Health officials are urging Canadians to be careful about what they believe online amid a coronavirus outbreak.
Dr. Sohail Gandhi, president of the Ontario Medical Association, warned that not all social media posts on health care come from reliable sources, and claims about the coronavirus are no different.
“In health care, in general right now, we are struggling a little bit to combat misinformation about health care from social media and from all fronts and I don’t suspect this will be any different,” said Gandhi.
Several inaccurate posts about the coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China, have been reported online in the past weeks, many of which have caused confusion among members of the public seeking facts on the situation.
Here’s a look at some common misconceptions surrounding the virus, and what experts say is actually fact.
Claim: ‘A patent for the coronavirus’ was filed in 2015
This claim was made in a viral tweet, which also spread to other social media networks. The original tweet by Jordan Sather calls the Wuhan coronavirus a “new fad disease,” but said a patent for it was actually filed in 2015 and approved in 2018.
First, there is no one coronavirus. It’s actually an umbrella term for a family of different viruses, which, for example, also included SARS.
The full name of the current form of coronavirus under outbreak is the 2019 novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV.
In his tweet, Sather links to a patent filed in July 2015 by the Pirbright Institute, a research firm in the U.K. that studies infectious diseases of farm animals. That patent actually looked at respiratory diseases in birds and other animals and the potential to create a vaccine.
On Jan. 24, the institute wrote about misinformation associated with its research on its website.
“The Pirbright Institute carries out research on infectious bronchitis virus (IBV), a coronavirus that infects poultry, and porcine deltacoronavirus that infects pigs. Pirbright does not currently work with human coronaviruses,” the post read.
Claim: coronavirus outbreak was caused by people eating bats, snakes
While the definitive origin of the new strain of coronavirus is under investigation, some of the first cases have been linked to a seafood market in Wuhan.
“It likely originated in some non-human animal and jumped to a human,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital.
“In markets, or anywhere where non-human animals and humans have close contact with each other, we see this happen. Certainly, that’s what happened with the SARS outbreak in 2002.”
Photos and tabloid articles online have circulated suggesting the coronavirus strain’s spread was caused by people eating bats or snakes, but there is no confirmed link.
Doctors and researchers are still looking into the coronavirus’s origins, how it reached humans, is transferred and what can be done to eradicate it. More information is here.
Claim: a vaccine for coronavirus already exists
Despite several reports online, there is no vaccine for the 2019 novel coronavirus.
However, Chinese scientists were able to quickly identify the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus and officials posted it publicly within a few days, allowing scientific research teams to get to work right away.
Research groups worldwide, including in Canada, are executing plans to test vaccines, treatments and other countermeasures to stop the newly-identified virus.
University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, International Vaccine Centre, recently received permission from the Public Health Agency of Canada to start working on countering the threat.
Executive director Volker Gerdts said researchers hope to do the first round of testing on animals in six to eight weeks, but a vaccine for humans will take at least a year.
The lab has previously made successful vaccines for strands of the virus linked to cows and pigs.
Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told the Washington Post that he is “reasonably confident” that a safety study on humans could begin within three months.
Claim: 90,000 people have are affected by the outbreak
A viral post online claims the number of people affected by the coronavirus outbreak is close to 90,000 — significantly higher than numbers reported by officials.
Officials in China have reported the illness has killed at least 81 people, and infected more than 2,700 others.
Several countries throughout Asia, Europe and North America have also confirmed cases of the illness.
Two cases recently appeared in Canada.
Finding credible information
Devon Greyson, assistant professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts, said both misinformation and disinformation can come at a cost to public health.
“We are already seeing fearful misinformation, including inaccurate conspiracy theories, spreading on social media,” he said.
“Some of this is deliberate disinformation on behalf of people who hope to make a profit off of this outbreak (such as those peddling unproven dietary supplements), but most of the volume is scared individuals sharing misinformation that can erode trust in public health, ultimately raising risks for spread of an outbreak instead of reducing risk,” Greyson added.
Greyson recommended Canadians instead rely on “scientific and trustworthy” sources of information, like the World Health Organization, the Public Health Agency of Canada, or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
— With files from Global News reporter Meghan Collie, The Canadian Press