, and gums. In a February 2020 article by The Associated Press, NCCIH director Helene Langevin said, “There are no complementary products, such as colloidal silver or herbal remedies, that have been proven effective in preventing or treating this disease (COVID-19), and colloidal silver can have serious side effects.” 

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

Despite the lack of evidence supporting its use, colloidal silver has been promoted as a cure for all kinds of ailments, from bacterial and viral infections to cancer, since the late 19th century. Existing sellers of colloidal silver began promoting it as a treatment for COVID-19, most prominently on a Feb. 12, 2020 broadcast of televangelist Jim Bakker’s TV show. On March 6, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission warned Bakker to stop representing his silver products as a treatment for COVID-19 on his show and website. 




MYTH: “Miracle Mineral Solution can cure COVID-19.”

THE TRUTH:

Miracle Mineral Solution, or MMS, is chlorine dioxide, a powerful bleaching agent that has been promoted as a cure-all for everything from cancer to autism. There is no reliable evidence supporting its use for COVID-19 or any other disease, and ingesting it can cause serious side effects such as severe vomiting and acute liver failure, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

The earliest mention of the theory that MMS could treat the new coronavirus strain was a January 25, 2020 tweet from Jordan Sather, the U.S. conspiracy theorist described above as originating the Bill Gates patent conspiracy. It was later promoted in a January 27, 2020 article posted on the website of Jim Humble, a former Scientologist and gold prospector who claimed to have discovered MMS in 1996. 




MYTH: “Garlic can cure COVID-19.”

THE TRUTH:

The World Health Organization has stated, “Garlic is a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties. However, there is no evidence from the 2020 outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new strain of coronavirus.”

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

The earliest example of this claim was a Jan. 31, 2020 post from an anonymous Twitter account based in the Philippines, sharing a recipe claiming the virus “can be cured by one bowl of freshly boiled garlic water,” according to a February 2020 article from FactCheck.org. 




MYTH: “High doses of vitamin C have been proven to be an effective treatment for COVID-19.”

THE TRUTH:

While a clinical trial is underway in China to test whether a high-dose vitamin C regimen is effective against the new strain of coronavirus, the claim that it is a proven treatment for COVID-19 is not supported by scientific evidence. Vitamin C has some marginal benefits for the common cold, such as reducing the duration of symptoms if it is taken before catching the cold, but those benefits can be achieved with a diet that includes 200 milligrams of vitamin C, according to Harvard Health Publishing. The daily dosage being tested in the Chinese trial is 60 times higher. 

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

The claim originated in a Jan. 26, 2020 press release titled “Vitamin C Protects Against Coronavirus,” from the International Society for Orthomolecular Medicine, which promotes large doses of nutritional supplements. The article was then republished in full the next day on HealthImpactNews.com, a Red-rated network of health sites with 450,000 Facebook followers that has promoted false health claims such as the debunked link between vaccines and autism. 




MYTH: “Lemon and hot water can cure COVID-19.”

THE TRUTH:

This myth relies on the false claim that what you eat or drink creates an alkaline environment in your body, making it less acidic by raising its pH level. In reality, drinking lemon juice (or anything else) cannot change your body’s pH level. Similar alkaline diet remedies have been falsely promoted as cancer cures, prompting Cancer Research UK to call them “biological nonsense” in a March 2014 article.

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

This claim, according to a March 2020 article from PolitiFact.com, has its origins in a video shared on Facebook Messenger by Marian Gorban the owner of MrHealthyChannel, an alternative health channel on YouTube with more than 22,000 subscribers. This claim was first published by the Italian website ViralMagazine.it and received more than 70,000 interactions on Facebook, including more than 40,000 shares, according to data from social media metrics company CrowdTangle. The false claim was also published on the site FanMagazine.it, which is connected to the Facebook Pages ღஐღ Semplicemente Charlie ღஐღ and Ti amo, però ღஐღ Semplicemente Charlie ღஐღ, which have more than 2 million followers and more than 600,000 followers, respectively.




MYTH: “The Italian Government is preventing migrants from being tested for COVID-19.”

THE TRUTH:

The Italian Government has never forbidden the testing of migrants for the COVID-19 virus. As stated by the director of the provincial health authority of Ragusa Angelo Aliquò in February 2020, “Ministerial guidelines say that only those who come from areas at risk and have symptoms need to be tested.” According to NewSicilia.it, three migrants with symptoms who arrived in Italy on the Ocean Viking ship were tested for COVID-19 in February 2020, and the tests came back negative.

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

This claim appears to have first been published by the Red-rated Italian website VoxNews.info on Feb. 27, 2020, misquoting an interview of Aliquò by Il Primato Nazionale, a site connected to the neo-fascist movement CasaPound. The next day, the Red-rated ViralMagazine.it published an almost identical article — adding more fabricated quotes attributed to Aliquò — which received more than 80,000 Facebook interactions, more than a third of which were shares, according to CrowdTangle data.




MYTH: “Bill Gates plans to use COVID-19 to implement a mandatory vaccine program with microchips to surveil people.”

THE TRUTH:

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his charitable foundation have long supported vaccine initiatives. However, there is no vaccine — for COVID-19 or otherwise — with a microchip or other surveillance feature. In December 2019, researchers at MIT and Rice University, who had received funding from the Gates Foundation, published a paper about technology they developed that can keep a vaccination record on a patient’s skin with an ink-like injection that could be read by smartphone. The technology does not have the capacity to track patients’ movements, Kevin McHugh, Rice bioengineering professor who worked on the study, told FactCheck.org. The Gates Foundation told FactCheck.org that the research is unrelated to COVID-19.

Some versions of this conspiracy theory also assert that the purpose of the “tracking” vaccine is to control or reduce the world population, which is also false.

HOW THE HOAX EMERGED:

According to FactCheck.org and BuzzFeed News, conspiracy theorists have distorted comments that Gates made during a March 18 Reddit forum. Gates discussed “digital certificates,” a technology used to transmit encrypted information online, as part of a solution to expand COVID-19 testing. However, conspiracy theorists claim that Gates was referring instead to the MIT and Rice University research into skin-based vaccination records — which is not related to the “digital certificates” Gates was describing. The website BioHackInfo.com published a story containing the false claims on March 19, 2020, the day after Gates’ Reddit forum, using the term “microchip,” which did not appear in either Gates’ statements or the research.

FactCheck.org and BuzzFeed News reported that the conspiracy theory was subsequently amplified by a YouTube video from the Jacksonville, Florida-based Law of Liberty Baptist Church, which received 1.9 million views as of publication.