Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve probably heard many novel coronavirus myths over the past few days as everyone is breathlessly watching the news about the disease. Well, this article is here to mock the conspiracy theories, just because.
This does not mean that we should ignore the new coronavirus, but we should be aware of the pseudoscience and fake news that’s out there these days. I’m sure that in 1750, people blamed smallpox on the devil. Or on Ben Franklin’s electricity experiments. Or on a solar eclipse.
This article will take on some of the weirder or scary novel coronavirus myths. But if you run across something that makes your eyes roll and makes you wonder about science education, please comment. Maybe I’ll incorporate it into part II.
Coronaviruses (there are seven that infect humans) are species of virus belonging to the subfamily Coronavirinae in the family Coronaviridae, in the order Nidovirales. They are an RNA virus of around 26-32 thousand base pairs.
The coronavirus name is derived from the Latin word which means crown or halo. Apparently, the infectious form of the virus appears under an electron microscope to have a fringe of large, bulbous surface projections that appear to be reminiscent of a crown. And that will be good for a trivia question somewhere.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is caused by SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV), which means that the current coronavirus outbreak is related to SARS. In addition, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is caused by the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
Coronaviruses, like the 2019-nCoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV species, infect the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts of mammals and birds. Interestingly, coronaviruses may cause a substantial percentage of all common colds in humans.
That sounds like a minor issue, except that coronaviruses can cause pneumonia, either viral or secondary bacterial, which can be deadly.
The SARS coronavirus has a unique pathophysiology because it causes more severe upper and lower respiratory tract infections.
Finally, these coronaviruses are easily transmitted by airborne droplets formed by sneezing and coughing. Also, individuals like smokers and those with chronic respiratory conditions may be more susceptible to harm from coronaviruses.
Finally, even though there is a hypothesis that the new coronavirus arose in animals and moved to humans, the evidence hasn’t clearly established this origin. However, the current cases in China seem to be from human-to-human contact.
The CDC and WHO have not determined how contagious the current 2019-nCoV coronavirus might be. If it is not very contagious, then any outbreaks could be self-limiting.
And the CDC has issued a Level 3 alert for travelers who may be going to Wuhan city – they are recommending that travelers “avoid all nonessential travel to the People’s Republic of China (this does not include the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, or the island of Taiwan).”
- Avoid contact with sick people.
- Discuss travel to China with your healthcare provider. Older adults and travelers with underlying health issues may be at risk for more severe disease.
- Avoid animals (alive or dead), animal markets, and products that come from animals (such as uncooked meat).
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. If soap and water are not readily available, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
If you were in China in the last 14 days and feel sick with fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, do the following:
- Seek medical advice – Call ahead before you go to a doctor’s office or emergency room. Tell them about your recent travel and your symptoms.
- Avoid contact with others.
- Do not travel while sick.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
- Wash your hands with soap and water immediately after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. If soap and water are not readily available, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
Some of these precautions would be the same if there was an area with an outbreak of a pathogen like measles, ebolavirus, or other diseases.
The CDC does not have a lot of definitive, scientific information about this novel coronavirus. For example, there isn’t any evidence of where the disease arose, although, like many coronaviruses, they do arise in various animals. SARS, MERS, and 2019-nCoV appear to have arisen in bats.
We don’t have a lot of information about the general mortality rate – remember, some individuals may be more susceptible to these types of respiratory infections than others, such as non-tobacco smokers). As a little context, he closely related SARS coronavirus killed about 7.2% of those who contracted the disease.
However, we should not extrapolate the general mortality rate from early reports out of China. That’s based on a few thousand individuals, and the raw data does not account for known and unknown confounding data.
Am I worried about the disease? Not really, because I’ve seen this before – the news was just like this when SARS was a thing. I guess I’ll be cautious, but not locked in my house in mortal fear. I’m more worried about the jerk next to me sneezing out his flu viruses rather than coronaviruses.
Novel coronavirus myths – STD’s
We’ll start our review novel coronavirus myths with this one:
I’m not sure what’s going on with people in the City of Blue Mountains, but the novel coronavirus is not an STD. If you’re trying to have a relationship with a wild animal, the disease will be transmitted by respiratory droplets (probably). If you’re having protected sex with a wild animal, you may still get the disease.
Maybe the city council meant well, but I’ve read nothing that the novel coronavirus is an STD.
Novel coronavirus myths – anti-vaccine conspiracy
Anti-vaxxers will always be a font of novel coronavirus myths because they tend to ignore science and embrace pseudoscience. And let’s start with this one.
The ex-scientist, and current anti-vaccine pseudoscientist, James Lyons-Weiler is promoting his latest ignorance. He is pushing the conspiracy that 2019-nCoV is the consequence of an attempt to make a vaccine that went wrong.
