Some “fake news” is more dangerous than others. Lies, distortions and misinformation about coronavirus can be deadly, which is why YouTube and Facebook keep having to remove posts for a video that has circulated widely on social media, garnering millions of views. Its title, “Plandemic,” gives away its premise: that the COVID-19 outbreak, and the attempts to control it, are part of a sinister conspiracy by the very people whom we trust to keep us safe.
The 26-minute video, which is supposedly part of a longer “documentary” to be released this summer, stars Dr. Judy Mikovits — a scientist who was fired from the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease in 2011 after her research into chronic fatigue syndrome was discredited and retracted.
The video was produced by Mikki Willis, who according to the New York Times was involved in making “Bernie or Bust” and “Never Hillary” videos during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“The coronavirus epidemic is really fertile soil for all kinds of coronavirus conspiracy theories. And I think this video is actually really a good indication for us of how much misinformation can get out there quickly on social media,” says Dr. Dara Kass, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and a Yahoo News medical contributor.
Yahoo News spoke with Kass and Dr. Michael Saag, an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, about the viral “Plandemic” video, and asked them to address a few of its many medical claims.
“If we see things that are actually not only going to mislead people, but really harm them, it’s our obligation to speak up and say, ‘That’s not correct,’” Saag tells Yahoo News.
“Plandemic” is just one of many videos spouting baseless claims that we are likely to encounter during the coronavirus pandemic, Saag and Kass say. Kass says their effect is “to distract people from whatever we’re trying to tell them that may be uncomfortable, or difficult, or hard work, or may take longer than they want to hear it.”
“The most important thing people can do is to figure out who are their trusted advisors, which healthcare professionals, policy makers, politicians they trust, if they can find some, and just listen to them,” she adds.
Some of the topics “Plandemic” addresses — falsely — include:
The video makes multiple attempts to smear Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the ubiquitous face of the U.S. coronavirus response. One charge concerns the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine. Mikovits scoffs at Fauci’s insistence that we have only anecdotal evidence supporting the use of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 patients; she claims it is “essential medicine, and they're keeping it from the people."
Hydroxychloroquine, which is FDA-approved to treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, has been floated as a possible treatment for COVID-19, and frequently touted as a “game changer” by President Trump. But as Fauci and others have maintained, the drug’s effectiveness in treating COVID-19 has not been proven. Two studies released Friday found that there was “no benefit” for COVID-19 patients and may actually cause other health complications.
“It turns out as more studies have been done there may be a slight advantage to using hydroxychloroquine, but there’s also risk in terms of heart rhythm problems that can lead to sudden death,” Saag says. “What Dr. Fauci was saying is, let’s study this carefully before we start promoting it. And that’s in fact exactly what’s happening. There are dozens of studies right now that will give us answers in a few months. But it’s wrong to promote a treatment for which there is only anecdotal data, only a few cases here and there, especially when that treatment could be harmful in the setting of COVID-19.”
Masks and social distancing
The video disputes guidance by the CDC that has been widely accepted by public health professionals, including the need for masks and social distancing. Mikovits claims in the video that wearing a mask “activates your own virus” and makes you sick when you inhale it, but the video offers no evidence to support this.
“The fact that they say that if you wear a mask you’re going to be harming yourself because you’re not exposing yourself to the things around you, or maybe exposing yourself to the things within your body and re-putting them into your body so that you can get sick again — it doesn’t add up,” Saag says. “Once coronavirus is in your system, then you’re breathing it out of your lungs every time you take a breath. Putting on a mask doesn’t change the virus in your lungs — it’s already there.”
Mikovits also condemns beach closures, suggesting that there are “healing microbes” in the ocean. But the public health concern over beaches is less about the beaches themselves and more about the hordes of sunbathers that flock to them.
“You’re not avoiding the beach because of the beach. You’re avoiding the beach because of the gathering,” Kass says. “If you knew that you were the only person on the beach, a hundred percent, and nobody was going to go there, you can go to the beach.”
Mikovits claims in the video that flu vaccines “increase the odds” of “getting COVID-19,” and refers to a study by an epidemiologist with the U.S. Department of Defense. But the study Mikovits alludes to examined the 2017-2018 influenza season, a disease and a time period that have no connection with the novel coronavirus.
And the study doesn’t indicate that flu vaccines increase the chances of contracting coronaviruses.
“The size and makeup of [the] testing sample — as well as the overall findings of the study [...] and the fact that coronaviruses and influenza viruses vary by season and impact age groups differently — any assertion that the research definitely proves a connection between influenza vaccines and coronaviruses, including COVID-19, is misleading,” Snopes wrote of the DoD study in its debunking of anti-vaxxer claims.
“There’s no data whatsoever to support that an influenza vaccine makes someone more susceptible to the common cold, or any coronavirus infection,” Saag says.
Although Mikovits claims in the video that she isn’t “anti-vaccination,” she has been affiliated with members of the anti-vaccine movement, including her book co-author Kent Heckenlively, and has made bogus assertions about vaccines herself.
“One of the undercurrent issues with the video itself is how much anti-vaccination conspiracy theory penetrates the video,” Kass says.
The origins of the novel coronavirus
Mikovits also claims in the video that the coronavirus must have originated in a laboratory and was released — either accidentally or by design.
"If it was a natural occurrence, it would take up to 800 years to occur. This occured from SARS-1 within a decade. That's not naturally occuring,” Mikovits says.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has implied he believes in some version of the lab-origin theory of coronavirus. Genetic analysis suggests it was not man made or modified by genetic engineering, although it cannot rule out the possibility that it was of natural origin and escaped from a Chinese laboratory where it was being studied.
The virus is widely believed to have originated in a live-animal market in Wuhan, a city in China's Hubei province. Mikovits’s statement that it would take up 800 years for a virus to jump from animals to humans is false.
“We know a lot about this virus already. We know its genetic structure. It is highly related to a bat coronavirus, and there’s lots of those,” Saag says. “All it takes is a few genetic mutations, and those viruses become infections for humans. And it’s not out of the blue. This happens all the time. The technical term is a ‘zoonosis,’ but what that means is that a virus or another pathogen is inside of an animal, and it gets to us.”
Saag, who specializes in AIDS research, says that HIV, the cause of AIDS, is a prime example of how a virus can mutate in a relatively short period of time.
“It originated in chimps in Cameroon back in 1930, 1940, and mutated enough so that it became infectious for humans,” Saag says of HIV. “It didn’t take 800 years. It probably took a couple of weeks to get started, and then it amplified.”
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