Many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the timing and site of its origin, the nuances of how it spreads, and its clinical manifestations and pathogenesis, are unknown. These uncertainties have given rise to a rash of bizarre speculations and conspiracies about the pandemic, which range from the more or less plausible, but unproven, to the absurd.
Take, for instance, one of the more outlandish theories: that the pandemic somehow is correlated with the increasing installation of 5G networks, the fifth generation technology standard for cellular networks. Bizarre, but hardly surprising, given an avid anti-5G community that claims it causes everything from cancer and chronic headaches to premature ageing. And those crazies are not taking this lying down: in England, dozens of wireless towers have been set on fire in acts officials think were motivated by conspiracy theories linking 5G technology to the coronavirus pandemic.
Anti-5G activism is one of many manifestations of the confusion about "correlation versus causation," a confusion that is systematically exploited (or simply misunderstood) by certain impassioned but uninformed activists. (Another prominent example is the mistaken belief that vaccines cause autism, prompted by the occasional discovery of autism following immunization.) The fact that the virus has spread to countries that as yet have no 5G technology does not seem to dampen this hysteria.
The coronavirus pandemic has also been a busy time for anti-vaccine and "medical freedom" campaigners, who have issued dark warnings about the possibility of a coronavirus vaccine someday being "mandatory," and have promoted dubious methods of disease prevention, most of which center around the notion of "boosting the immune system" or other individual—rather than collective—actions.
CORONA CONSPIRACY: THE THEORIES
This interweaving of tales of microchips and fetal tissue in vaccines, population control via pandemic-inspired social restrictions, and profiteering by "Big Pharma" and Microsoft founder Bill Gates has created a complex, sinister web of dark and frankly absurd conspiracy theories, with new ones often even more outrageous than the last. (Like this manifesto, promoted by conservative Catholics, that alleges the COVID-19 pandemic is being used as a "pretext" to deprive citizens around the world of their fundamental freedoms and to promote a "world government.")
The completely loony, anti-vaccine, Children's Health Defense organization goes even farther, charging that international disease preparedness campaigns are designed to install a "techno-communist global government" that can "bypass informed consent laws and constitutional rights."
And of course, whenever the conspiracy kooks emerge, condemnation of genetic engineering (to produce "genetically modified organisms," or "GMOs") cannot be far behind, especially given the links between anti-vaccine and anti-genetic engineering propaganda. Many of the same groups are opposed to both, along with pesticides, "industrial agriculture," and other manifestations of modern technology.
The coronavirus pandemic offers yet another opportunity for an assortment of obscure, venal and/or mentally unbalanced players to undermine the public's confidence in science and technology, promulgate their carefully honed nescience, and, often, profiteer from quack remedies and nutritional fallacies.
CORONA CONSPIRACY: THE THEORISTS
During these fraught times, many of the usual suspects, domestic and international, have also made an appearance, like Indian mountebank Vandana Shiva. Shiva opposes the tools and practices of modern agriculture and science—and well, modernity in general—and advocates retrogressive policies that cause widespread malnourishment, deprivation and death to the very people she claims to champion.
Shiva has combined COVID-19, genetic engineering, and her peculiar ecowarrior narrative into a single mendacious package. According to her, not only are organisms created with modern genetic engineering techniques responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, but the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries are colluding to rip off an unsuspecting public.
Shiva is not surprised by that, because, she says, this act of extortion is merely a recurrence of previous chicanery during the SARS epidemic when, feeding cattle genetically modified soy supposedly gave rise to a novel virus which, once unleashed upon the world, could only be stopped by an antidote—i.e., a vaccine—conveniently provided by Big Pharma. (Note: no vaccine for SARS was ever commercialized).
Another deranged claim, this one made by Judith Mikovits, a disgraced former NIH scientist, was offered in a bizarre rant called "Plandemic." This theory asserts, among other things, that elected officials closed beaches to keep Americans away from the "microbes" in seawater and sand that protect against COVID-19. Mikovits has been deservedly ridiculed by physician and hospitalist Dr. Zubin Damania, and surgical oncologist Dr. David Gorski, among many others, and her video has been removed from social media platforms.