He asserts that a recombined virus, produced in a secret laboratory somewhere for the purpose of creating a vaccine, escaped out into the wild. Of course, there is zero evidence of this.
The respectful Orac reviewed this nonsense thoroughly, so there’s no need for me to repeat it. But Orac amusingly stated:
Because, of course, it’s always vaccines. Always. At least he could have been a bit more original, but originality is foreign to antivaxxers. Their conspiracy theories always involve harm caused by vaccines; so whenever there is an outbreak of a new disease you can always count on them somehow finding a way to blame vaccines, be they existing vaccines like the influenza vaccine or experimental vaccines, like the supposed coronavirus vaccine.
Orac lays out a very detailed takedown of Lyons-Weiler’s conspiracy theory with real science. He then concludes that:
James Lyons-Weiler’s speculations and fear mongering just go to show how even a scientist can fall under the spell of antivaccine pseudoscience (or any other conspiracy theory-driven pseudoscience). My guess is that the Lyons-Weiler who once ran a genomics core would have recognized that the “science” that the antivaccine Lyons-Weiler of today is laying down is nothing more than wild speculation that’s based on only the thinnest of scientific gruel and highly unlikely to be true. More’s the pity. Even worse, because he has a background in molecular biology, his conspiracy theory will sound plausible to most lay people.
Novel coronavirus myths – Asian foods
This seems to be one of the racist tropes that seem to be the center of some of the novel coronavirus myths. In this one, Australian social media seems to be pushing this nonsense.
Fake news and misinformation around the coronavirus is wild. Childcare centres are sharing a post claiming wagyu beef and mi goreng could have traces of the virus and that the "bureau of diseasology Parramatta" is testing the air. Everyone knows that burea relocated to Ryde. pic.twitter.com/FO3Nbd5z5L
— Kevin Nguyen (@cog_ink) January 28, 2020
Do I even have to debunk this? Of course, the meme is filled with all kinds of spelling errors and obvious stupidity. Toss in a touch of racism (which is evident throughout many stories about the virus), and we’ve got something that is ridiculous.
Of course, the Health Department of New South Wales, Australia had to stomp out this claim.
2/2 Further, there is no such entity as the “Department of Diseasology Parramatta”.
NSW Health would like to assure the community that the locations mentioned in this post pose no risk to visitors, and there have been no “positive readings” at train stations.
— NSW Health (@NSWHealth) January 28, 2020
It is extremely unlikely that foods, especially any processed or cooked food, would contain viable coronaviruses. They would be killed.
Novel coronavirus myths – a bioweapon
Yes, there are conspiracists across the world that want you to believe that the new coronavirus is a bioweapon, released, accidentally or intentionally, by the Chinese military. Referring back to Orac’s article, which describes the genetics of 2019-nCoV, it clearly shows the evolutionary history of the virus.
The basis of this myth is typical fake news:
That hasn’t stopped an outbreak of nonsense and conspiracy theories. On Sunday, the Washington Times — a paper with a distinct ideological bent — published an article claiming that the virus’ outbreak could be linked to a military lab in Wuhan.
And it’s clear that it has not been engineered in any way – in fact, this genetic engineering was the core of James Lyons-Weiler’s claims. Orac debunked it, so there’s that.
Unless you subscribe to right-wing, conspiracy-pushing websites, there is no evidence supporting this claim.
Novel coronavirus myths – bat soup
This myth is also probably tainted by racism, given this Tweet I read recently:
Yes, that soup does not look appetizing at all. But let’s not be racist or, at the very least ethnocentric. Much of the world might think the American addiction to Big Macs is disgusting. Or foix gras favored by the French. Or knockwurst from Germany.
Cultures across the world have diets that may seem strange to us.
Now, let’s get back to the bat. We have no clear data that 2019-nCoV transferred to patient 0 from a bat. In fact, we have data that it probably mutated and moved to other species before landing in humans. Moreover, we don’t know if the coronavirus in bats is infectious to humans directly.
Furthermore, bats that are consumed are always cooked, which would probably kill the virus. Of course, individuals who capture or prepare the bats for consumption may be exposed to the virus, but the food itself isn’t going to be a vector.
Novel coronavirus myths – the most dangerous disease
This is not going to be my trying to be snarky about novel coronavirus myths. As I wrote above, we should be wary of it, but there is a disease out there that is much more deadly.
Yes, that would be the flu.
The CDC is reporting that around 10-25,000 people have died in the USA from the flu during this flu season. It is estimated that there will be over 650,000 deaths from the seasonal flu in 2020, This is several orders of magnitude more dangerous than the new coronavirus.