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Daniel Funke
By Daniel Funke January 24, 2020
Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher January 24, 2020

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 has infected more than 900 people 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 COVID-19. If you see suspect claims on your social media feeds, you can send them to [email protected] and we’ll check it out.

(Screenshot from Facebook)

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 a form of coronavirus that could potentially be used as a vaccine to prevent diseases in birds and other animals. Pirbright scientists do not currently work on any human coronaviruses.​

"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.

(Screenshot from Twisted Truth)

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 U.S.

"It’s not true — the FEMA director did not advise martial law," Lizzie Litzow, press secretary at FEMA, told PolitiFact.

(Screenshot from InfoWars)

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 a form of coronavirus that could potentially be used as a vaccine to prevent diseases in animals. Pirbright scientists do not currently work on human coronaviruses like 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.

(Screenshot from YouTube)

Coronavirus was ‘created in a lab’ as a ‘bioweapon for population control’

These claims are baseless — and they conflate COVID-19 with other strains of the illness. Our friends at Factcheck.org and Health Feedback debunked similar conspiracy theories.

Facebook posts and tabloids have said that COVID-19 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.

(Screenshot from Zero Hedge)

China ‘stole Coronavirus from Canada and weaponized it into a Bioweapon’

This claim is False — it comes from a blog with a track record of publishing false information.

Zero Hedge said in a Jan. 26 story that the coronavirus is part of a Chinese plot to develop a bioweapon. The article was republished from a website called Great Game India.

"Last year a mysterious shipment was caught smuggling Coronavirus from Canada. It was traced to Chinese agents working at a Canadian lab," the story reads.

The story focuses on the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. In 2013, researchers there were investigating a new cluster of coronavirus infections that appeared to have originated in Saudi Arabia. 

Great Game India implies that disease is the same one that’s currently affecting China. But the lab was examining the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus.

The CDC and the World Health Organization are still investigating the cause of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Read our full fact-check.

China will admit virus came from lab ‘linked to its covert biological weapon programs’

This claim is False — it comes from a website with ties to Steve Bannon and a Chinese billionaire.

In an article published Jan. 25, G News wrote that Chinese Communist Party officials would soon "admit that the real source of the coronavirus is from ‘a lab in Wuhan (China)’ linked to its covert biological weapon programs."

"A reliable source told Miles Guo today that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will admit to the public of an ‘accidental’ leak of lab-created virus from a P4 lab in Wuhan to put blames on ‘human errors,’" the article reads. "But the official announcement is still being finalized."

While we can’t know who G News has or hasn’t spoken to, we could find no evidence to support the website’s story. 

No other media reports corroborate G News’ story about the source of the coronavirus. There is a lab near Wuhan that deals with dangerous pathogens — and some have linked it to China’s biological warfare program. But officials are still working to determine the source of the coronavirus outbreak.

Miles Guo, also known as Guo Wengui, is a Chinese billionaire and political activist. He fled China in 2014 in anticipation of corruption charges from the Communist Party. Since then, Wengui, who is a member of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, has become known for his outspoken criticism of Chinese efforts to weed out corruption.

G News is the media arm of Guo Media, a company linked to Wengui. Axios reported in October that the company paid Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and former executive chairman of Breitbart News, at least $1 million for "strategic consulting services." Both Bannon and Wengui have their own sections on G News.

Read our full fact-check.

There are ‘reports of 10,000 DEAD in Wuhan’

We rated this claim Pants on Fire!

It comes from a Jan. 24 story from the Geller Report. The website is run by Pamela Geller, an activist who co-founded Stop Islamization of America, a far-right group.

"CORONAVIRUS: Reports of 10,000 DEAD in Wuhan, China," the story reads. It has been shared more than 2,000 times on Facebook.

First, the Geller Report article is questionably sourced. It says that a guy named Bill Holter heard from a friend named Robert who heard from an American friend who heard from a Chinese friend who has relatives in Wuhan that "there may already be ~10,000 dead there from the virus."

But here’s what we know from credible sources about COVID-19:

According to a Jan. 26 report from the World Health Organization, more than 2,000 people have contracted the virus, the vast majority of whom live in China. More than 100 people in the United States are being evaluated for possible infection.

The Agence France-Presse, in a report carried by CBS, said the death toll, according to Chinese authorities, had reached 106. The South China Morning Post also reported the 106 figure and attributed it to Chinese authorities. 

