The origin of COVID-19 remains obscure. Three years after the start of the pandemic, it is still unclear whether the disease-causing coronavirus leaked from a laboratory or was transmitted to humans from an animal.
What is known is that when it comes to disinformation about COVID-19, any new message about the origin of the virus quickly causes a relapse and a return of misleading claims about the virus, vaccines and masks that have reverberated since the beginning of the pandemic.
It happened again this week after the Department of Energy confirmed that a secret low-certainty report determined that the virus came from a lab. Within hours, references to COVID-19-related conspiracy theories began to rise online, with many commentators saying that the secret report was proof that they were right all along.
Far from conclusive, the Department of Energy report is the latest of many attempts by scientists and officials to determine the origin of the virus, which has now killed nearly 7 million people after it was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
The report was not released to the public, and officials in Washington stressed that a number of US agencies did not agree on the origin.
Many scientists believe that the most likely explanation is that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 jumped from animals to humans, possibly at the Huanan market in Wuhan, which is supported by numerous studies and reports. The World Health Organization has said that while animal origin remains the most likely, the possibility of a lab leak needs to be further investigated before it can be ruled out.
According to virologist Angela Rasmussen, people should be open-minded about the evidence used in the DOE assessment. But she said that without assessing the evidence contained in the classified report, there was no reason to dispute the conclusion that the virus had spread naturally.
“We can and we know what the science shows,” Rasmussen tweeted on Tuesday. “Available evidence continues to indicate the occurrence of zoonoses in the Huanan market.”
However, many of those who cited the report as evidence did not appear to be interested in the evidence. They seized on the report and said it said the experts were wrong about masks and vaccines as well.
“School closures were an unfortunate and disastrous policy. Masks are ineffective. And harmful,” reads the tweet, which has been read nearly 300,000 times since Sunday. “COVID came from the lab. Everything we skeptics said was true.”
The total number of mentions of COVID-19 began to rise after The Wall Street Journal published an article on the Department of Energy report on Sunday. Since then, references to various COVID-related conspiracy theories have skyrocketed, according to an analysis by Zignal Labs, a San Francisco-based media agency firm, and provided by The Associated Press.
While the lab leak theory has been circulating online since the start of the pandemic, links to it have surged 100,000% in the 48 hours since the DOE report was released, according to analysis by Zignal, which analyzed social media, blogs and other sites.
Many of the conspiracy theories contradict each other and the findings in the DOE report. In a tweet on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, a Republican from Georgia, called COVID-19 “an artificial bioweapon from China.” The follower quickly challenged her: “It’s made in Ukraine,” he replied.
According to Bret Schafer, Senior Research Fellow at the American Research Institute, Bret Schafer, given that there are so many questions left about a worldwide event that claimed so many lives and upended even more, it’s not surprising that COVID-19 is still capable of causing so many anger and misinformation. Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Washington-based organization that tracks government propaganda about COVID-19.
“The pandemic has been incredibly devastating for everyone. The intensity of feeling about COVID, I don’t think it will go away,” said Mr Shafer. “And every time something new comes along, it breathes new life into those hurts and disappointments, real or imagined.”
Chinese government officials have used their social media accounts in the past to spread anti-American conspiracy theories, including those that suggested the US created the COVID-19 virus and manipulated it to spread against China.
So far, they have taken a more relaxed approach to the DOE report. In its official response, the Chinese government dismissed the agency’s assessment as an attempt to politicize the pandemic. Beijing’s sprawling web of propaganda and disinformation online has largely remained silent, with only a few posts criticizing or ridiculing the report.
“INFRINGEMENT,” the pro-Chinese YouTuber tweeted. “I can now state with ‘low confidence’ that the COVID pandemic began with a leak from Hunter Biden’s laptop.”
The story was reported by the Associated Press.