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Most disparities in COVID-19 infection and mortality, as well as for other health problems, result from severe social, economic and health inequities.
Although there is still debate on the origins of the COVID-19 virus, there is no evidence it was a deliberately engineered ethnic bioweapon designed to spare or target certain races or ethnicities.
When Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. mused in a recent video that COVID-19 targeted ethnic groups differently, he suggested there was a factual basis. We looked into it, and determined there is not.
"COVID-19. There is an argument that it is ethnically targeted. COVID-19 attacks certain races disproportionately," Kennedy said at a July 11 dinner in New York City in a recording captured by the New York Post. "COVID-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese." Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of Jewish people who lived in central or Eastern Europe.
"We don’t know whether it was deliberately targeted or not," Kennedy continued, "but there are papers out there that show the racial and ethnic differential impact."
"We do know," Kennedy added, that China is "spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing ethnic bioweapons, and we are developing ethnic bioweapons."
Kennedy’s remarks swiftly spurred accusations of antisemitism and racism from Democratic Party leaders and groups focused on civil rights and antiracism, and Kennedy’s sister also denounced the remarks.
Kennedy denies that he said COVID-19 was targeted to spare Jewish people. Part of his response to the New York Post story on Twitter included a link to a study that he claimed showed that the virus disproportionately affected Black and white people and was least compatible with "ethnic Chinese, Finns, and Ashkenazi Jews."
When we asked for other evidence that would support his claim, Kennedy’s presidential campaign pointed us to a July 17 press release that reiterated his defenses.
Whatever he meant, we did not find evidence that COVID-19 affects ethnic and racial groups differently because of genes, or that it was a deliberately engineered ethnic bioweapon.
"Jewish or Chinese protease consensus sequences are not a thing in biochemistry, but they are in racism and antisemitism," Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Canada’s University of Saskatchewan, wrote in a tweet responding to Kennedy.
The paper Kennedy referred to was published early in the pandemic, in July 2020, by Chinese researchers.
It did not conclude that Chinese people were less affected by the virus. It said one of the virus’s receptors appeared to be absent in the Amish and in Ashkenazi Jews, and speculated that certain genetic mutations could increase COVID-19 severity.
But the paper showed that these mutations are rare and any potential impact would have little to no bearing on public health.
Experts also added that the findings are likely outdated, given the virus’s evolution since summer 2020.
Florian Krammer, a virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, said Kennedy’s conclusion is nonsense.
"Even if there are links to certain genetic makeups that MAY put you at higher or lower risk (blood group or ACE2 expression levels as shown in this paper — which I am not even sure held up after 2020), these influences have a low effect size," Krammer wrote in an email.
In the U.S., Black and Hispanic people often faced more severe COVID-19 outcomes because of social and economic factors, rather than biology.
For example, as of March 2021, Black people had died from the virus at 1.4 times the rate of white people, according to the Atlantic’s COVID Racial Data Tracker. And although racial disparities have widened and narrowed over the course of the pandemic, cumulative data shows that people of color, including American Indians and Alaska Natives, have had higher rates of infection and death than white people.
Samantha Artiga, vice president and director of KFF’s Racial Equity and Health Policy Program who published research on the pandemic’s early racial disparities, reported that the imbalance reflected longstanding social, economic and health inequities.
"For example, prior to the pandemic, people of color had higher rates of health conditions, were more likely to be uninsured and face barriers to accessing health care, and were more likely to have lower incomes and face financial challenges," the KFF research paper found. "These underlying disparities put people of color at increased risk for exposure to the virus, experiencing serious illness if they are infected, and facing barriers to accessing testing and treatment."
Jon Zelner, an epidemiology professor at the University of Michigan, also dismissed a biological basis for racial or ethnic differences in COVID-19 infection or mortality rates. These baseless arguments, he said, have been around for a long time for many pathogens.
"Since transmission is about both host-level susceptibility and exposure, we have to think not only in terms of what happens to the host when the pathogen gets to them (susceptibility), but how often it gets to them in the first place (exposure)," Zelner wrote in an email.
It’s easy to see the weakness of the race-linked argument when looking at the high toll of COVID-19 infection and death among Black people in the U.S., Zelner said.
"There is every reason to believe this resulted from social inequity related to occupational exposure, household crowding resulting from residential segregation, poor access to treatment and prevention, provider discrimination, and on and on, rather than some basic genetic susceptibility," he said. "Even advancing the idea that the development of such 'targeted' bioweapons is plausible or likely is endorsing racist ideas about the way infectious disease transmission happens."
U.S. intelligence agencies have not reached a consensus on the origins of COVID-19 — whether it emerged unintentionally from a research lab or naturally from contact with wild animals remains under investigation. But they did agree that the virus was not developed as a biological weapon.
Kennedy claimed that COVID-19 "is targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people," while sparing Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people.
There is no evidence that the virus attacks Caucasian or Black people while sparing Jewish and Chinese people because of their genetics, public health experts said.
They added that most disparities in COVID-19 infection and mortality, as well as for other health problems, result from severe social, economic and health inequities.
Scientists and U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly rejected the claim that COVID-19 was created as a bioweapon.
Kennedy’s claim is Pants on Fire!
YouTube, RFK Jr. says COVID may have been ‘ethnically targeted’ to spare Jews, July 16, 2023
The New York Post, RFK Jr. says COVID may have been ‘ethnically targeted’ to spare Jews, July 15, 2023
The New York Post, RFK Jr. defends his ‘ethnically targeted’ COVID-19 comments, July 16, 2023
Twitter, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tweet, July 15, 2023
The Washington Post, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. suggests covid was designed to spare Jews, Chinese people, July 15, 2023
The New York Times, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Airs Bigoted New Covid Conspiracy Theory About Jews and Chinese, July 15, 2023
Twitter, Dr. Angela Rasmussen tweet, July 15, 2023
The COVID Racial Data Tracker, COVID-19 is affecting Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color the most, March 7, 2021
KFF, Racial Disparities in COVID-19: Key Findings from Available Data and Analysis, August 17, 2020
Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Updated Assessment on COVID-19 Origins, October 2021
Email interview, Anti-Defamation League communications, July 17, 2023
Email interview, Florian Krammer, virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, July 17, 2023
Email interview, Jon Zelner, epidemiology professor at the University of Michigan, July 18, 2023
Email interview, Samantha Artiga vice president and director of KFF’s Racial Equity and Health Policy Program, July 18, 2023
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