While the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Tuesday that the novel coronavirus that broke out in China in December is a “very grave threat” for the world, misinformation, hoaxes and panic have been spreading almost as fast as the virus itself
By Wednesday, more than 45 000 cases of the virus had been reported in over two dozen countries, resulting in at least 1 115 deaths, almost exclusively in China. On Tuesday, the WHO announced the new name of the virus: Covid-19.
People have been quick to spread hoaxes and misinformation, conspiracy theories and ‘cures’ via social media, without checking the authenticity of these messages.
Fact-checking organisations such as Africa Check and PolitiFact have been battling to keep up with quashing these messages, which in almost all cases turn out to be false.
Here are some of the more recent fake claims about the most recent novel coronavirus:
1. Dettol surface cleanser can kill the 2019 coronavirus
According to Africa Check, a photo doing the rounds on WhatsApp shows the label on a bottle of Dettol anti-bacterial surface cleanser.
“The label says the cleanser is suitable for kitchen sinks, baths, taps, fridges and bins. It also says the liquid has been proven to kill bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, as well as viruses such as coronavirus,” Africa Check says on its website as well as its weekly podcast, ‘What’s Crap on WhatsApp?’
“Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East respiratory syndrome and severe acute respiratory syndrome.
“Previously, specific Dettol products have shown to be effective against certain strains of coronavirus. They include the Dettol disinfectant spray, liquid, surface cleanser and wipes.
“But the coronavirus spreading at the moment, known as the 2019 ‘novel’ coronavirus (2019-nCoV), has not yet been tested against Dettol products,” says Africa Check.
“Once health authorities make the strain available,” Dettol will test its product range against it, the company notes on its website.
2. A university in Ghana has developed a coronavirus vaccine
Again, this is a hoax, says Africa Check.
Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) has not successfully created and tested a coronavirus vaccine, as claimed on the website ‘News 7PM’.
The claim was published on 27 January and has since been shared on Facebook and other websites.
On the day the article appeared, the university issued a statement that reports of a vaccine were false, reported Africa Check.
“The attention of management of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, has been drawn to the… headline circulating on social media on Monday, 27 January 2020,” it read.
The statement is signed by Dr Daniel Bekoe, the university’s relations officer.
“A quick check with the dean of the faculty of pharmacy, Prof Berko Panyin Anto, on the above news reveals that no such discovery has occurred.
“Again, we wish to state that the person alleged to have supervised the purported project (Professor Dr Israel Nluki) has no affiliations with KNUST. Management thus urges the general public to disregard such publication.”
Africa Check says while ‘News 7PM’ indicates that the article is meant to be satirical, it has none of the requirements of real satire.
“And junk news sites may attempt to excuse their clickbait content – taking advantage of a trending news topic or major tragedy – by claiming it’s satire, when it isn’t.
“And the article was shared on Facebook as real news, with no disclaimer that it was an attempt at satire,” writes researcher Motunrayo Joel.
3. Cocaine kills the coronavirus
Another elaborate claim states that cocaine has been found effective in killing the coronavirus. No, says PolitiFact.
“Images of breaking news stories claiming that cocaine is the newest remedy to coronavirus are being reposted on Twitter and Facebook. One Facebook post from 30 January included an image of a bag of cocaine in the background of a news banner that says ‘Cocaine kills corona virus’ and ‘Scientists is shocked to discover that this drug can fight the virus’.
“No, this grammatically-challenged image was not from a real breaking news alert. This image is made by an online news generator. There is still no cure for the coronavirus,” writes PolitiFact.
PolitiFact now has a site dedicated entirely to dispelling coronavirus-related rumours.
Some of the claims refuted include that the virus was developed as a “bioweapon for population control”; that drinking a bleach solution will prevent you from getting the virus; that 10 000 people have died from the coronavirus; that the virus causes sudden death syndrome; and that it was “leaked from a Chinese lab“.
Africa Check’s Deputy Chief Director Kate Wilkinson said: “You should stay clear of any medical advice that doesn’t come from a trustworthy source. Check with your doctor before you try anything.
“Don’t forward messages to your friends and family about the supposed preventative powers of garlic and sesame seed oil. There’s no evidence that either of these will help.”