There are questions central to the COVID-19 pandemic that scientists across the world long to be able to answer. Where exactly did the coronavirus come from? How can it be treated with medication? When is it safe for the public to go back to “normal”? Often, they have unsatisfying answers, and purveyors of misinformation have stepped in.
In the United States, misinformation can come straight from the White House. Unfounded claims from disavowed doctors, controversial studies and outright falsehoods have also found oxygen, often among supporters of the president. Here are some of the most commonly repeated claims.
Claim: Stay-at-home orders don’t work
Reality check: False
Stay-at-home orders are difficult, isolating, economically costly and are considered absolutely necessary to slow the spread of the disease, public health officials have repeatedly said. Nevertheless, Donald Trump has pushed to “reopen” the United States several times, against the advice of public health officials.
California doctors Daniel Erickson and Artin Massihi gained notoriety after a widely publicized press conference, in which they used very limited data from their own clinics to argue COVID-19 was not very deadly, and stay-at-home orders should be lifted.
The American College of Emergency Physicians and American Academy of Emergency Medicine took the rare step of issuing a press release to “jointly and emphatically condemn” them. The next day, the Fox News host Laura Ingraham invited them on her show, The Ingraham Angle. She is the most-watched female cable news host in America, and in February had 3.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
The doctors again advocated against lockdowns, citing the same data the physicians’ groups described as, “basic scientific errors that call the conclusions into question”. One of the doctors additionally claimed the flu vaccine has “little or no effect,” which is inaccurate – effectiveness varies by flu strain, and was disputed by Ingraham herself.
Public health experts believe lockdowns save lives, because they prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, thereby saving room in intensive care units for critically ill patients.
Claim: The U.S. death toll has been inflated
Reality check: The U.S. death toll is likely to be higher than official figures suggest
Anti-lockdown supporters of the president have claimed fewer people have died from COVID-19 in the United States than official statistics reflect. One of those is Dr Scott Jensen, a Minnesota state representative, whose claims were picked up by Ingraham and InfoWars, a well-known booster of conspiracy theories. Later, Trump himself reportedly called the death toll into question.
A government report released last week shows how official tallies probably undercount deaths from COVID-19, by relying solely on laboratory-confirmed positive test results for the virus. In the study, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked at how many more people died during the pandemic in New York City than would have been expected in normal circumstances, over the course of three weeks. This is a measurement called “excess mortality.”
Between March 11 and May 2, more than 32,107 people died in New York City. This is 24,172 more than would die during a normal period. Of these, 13,831 died with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19. An additional 5,048 people were counted as “probable” of COVID-19 deaths, but their symptoms were not confirmed by tests. That leaves a further 5,293 more people than would have been expected to die under normal circumstances.
Added together, researchers said this suggests COVID-19’s death toll is probably much higher than official numbers, because some people who died “directly and indirectly” because of the pandemic were not counted.
At a Senate hearing, Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained this phenomenon is probably playing out across the United States, when he said the number of lives lost to COVID-19-19 is “almost certainly,” higher than official tallies. The explanation is simple: “There may have been people who died at home who were not counted as Covid because they never really got to the hospital.”
Claim: Hydroxychloroquine is proven to treat COVID-19
Reality check: There is no solid evidence to support this
Claims that the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine could treat COVID-19 bubbled up from a controversial French study, to a widely circulated document in Silicon Valley, to a tech billionaire tweet and then to Trump, who first claimed in March the drug was effective. That caused demand for the drug to surge 1,000% online. Yet, there are still no published results from double-blind, randomized, controlled trials – the gold standard for evaluating a drug’s effectiveness – although many are now under way.
Claim: Covid-19 was made in or released from a lab
Reality check: There is no solid evidence to support this
There are a broad range of claims about the origins of Covid-19, owing in part to the propaganda battle between the U.S. and China regarding its origin. But one of the most persistent claims is that the virus was manufactured, engineered or released from a lab.
One proponent of this idea was the creator of Plandemic, a viral video espousing disinformation from a discredited scientist named Judy Mikovitz. She has also pushes the long-debunked theory that vaccines could “kill millions”. In fact, they have saved countless lives by preventing severe infectious diseases. However, quashing this piece of misinformation has been complicated by claims from the Trump administration that the virus might have been released by a virology lab in Wuhan, China, the original center of the outbreak.
The U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, recently claimed on ABC News there was “enormous evidence” the virus came from a lab in Wuhan, but provided no corroboration for this claim. And although China has been criticized for failing to be open about the extent of the outbreak, no evidence has yet been produced that the virology lab was responsible. In fact, the most broadly accepted theory of the virus’s introduction is that it originated in a market in Wuhan that sold live, wild animals.
Originally published on The Guardian as Yes, staying at home works: debunking the biggest US coronavirus myths