Falsehoods about a new strain of the coronavirus spreading from China vary widely, from Facebook posts that take a patent out of context to conspiracy theories about Bill Gates. Many of the claims were shared by Facebook and Twitter users, and others were propagated on the fringe internet and notorious conspiracy websites. One falsehood was even shared by a 2020 U.S. Senate candidate.
The virus, known as the Wuhan coronavirus because of the central China city where it originated, has infected thousands worldwide, and China has restricted travel within the country amid a rising death toll.
Misinformation about the coronavirus has particularly taken root in Facebook groups for anti-vaccine advocates and believers in QAnon, a broad, right-wing conspiracy theory.
Many of the posts about coronavirus were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
PolitiFact sifted through dozens of social media posts and fact-checked a few of the most popular inaccurate claims about the Wuhan coronavirus. If you see suspect claims on your social media feeds, you can send them to email@example.com and we’ll check it out.
There’s a ‘coronavirus patent’
This claim is inaccurate — we’ve rated a similar statement Pants on Fire!
Several Facebook posts, tweets, articles and YouTube videos allege that a vaccine developed for the coronavirus just as it started to spread earlier this month. Those claims were widely shared in anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, where some users said the disease could be a government plot to vaccinate more people.
"The Coronavirus PATENT is owned by the Pirbright Institute," said Shiva Ayyadurai, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, in a Facebook post. Ayyadurai has been associated with a variety of conspiracy theorists and right-wing provocateurs.
As evidence, the posts link to pages for a patent on Google and Justia. But that patent is related to the coronavirus that causes SARS, which is different from the Wuhan strain of the illness. SARS-CoV and is the beta coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome.
"There are no vaccines available for any coronaviruses let alone the (Wuhan) one," Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, told PolitiFact.
FEMA ‘proposes martial law’
This claim is fabricated.
In an article published Jan. 23, a website called Twisted Truth wrote that the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency had called on President Donald Trump to impose martial law in the United States, which would transfer power to the military.
"Acting FEMA Director Pete Gaynor on Wednesday offered President Trump a startling solution, Martial Law in the United States, to prevent the spread of a lethal Chinese Coronavirus that infected hundreds and killed at least 17 people in the Communist nation," the article reads.
The story has been shared more than 570 times on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle, an audience metrics tool. Twisted Truth also published a YouTube video that has more than 5,000 views. The claim has been amplified by QAnon conspiracy theorists in blog posts and threads on 8kun (formerly 8chan), a fringe internet forum that was briefly taken offline after it was linked to mass shootings in New Zealand and the United States.
"It’s not true — the FEMA director did not advise martial law," Lizzie Litzow, press secretary at FEMA, told PolitiFact.
Gates Foundation predicted virus, ‘funded group who owns virus patent’
Several Facebook posts, blogs and YouTube videos claim that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation predicted, and are somehow profiting from, the coronavirus outbreak. The allegations were circulated widely in QAnon and other conspiracy Facebook groups and pages, as well as on 4chan, a fringe internet forum where several high-profile conspiracies were created.
But this claim takes unrelated events and financial connections out of context and morphs them into an inaccurate narrative about the coronavirus.
As evidence, those posts point to financial ties between the Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom-based Pirbright Institute, as well as an event held Oct. 18, 2019.
"The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the World Economic Forum co-hosted an event in NYC where ‘policymakers, business leaders, and health officials’ worked together on a simulated coronavirus outbreak," reads an article published by a website called IntelliHub. (PolitiFact has debunked some of its content before.)
That article was republished from InfoWars, a conspiracy website run by Alex Jones. The outlet has spread misinformation about victims of the Sandy Hook shooting and the sexual orientation of frogs, for example.
The Oct. 18 outbreak simulation did happen, and tax records show that the Gates Foundation has supported the Pirbright Institute in the past. The Pirbright Institute owns a patent for SARS, a coronavirus that is different from the Wuhan strain.
But those disparate facts don’t prove that the Gates Foundation has somehow profited from the most recent outbreak of the coronavirus. If anything, they show that the foundation has funded organizations that work to prevent epidemics.
Coronavirus was ‘created in a lab’ as a ‘bioweapon for population control’
Facebook posts and tabloids have said that the Wuhan coronavirus was created in a lab, with some going as far as to say that the illness is a "bioweapon for population control." One video created by David Zublick, who has a history of propagating conspiracies, has more than 12,000 views on YouTube.
"Several news websites, especially alternative news and health websites, are coming under cyberattack for reporting what is a huge story about the fact that this coronavirus that is sweeping China, and which has now spread to other countries — including the United States of America — is actually a biological attack being perpetrated on the United States and other countries," he said in the video.
There is no evidence to support that claim. While its investigation is still ongoing, the CDC has said the coronavirus appears to have originated at a seafood and animal market in Wuhan, China. From there, it spread via travelers to several Asian countries, France and the United States.