Category Archives: misinformation

Coronavirus lies, nonsense and misinformation… set straight

Misinformation goes Viral

TheStartup, by Jason Shepherd, Apr 13, 2020 (updated 4/22)

Self Isolation has led many to delve into crackpot theories that go from man-made viruses to spread of infections via 5G cell phone towers. Now, those that are rational are already asking the right questions and seeking legit sources of information…but more and more people are losing it. Feel free to use the information in this story to educate your friends. This pandemic is stressful enough without people confabulating nonsense!

I’ve found that people “listen” more if you have credentials, so while I’m not a fan of throwing letters at people…here are mine. I have a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Medicine from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I did my postdoctoral work at MIT and am now an Associate Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Utah .

I run a research lab that works on the molecular mechanisms of memory and brain plasticity (www.shepherdlab.org). More recently, we made a surprising discovery between memory and..viruses. If interested, see here

and here.

All of that just means that I spent a long time being trained to problem solve, analyze data and I know a fair amount about biology.

All of the links below are public and I encourage you to read them. In no particular order here are some common themes of misinformation:

1. No, YOU (bar the first Chinese patients in Wuhan) did not have COVID19 prior to Jan 2020.

The first documented cases in China were in late November/early Dec 2019. Scientists can “track” the origins of viruses by sequencing their genetic material. Over time, viruses accumulate mutations that make them identifiable. Think of family trees and tracing genetic mutations, this is very similar. See this article for a good explanation:

UPDATE: If you are interested in the analysis mentioned in the NYTs article, here’s a great website that traces the sequencing data: https://nextstrain.org/ncov/global and for the US: https://nextstrain.org/narratives/ncov/sit-rep/2020-04-17?f_country=USA

2. The virus is NOT man made.

Scientists can compare the sequence of the new virus with other known viruses and determine how similar it is. The most similar virus is a coronavirus found in bats and the differences are due to mutations that occur through natural evolution, rather than an artificial sequence that was suddenly added.There are literally billions of viruses, all with different hosts and life-cycles…some mutations allow those viruses to jump into new hosts. The clearest picture so far is that SARS-COV-2 originated from bats and maybe an intermediate host. The most likely scenario is that this jump from an intermediate host happened in the wild animal market in Wuhan (https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(20)30328-7).

In addition, the interaction between the virus spike protein (that make the “crown” of proteins that stick out from the balloon-like membrane) and the human receptor ACE2, which allows the virus to get into human cells, is complicated and something that would be extremely hard to engineer (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9). Indeed, the ACE2 interaction had already been identified with a bat coronavirus in 2010, giving credence for a natural origin (https://www.nature.com/articles/nature12711).

4/17 UPDATE: There are insinuations that a lab in China working on bat coronaviruses may have let the virus “escape”. There’s a lot of finger pointing by various US agencies, but I’ve yet to see any scientific analysis that makes this claim credible…so far. There’s also precedent for coronaviruses jumping hosts and into humans, both SARS and MERS for example. Indeed, scientists had publicly warned that this would be one of the most probable causes for an international virus outbreak. Here’s a good write up on the evidence for all of this:

3. NUMBERS and MODELS are not deliberately misleading people.

Guys, this is a new virus and nothing was known about it prior to Dec 2019. The good news is that it is similar to the previously known coronaviruses SARS and MERS. But infectivity and mortality were completely unknown. Scientists use models to refine their ideas but no one model is correct. You’re seeing discrepancy in models/projections precisely because science isn’t magic…the more we know about the virus and how it works, infects people etc the better the model.

Conversely, epidemiologists can study past and current data to INFER what will happen in the future. All models point to social distancing as a means to stop spread and indeed this is working

So no, there’s no conspiracy by scientists to “control the numbers”. While governments might be producing their own propaganda on how they are dealing with the pandemic, there are legit sources of data that are impartial to politics (eg. https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/ and https://www.ft.com/coronavirus-latest).

4. COVID is not the flu! By now, I hope most are convinced.

But, here’s a representation of the worst case scenario happening in NYC right now (with updated numbers 4/16) and it’s scary ! From

The weekly COVID numbers are compiled from the daily Johns Hopkins numbers pulled from their GITHUB repository. The CDC flu, pneumonia and total death numbers are downloaded from the FluView site here: https://gis.cdc.gov/grasp/fluview/mortality.html.

The CDC flu, pneumonia and total death numbers are downloaded from the FluView site here: https://gis.cdc.gov/grasp/fluview/mortality.html

UPDATE: 4/22. Here’s a video that shows the daily deaths of COVID and the main causes of the death in the US. You get an intuitive grasp on how bad this pandemic is!

5. Bill Gates.

When he announced that he was going to help develop a COVID vaccine, people went nuts. People started asserting that: Gates wants to kill people with the vaccine; Gates patented the new virus; Gates knew about the virus before the Chinese. WTF people, let’s try and use critical thinking skills?! The richest man on earth gave up running a company to devote all his time to a foundation that is dedicated to public health (https://www.gatesfoundation.org/). Go check out their website. No, Gates won’t profit off of a new vaccine, no he doesn’t want to kill off people with it and NO he isn’t orchestrating some sort of grand plan to take over the world like a Bond villain!

6. The claim — virus is spread by 5G cell phone towers.

OMFG! First, 5G is just as safe as 4G. And 4G is just as safe as your home microwave. Second, a virus cannot be spread by cell phone towers because viruses, you know, only infect living things. So please don’t go and destroy cell phone towers.

UPDATE: Since I’m now also getting a lot of questions about 5G itself, I thought I would say something here. Cell phones use radio wave frequencies to transmit. If you remember your HS physics, electromagnetic waves include visible light, radio and X-rays. Radio waves carry less energy and are long-forms, X-rays much more energy and shorter. The latter is called ionizing radiation and are dangerous as we all know. The milli- and microwaves are safe, except for the generation of heat (which is how microwaves heat up food).

So, 5G has a little more energy than 4G but has orders of magnitude less energy/harm than visible light. You should be WAY more worried about UV rays from the sun. For more info, see here:

7. Health care workers and almost all the scientists I know are working to save lives.

There are accusations that scientists manufactured the virus or that we are covering up for big pharma companies. We are not paid off by the government or big pharma! We really just want to help people. Health workers are literally putting their lives on the line under challenging conditions.

Scientists are racing to find treatments and produce a vaccine. Science works by a process and that takes time. You will see announcements that X drug works but often this need repeating and validation. This isn’t because scientists don’t know what they’re doing! For a nice explanation of how this works, see here:

I understand that people are afraid and desperate for good news, but we should all wait for confirmation from the medical community before rushing to conclusions.

8. Herd immunity.

I’m loving that anti-vaxxers are now claiming that herd immunity is better than having a vaccine. Well, crap…did you know that vaccines actually WORK by accelerating herd immunity? Yes, that’s right..herd immunity is when enough people have recovered from the virus to then be immune and cannot reinfect other people or get sick. Now, there’s a lot of uncertainty of how well or how long people recovering from COVID will be immune, but ultimately the only way to control the pandemic is through herd immunity. BUT, natural herd immunity will need at least 70% of the total population to be immune. If this is done by just letting the virus spread unchecked, we are talking about millions of people dying world-wide over the next few years. Vaccines accelerate herd immunity without killing people by inducing antibody production that can kill the virus, the same kind of antibody response people achieve after recovering from an infection .

We are all in this together! The internet is a double-edged sword, endless access to information…but often it’s hard to determine what information to pay attention to. My advice,

Keep Calm and listen to Experts!