On a recent episode of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," White House adviser and trade hawk Peter Navarro observed that the Chinese government had not been forthcoming from the get-go about the potential for COVID-19 to become a global pandemic. He postulated that the original spread of the virus could have been blocked and the pandemic contained completely – if China had really wanted that to happen. Navarro went on to suggest that the virus originated from a bioweapons lab, and charged that China had released COVID-19 intentionally.
The theory that the virus escaped from a high-security virology lab in Wuhan, China, near ground zero of the pandemic, is possible (according to the U.S. intelligence community), but there is no evidence that COVID-19 was intentionally created in a lab to be used as a biological warfare weapon.
The nucleotide sequence of the virus, which was quickly made publicly available by Chinese scientists, clearly indicates that the virus is natural, and that its original host was bats. Infectious agents that jump from animals to humans are not uncommon: There are many examples of such "zoonotic" infections, including anthrax, rabies, Lyme disease, Salmonella, and psittacosis ("parrot fever").
There are uncertainties and unknowns about many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the timing and location of its origin, as well as many aspects of its clinical manifestations and pathogenesis. These have given rise to a rash of conspiracies about the pandemic, which range from the more or less plausible to the absurd.
One of the more bizarre ones is that the pandemic somehow is correlated with the increasing installation of 5G networks – bizarre, but hardly surprising, because there is an avid anti-5G community that claims it causes everything from cancer and chronic headaches to premature aging. Anti-5G activism is one of many manifestations of the confusion about "correlation versus causation," which is systematically exploited (or simply misunderstood) by certain impassioned but uninformed activists. (Another example is the mistaken belief that vaccines cause autism). The fact that the virus has spread to countries that as yet have no 5G technology does not seem to dampen this hysteria, which has led to cell phone towers and workers being attacked.
The 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 implausible conspiracy theories, with new ones often even more outrageous than the last. A manifesto promoted by conservative Catholics alleges that the COVID-19 pandemic is being used as a "pretext" to deprive citizens around the world of their fundamental freedoms and promote "a world government."
The completely loony Children's Health Defense organization goes even further, charging that international disease preparedness campaigns are designed to install a "techno-communist global government" that can "bypass informed consent laws and constitutional rights."
It is no surprise, then, that genetic engineering (to produce "genetically modified organisms," or "GMOs,") has become another pandemic-related target of activists, especially when one looks at 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 anti-technology propagandists are getting more than a little help from at least one foreign ally. The surge of the pandemic has been accompanied by a tsunami of false information — an "infodemic," according to the World Health Organization. This is consistent with the longstanding, ongoing attempts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to promulgate propaganda to sow dissension in and discredit the West.
Russia's sophisticated, massive, and secretive propaganda apparatus is active in all these conspiracies. On Feb. 3, following the World Health Organization's declaration of a COVID-19 coronavirus global health emergency, an obscure Twitter account in Moscow began retweeting an American blog charging that the virus was a biological weapon. The headline called the evidence "irrefutable," even though top scientists had already debunked that claim and declared the novel virus to be natural. A similar false claim about the supposed origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – namely, that Japanese Nobel laureate Tasuku Honjo had alleged that the new coronavirus is not natural and that China manufactured it – was widely shared on social media. Honjo categorically denied making such a statement.
The coronavirus infodemic offers yet another opportunity for an assortment of obscure players, venal and/or mentally unbalanced, to undermine the public's confidence in science and technology, promulgate their carefully honed nescience, and, often, profiteer from quack remedies and food fallacies. During these fraught times, many of the usual suspects are on the scene.
The appearance of Indian mountebank Vandana Shiva was predictable. She 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 Shiva, 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, 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 be stopped only by an antidote – i.e., a vaccine – conveniently provided by Big Pharma. (No vaccine was ever commercialized.)
Another deranged claim – by Judith Mikovits, a disgraced former NIH scientist – in a bizarre rant called "Plandemic" is that elected officials have closed the beaches to keep Americans away from the "microbes" in seawater that protect against COVID-19. She has been deservedly ridiculed by physician and hospitalist Dr. Zubin Damania and surgical oncologist Dr. David Gorski, among many others, and her video removed from social media platforms.
A prominent figure among deluded coronavirus "truthers" is Shiva Ayyadurai, the self-proclaimed "inventor of email," and critic of genetically engineered plants. He 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.
Shiva's view of the public health responses to the coronavirus pandemic is that social distancing and other measures are unnecessary and just "fearmongering." 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 predictable contender in the disinformation sweepstakes is Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association. Recently, echoing others, Cummins charged in a post for not-for-profit Regeneration International that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was designed in a lab. 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 continued:
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.
Might organic farmers and consumers begin to wonder who's representing them?
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 Covid-19."
The pandemic has been reframed into a call for action to transform the global food system as we now know it into an organic one. Dr. Peter O. Mokaya, popularly known as Dr. Organic, the director and CEO of Organic Consumers Alliance cites an article by two fellow members of the kook-ocracy which claims that widely used herbicides such as glyphosate kill bacteria in the human gut that are responsible for strong immunity. The paper comes with a warning from the publisher that the opinion is overly biased.
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 the only true path to salvation is to rebel against the lockdown, reject vaccines, and go organic.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a busy time for anti-vax 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 protection, most of them centered around the notion of "boosting" the immune system or other individual – rather than collective – actions.
Why do even the most far-fetched tales gain traction? Stanford University professor of communications 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.
As scientists, the last few months have left us more convinced than ever that science shows the way, and that we are on the right side of history.
Kathleen Hefferon, Ph.D., teaches microbiology at Cornell University. Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was a research associate at the National Institutes of Health and the founding director of the Food & Drug Administration's Office of Biotechnology.