Misinformation Regarding COVID-19 and How to Scientifically Debunk These Myths

We are in very unfamiliar territory regarding the current coronavirus pandemic. Though many are trying to inform themselves about the disease, it has resulted in a dangerous game of global telephone regarding information.

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By Adrianna Peng

When the coronavirus first garnered international attention, people immediately had several burning questions such as, “where did the virus come from?” and “who is at risk?” Public news corporations and the media were quick to report every new detail on COVID-19, often disregarding the reliability of their sources of information. In the presence of social media, such reports spread like wildfire, and the line between opinion and fact blurred as the smallest Twitter pages, our very own political leaders, and everyone in between dished on the dramatic “details” about COVID-19. Ironically, in a mad dash for information, many of us had become deeply misinformed.

One of the most blatant examples of misinformation involves the media’s coverage of COVID-19. Rather than using technical jargon, many politicians and media outlets have addressed the virus as “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus.” This identification of COVID-19 is incorrect and strongly implies that the disease is Chinese in nationality, despite the common knowledge that COVID-19 affects those of all ages, ethnicities, and races.

Another example of misinformation lies in where the novel coronavirus actually originated. The task of establishing a point of origin for the virus would allow doctors and other specialists to properly develop preventative measures, plans for action, and prospective cures. A study conducted by 29 Chinese researchers published in a medical journal called “The Lancet'' indicated that a wet market located in the capital of the Hubei province, Wuhan, was the origin of COVID-19. Although this study never stated that COVID-19 could have originated anywhere other than the Wuhan wet market, a state-run newspaper called “The People’s Daily” reprinted an article that indicated that the virus may have originated in the United States. This story was spun into the tale that the novel coronavirus had not originated in Wuhan but rather in a leaky U.S. bioweapons lab. Within several days, the story had altered once more. Now, the virus had supposedly been planted in Wuhan by American operatives as a deliberate attack against the Chinese government. Similarly, those in the West have also speculated that the virus had been located in the Wuhan Institute of Virology and had been accidentally released as a result of carelessness.

Although such theories have taken hold in several people’s minds, it has become quite obvious that the novel coronavirus is of natural origin. Theories stating that the virus was lab-constructed are implausible for several reasons, including the current state of technology and several distinctive features found within the genetic makeup of SARS-CoV-2, the name of the virus itself. Given the state of current technology, a manmade virus would most likely be composed of other previously existing viruses. However, genetic analysis of the RNA backbone indicated that SARS-CoV-2 developed naturally.

This idea is most supported by the existence of several distinct features present within the genetic makeup, such as the existence of newly discovered nucleotides. Like other viruses, SARS-CoV-2 carries its genetic information in a long chain composed of a ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecule. This RNA backbone includes several nucleotides, or molecular units of genetic information, that were previously undiscovered and/or not developed in a lab. The fact that these nucleotides were not previously encountered further disproves the idea that the virus was created using previously known genetic material.

Another distinctive feature of SARS-CoV-2 is a site on the genome called the receptor-binding domain (RBD). An RBD is a part of the coronavirus genome that allows it to bind to a receptor and infiltrate cells. In a virus developed in a lab, it would make the most sense to use an RBD which allows a virus to enter cells in the fastest and most efficient way possible. In the case of coronaviruses, they all bind to a receptor called Angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 (ACE2). However, a study published in the American Society of Microbiology’s Journal of Virology has shown that although the RBD present within SARS-CoV-2 is more functional than that within most other coronaviruses, it is actually much less efficient at binding to the ACE2 receptor than the virus responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2003. If SARS-CoV-2 had been developed in a lab, we most likely would not have seen a clearly disadvantageous trait, and the fact that it is present indicates that SARS-CoV-2 developed naturally.

The fact that the RNA backbone of SARS-CoV-2 shows some similarities to that of HIV has also caused some to believe that the virus could have been manufactured using HIV as a template. Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, debunks this idea. “Essentially, their claim was the same as me taking a copy of the “Odyssey” and saying, ‘Oh, this has the word “the” in it,’ and then opening another book, seeing the word “the” in it and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the same word, there must be parts of the “Odyssey” in this other book,’” she says. “It was a really misleading claim and really bad science.”

One of the clearest indicators of COVID-19’s root in the wet markets of Wuhan is the existence of the ACE2 receptor not only in humans but also in bats and small animals called pangolins. Because there is a demand for their meat and scales, pangolins are smuggled into China and often end up in wet markets like those in Wuhan. Because bats, pangolins, and humans all have a common ACE2 receptor, diseases that enter a bat or pangolin through the ACE2 receptor can also enter a human. Thus, since the RBD present in SARS-CoV-2 is able to bind to the ACE2 receptor in bats and pangolins, it is also able to bind to the ACE2 receptor in humans and enter the respiratory system. Because bats and pangolins are commonly sold in the wet markets of Wuhan, a singular diseased bat or pangolin may have transmitted the virus to a human who subsequently spread it to others around them.

Although it may seem obvious that COVID-19 was created naturally, the effects of misinformation have not gone unnoticed. The language used by many Western politicians has unfairly targeted those of Asian origin, leading to a dangerous increase in hate crimes against Asians. Videos have surfaced showing those of Asian descent being subject to unwarranted verbal and physical harassment. Additionally, political tensions have increased between the United States, the People’s Republic of China, and other countries as leaders attempt to gain political leverage while trying to alleviate the effects of the pandemic.

The dramatic narrative regarding COVID-19 is especially appealing because of the unfamiliarity of the current pandemic. Because people know so little about the novel coronavirus, they have become understandably afraid; consequently, they have turned to every source of information that they can find, credible or not. Untrustworthy information can come from anyone, from media companies trying to profit off of dramatic and hyperbolic headlines, governments attempting to calm the panicking public, or even those with the best intentions, trying to inform friends and family to stay safe. The unfortunate result of misinformation is a positive feedback loop that leads to the development, spread, alteration of, and reactions to false information. The obvious results are dangerous to the public, as misinformation has put several people’s lives at risk. With the news and social media, fabricated “scientific” reports are easy to access, and we should all take precautions when educating ourselves about the novel coronavirus. As with any unfamiliar situation, knowledge is power, and it is our responsibility to maintain the veracity of that knowledge. Doing so rightfully preserves the protection of not only ourselves but of those around us from mistreatment and harm.