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10 February 2020, 15:42

'Conspiracy theories' hinder virus response

Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference on the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo:
Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference on the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo:

LONDON, 10 February (BelTA - China Daily Global) - "Trolls and conspiracy theories "are undermining the response to the new coronavirus, the World Health Organization has warned.

The WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters that misinformation was "making the work of our heroic workers even harder".

He said misinformation around the coronavirus, "causes confusion and spreads fear to the general public".

"I would also like to speak briefly about the importance of facts, not fear," Tedros said. "People must have access to accurate information to protect themselves and others."

False theories spread about the virus have included Russia's Channel One airing conspiracy theories linking it to United States President Donald Trump, and claims US intelligence agencies or pharmaceutical companies are behind it.

There has also been a video circulated of a woman eating bat soup that was claimed to be linked to the spread of the virus, and claims the virus was linked to snakes.

Reports claimed the bat soup clip was filmed in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, when the outbreak was first reported. It was proved by the woman who made the video that it was filmed in 2016 in Palau, in the western Pacific Ocean-not China.

A now-widely discredited scientific study released last month linked the new coronavirus to snakes-leading to global headlines discussing the spread of "snake flu".

"At the WHO we're not just battling the virus, we're also battling the trolls and conspiracy theories that undermine our response," Tedros added.

"As a Guardian (newspaper) headline says today, 'Misinformation on the coronavirus might be the most contagious thing about it'."

Tedros is referring to an article, published by the Guardian's opinion section, in which epidemiologist Adam Kucharski argues that the best way to combat online falsehoods around the virus is to "treat them like a real-life virus".Kucharski discusses the discredited scientific paper, which speculated that the new virus had genetic characteristics and implicated snakes as the source.

He notes that, "leading geneticists were quick to point out that the results weren't convincing, and that bats were still the likely suspects. However, that didn't stop snake flu from going viral".

"Stories sparking fear seem to have overtaken the outbreak in real life," Kucharski added. "If you heard about snake flu, you might have told a couple of friends; meanwhile, newspaper headlines were telling millions."

He said: "Ensuring the public has the best possible health information is crucial during an outbreak. At best, misinformation can distract from important messages. At worst, it can lead to behavior that amplifies disease transmission. The novelty of coronavirus makes the challenge even greater, because viral speculation can easily overwhelm the limited information we do have."

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