It’s certainly possible that the actual death toll is higher than reported. But we found no corroboration for it being near 10,000,

Read our full fact-check.

This article was updated Jan. 28 with more fact-checks.

Correction (Jan. 28, 2020): A previous version of this article stated that the Pirbright Institute has a patent for the SARS coronavirus. In fact, the institute's patent covers a form of coronavirus that could potentially be used as a vaccine to prevent diseases in birds and other animals. Pirbright scientists do not currently work on any human coronaviruses.​

Update (March 11, 2020): We've updated this article to include the specific name of the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19).

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Our Sources

Boston magazine, "Shiva Ayyadurai: The Shock Candidate," July 9, 2017

Canada Trade Commissioner Service, Focus on Wuhan, China, accessed Jan. 24, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Human Coronavirus Types, accessed Jan. 24, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), Wuhan, China, Jan. 23, 2020

CNBC, "Alex Jones’ 5 most disturbing and ridiculous conspiracy theories," Sept. 14, 2018

CrowdTangle, accessed Jan. 24, 2020

The Daily Star, "Coronavirus outbreak 'started in secret lab' studying world's deadliest diseases," Jan. 23, 2020

Email interview, Jeff Chertack, senior program officer for Global Health communications at the Gates Foundation, Jan. 24, 2020

Encyclopædia Britannica, Martial law, accessed Jan. 24, 2020

Facebook post, Jan. 22, 2020

Facebook post, Jan. 23, 2020

Facebook post, Jan. 23, 2020

Facebook post, Jan. 23, 2020

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Facebook post, Jan. 24, 2020

Facebook post from Shiva Ayyadurai, Jan. 24, 2020

Factcheck.org, "Social Media Posts Spread Bogus Coronavirus Conspiracy Theory," Jan. 24, 2020

Google Patents, US10130701B2, accessed Jan. 24, 2020

Health Feedback, "Contrary to claims in viral social media posts, Wuhan coronavirus was not lab-created nor was it patented years before outbreak," Jan. 23, 2020

InfoWars, "BILL AND MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION & OTHERS PREDICTED UP TO 65 MILLION DEATHS VIA CORONAVIRUS – IN SIMULATION RAN 3 MONTHS AGO!" Jan. 23, 2020

IntelliHub, "Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, others, predicted 65 million deaths from Coronavirus in simulation ran 3 months ago," Jan. 23, 2020

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Event 201, accessed Jan. 24, 2020

Johns Hopkins University, "Pandemic simulation exercise spotlights massive preparedness gap," Nov. 6, 2019

Justia Patents, Coronavirus, July 23, 2015

Nature, "Inside the Chinese lab poised to study world's most dangerous pathogens," Feb. 22, 2017

The New York Times, "Coronavirus Live Updates: Infections Exceed 900 and Reach Europe, as Travel Limits in China Encircle 35 Million," Jan. 24, 2020

PolitiFact, "Fact-checking claim that Elizabeth Warren takes antipsychotic medication," Jan. 7, 2019

PolitiFact, "No, a doctor was not murdered after criticizing the Clinton Foundation," Oct. 22, 2018

PolitiFact, "No, there is no vaccine for the Wuhan coronavirus," Jan. 23, 2020

PolitiFact, "QAnon and Donald Trump rallies: What's that about?" Aug. 3, 2018

Poynter, "When and how to use 4chan to cover conspiracy theories," Sept. 24, 2018

ProPublica Nonprofit Explorer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, accessed Jan. 24, 2020

Storyful, "What is 8chan and Why Was it Banned?" Nov. 12, 2019

The Scientist magazine, "Lab-Made Coronavirus Triggers Debate," Nov. 16, 2015

Tweet, Jan. 22, 2020

Twisted Truth, "FEMA PROPOSES MARTIAL LAW TO CONTAIN CORONAVIRUS," Jan. 23, 2020

USAHitman.com, "CORONAVIRUS is a Patented Virus," Jan. 22, 2020

(We) Are the News, "FEMA propeses Martial Law to contain Coronavirus," Jan. 23, 2020

YouTube video, Jan. 22, 2020

YouTube video, Jan. 23, 2020

YouTube video from David Zublick, Jan. 23, 2020

YouTube video from Twisted Truth, Jan. 23, 2020

8kun thread, Jan. 23, 2020

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