Special Report: COVID-19 Myths

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

by John Gregory and Kendrick McDonald

Editor’s Note: This report was updated in November 2023 to update the list of false narratives and provide information about how NewsGuard’s full library of Misinformation Fingerprints related to COVID-19 can be accessed by companies and institutions interested in data access.

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 a sample of COVID-19 myths that have spread across these sites—and trace how each myth emerged and began to spread across the internet.

NewsGuard’s Misinformation Fingerprints database contains a detailed dataset of all prominent COVID-19 myths spreading online–along with data seeds designed to detect and track each narrative.

  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.”

Request full data access here.

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


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.


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.”


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. 


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 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. 


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.”


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.  


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.”


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.”


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.

Correction: An earlier version of this page incorrectly credited a 2019 study to researchers at Rice University and MIT. While the lead author of the study, Kevin McHugh, worked at Rice University when the study was published, he conducted the research during his time at MIT. NewsGuard apologizes for the error.