Another prominent figure among deluded coronavirus "truthers" is Shiva Ayyadurai, the self-proclaimed "inventor of email," and critic of genetically engineered plants. Ayyadurai charges that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert on the White House's coronavirus task force, is a deep-state plant whose agenda is "forced and mandatory vaccines" to support "Big Pharma"—a claim for which there is no evidence.
Ayyadurai's view of the public health responses to the coronavirus pandemic is that social distancing and other measures are unnecessary and just "fear mongering." He believes that boosting your immune system should be the goal, and in a recent Facebook live speech, said that isolation "affects immune properties on the cellular level. You actually hurt your immune system."
Another contender in the medical disinformation sweepstakes is Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Recently, echoing others, Cummins charged in a post for Regeneration International that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was designed in a lab. (Experts, of course, disagree). But Cummins' version of this myth has a fantastical and ugly conspiratorial twist:
In order to conceal their scientific malpractice and criminal negligence, to protect their "right" to carry out dangerous, unregulated research, and to safeguard billions of dollars in annual Biopharm and GMO industry profits (Monsanto/Bayer, among others, is now conducting its own biowarfare research), Chinese and U.S. officials, Big Pharma, Facebook, Google and an arrogant and unscrupulous network of global scientists are frantically trying to cover up the lab origins and diabolical machinations of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cummins was just getting warmed up. He continues, "But perhaps you think we shouldn't worry so much, since a blockbuster lineup of anti-COVID vaccines are on the way, funded by the Chinese government, Big Pharma and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, likely including some of the same gene engineers who weaponized COVID-19?"
Cummins' paranoid fantasy of a conspiracy among scientists, government, philanthropists, and industry plays on the darkest fears of those who believe in sinister forces plotting to create a New World Order. But he's not finished—here, the Organic Consumers Association co-founder denounces other vaccines:
Never mind that most flu vaccines up until now don't work that well, especially against constantly mutating viruses like COVID-19, or that they're routinely laced with aluminum adjuvants and mercury preservatives.
Never mind that, on average, flu vaccines save tens of thousands of lives in the U.S. annually; that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has a "proofreading" (mutation-repair) function and doesn't mutate significantly, compared, say, to influenza virus; and that mercury preservatives have been used in multi-dose vaccine vials for decades, and have never been shown to be harmful. The scientific debunking of his claims has done nothing to dampen Cummins' hysteria.
The organic lobby isn't merely attacking mainstream agriculture and medicine. Several "organic/alternative health" newsletters have claimed that organic foods can act as a kind of natural medicine that protects against COVID-19, and that pesticide residues found in non-organic crops "can weaken the immune system and increase vulnerability to Covid19."
So, there we have it—an organic consumer organization warning that COVID-19 is a bioweapon, that everyone from the Chinese to Bill Gates to the producers of genetically engineered crops are in on the plot—and that there is only one true path to salvation: rebel against the lockdown, reject vaccines, and go organic.
THE WAY THROUGH AMERICA'S INFORMATION CRISIS
Why do even the most far-fetched tales gain traction? Stanford University professor of communication Jeff Hancock has studied the propagation of conspiracy theories and myths, and finds that the effective ones are all attributed to a "reliable source"—a friend who is a doctor, for example, or a senior government official. The proliferation of these theories on social media—shared by people you trust—might explain why they've taken hold at such a desperate time.
The bottom line is this: beware of information from dubious or unknown sources and claims that seem bizarre. The virus that causes COVID-19 has itself provided enough scientific and medical surprises and mysteries.
Even in a crisis, we can't abandon scientific rigor. Adhering to normative practices, the scientific community is methodically working through the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. Although imperfect, relying on sources such as the CDC and NIH, scientific journals like Science, Nature, Cell, and JAMA, and the online sites STAT, American Council on Science and Health, and Genetic Literacy Project, can prevent you from being bamboozled by the kooks, crazies, and conspiracy-mongers.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Kathleen Hefferon, Ph.D., teaches microbiology at Cornell University.