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Bat Soup, A Secret Vaccine, Thousands Dead? The Coronavirus Myths We Need To Shut Down

The little-understood nature of the virus has allowed disinformation – and racism – to flourish. This is what we actually do know.

Here’s what we know.

More than 80 people have now died after contracting coronavirus, all in China.

According to reports most of the victims were either middle-aged or elderly. Official records state that, as of about 1pm on Monday, 2,744 were confirmed to have been infected.

At the time of writing, it had been confirmed that 73 people had been tested for coronavirus in the UK. All of the tests had come back negative.

The virus is believed to have originated in a market in Wuhan and, just as lunar new year celebrations were set to get underway on Saturday, tens of millions of people in Hubei province found their cities in lockdown.

Yet with each passing hour social media has been bombarded with pictures and videos that purport to show an extreme situation – citizens collapsing in the streets, corpses lying in hospital corridors, medical staff breaking down.

The sheer rate at which new reports are emerging from China creates huge problems when it comes to measuring their authenticity.

But among all the noise, some clear lines of disinformation have emerged. Here they are – and the reasons you shouldn’t believe them.

1. The coronavirus outbreak was manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry to flog a vaccine.

With so little knowledge about where the coronavirus had come from, conspiracy theories about its origins were given plenty of space to germinate.

In particular, the idea that the virus was deliberately circulated in order to force people to buy a vaccine found popularity among those on the internet looking desperately for a source.

One of the most widely-shared tweets comes from YouTuber Jordan Sather, who on Wednesday described coronavirus as a “fad disease”, adding “funny enough, there was a patent for the coronavirus was [sic] filed in 2015 and granted in 2018”.

Sather is affiliated with QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory group revolving around an alleged “deep state” plot against Donald Trump.

His questions about coronavirus have been seized upon by those keen to believe in a cover-up around the disease.

Even a focused search for just the phrase “coronavirus patent” reveals hundreds of tweets raising suspicions.

From anti-vaxxers to Trump supporters claiming the virus is a tactic to disrupt the US president’s re-election campaign, the theory that the virus was purposefully spread in the wake of a patent being granted on a vaccine has been shared over and over online.

Except it isn’t true.

Yes, there is a patent: it was filed by the Surrey-based Purbright Institute, a research centre monitoring viruses in farm animals, and viruses that spread from animals to humans.

Addressing the misinformation spread about the patent, Purbright has released a lengthy statement on its website which clarifies that its coronavirus research extends to viruses affecting poultry and pigs – not the variation that has emerged in humans.

“The patented work was not funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” the statement makes clear.

It’s important to remember that coronavirus isn’t one disease – it’s a group of viruses. The current coronavirus, believed to have originated in Wuhan, is the seventh identified type.

The reason the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is being dragged into this, incidentally, traces back to its listing on the Pirbright Institute’s website as a “major stakeholder”. By the end of 2018, the foundation – which supports a multitude of projects spanning the globe – had paid out more than $50b (£38m) in grants.

There’s also the small matter of the fact no vaccine has yet emerged, but there’s no reason to let facts get in the way of a good misinformation campaign.

2. 112,000 people have died, and more than 2m have been infected.

One of the more popular suggestions to have surfaced online is that the Chinese government has vastly suppressed the true numbers of people infected and killed, with “estimates” of the dead reaching over 100,000 according to some conspiracy theorists.

This has been picked up on a number of online forums, including Twitter and Reddit – bolstered by reports from disreputable media figures such as far-right American radio show host Hal Turner.

In a report published on his website, Turner claims that 112,100 have been killed, and 2.3m infected.

Worryingly, this report has gained traction online and appears to have been shared both by fellow conspiracy-theorists and perhaps genuinely concerned citizens.

Turner has been widely referred to as a neo-Nazi and, according to reports, has previously incited violence against Black people and immigrants.

The South China Morning Post reported in November that another of Hal’s “reports” – of an explosion in the South China sea – could not be verified and appeared to be entirely false.

The false report was published on the website side of his radio show, with the first line stating: “The outbreak of an alleged new coronavirus in China is completely out of control, and is killing THOUSANDS every day.”

Whilst each day has brought new reports of deaths within the country, there is no suggestion from any credible publication that total deaths have reached 100, let alone the “thousands”.

The article continues: “The thousands of dead are being taken directly to incinerators. No funeral. No burial. Just burned. Intel is getting its actual Death counts directly from the incinerator operators!”

No source is given for this information, and it has not been corroborated by any authority.

The report also states that: “The new virus is different from SARS, in that it causes rapid kidney failure.”

In reality, it has been widely reported that the deaths have followed a bout of pneumonia triggered by the virus.

3. The virus spread as a result of people eating bat soup

The formation of this new strain of coronavirus is still little-understood – but what scientists do know is that the first human cases of infection were likely to have started in a market in Wuhan.

China has suspended the trade of all wild animals due to fears the viral illness was transmitted to humans via animals sold in the market.

A number of publications, including the Sun and the Daily Mail, published a video of an influencer eating bat soup, referring to the dish as “gruesome” and “revolting”.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before Twitter users were taking the connection with bats and running with it – in some cases falling back on language that others criticised as racist.

“When you eat bats and bamboo rats and shit and call it a ‘Chinese delicacy’”, one account wrote.

“All I got to say is them folks will eat any damn thing,” wrote another.

Both articles cite a study reportedly carried out by Chinese Academy of Sciences, the People’s Liberation Army and Institut Pasteur of Shanghai, which they say states: “The Wuhan coronavirus’ natural host could be bats [...] but between bats and humans there may be an unknown intermediate.”

A summary of the research on the Institut Pasteur of Shanghai says of the most recent strain of coronavirus: “It is likely that their natural host is bat.”

Though a number of western newspapers linked this research to the bat soup, it does not appear that the scientists themselves made this connection.

As for the much-publicised clip of the woman eating the bat soup itself, its host – Chinese influencer Wang Mengyun – has now been forced to apologise for apparently promoting the animals as a delicacy.

She claims she ate the soup in 2016 while hosting an online travel programme – years before the first signs of the current virus emerged at the end of 2019.

Furthermore she says she wasn’t even in Wuhan, or China at all, when she ate the bat. The clip was reportedly filmed in the South Pacific island of Palau.

4. China is digging mass graves

It was revealed on Friday that China was building two huge hospitals entirely from scratch in order to deal with the virus, the first of which would be finished within a matter of days.

Dramatic pictures of dozens of cranes frantically working to level the ground before construction began were circulated online immediately, and China was praised by many for taking swift action to ease the pressure on medical staff.

It’s been widely noted that hospitals are struggling at capacity, and reports state that one doctor has died after contracting the virus.

But the images of the huge area of land being cleared by diggers has been interpreted by some online as showing an altogether darker picture – with claims of “mass graves” being dug instead.

There has been absolutely no credible evidence offered that this is in fact the case, and further details about the hospitals have continued to emerge.

The first facility is due to have 1,000 beds, whilst the second – also in Wuhan – will have 1,300. Both will reportedly be finished within three weeks.

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