The 13 Most Outrageous Covid-19 Myths and Misconceptions
No, viruses can’t travel on 5G networks, and herd immunity is not a good option.
Robert Roy Britt
Only a highly politicized, historically deadly pandemic could generate this number of outlandish and sometimes deadly myths, conspiracies, hoaxes, and misconceptions. There are so many false Covid-19 claims floating around — more than 2,000, according to a recent study — that even the sharpest minds can be excused for a little coronavirus confusion amid this great global infodemic, fueled by hucksters and pranksters and facilitated by social media. “The stuff that gets shared by people makes people walk away thinking this is no big deal, that the virus is as trivial, and most people do fine, and for 99% of people it’s harmless,” says Ashish Jha, MD, a practicing internist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
While some of the fabrications might do little more than make your head spin, others are downright dangerous, and collectively, they fuel distrust in science, in media, and in the governments and institutions that are, or at least should be, trying to protect public health. Here’s a reality check on a dozen or so of the more inaccurate, outrageous, and sometimes dangerous Covid-19 falsehoods :
1. The coronavirus spreads on 5G networks
This would be fascinating were it true… or even possible! Star Trek fans would recognize the stunning breakthrough as the first instance of biological teleportation. The myth, spread in part by a handful of celebrities, holds that cell towers broadcast Covid-19 over 5G frequencies or that the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) generated by 5G smartphones somehow cause the disease or make it worse. For the record, 5G is nothing more than radio waves at higher frequencies than 4G. “EMF exposure from 5G devices does not cause Covid-19, nor does it have any effect on the disease process or health outcomes of those who are infected by the new coronavirus,” states the International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection. The Mayo Clinic puts it bluntly: “Viruses can’t travel on radio waves.” (Well, some viruses can, but they’re not the biological variety.)
2. The virus was made in a laboratory
By mid-March, 23% of Americans were convinced Covid-19 was developed intentionally in a laboratory, and another 6% thought it was accidentally made in a lab, a Pew Research Center poll found. The percentage of infectious-disease experts who agree is roughly 0%. There are variations on this conspiracy theory, as Yasmin Tayag reports in Elemental, including that it’s a scheme for population control or that Bill Gates is behind it as a way to boost vaccine sales. Or that either China or the U.S. developed it as a bioweapon. In fact, the novel coronavirus, like many viruses before it, originated in animals and hopped to humans. Numerous scientists have analyzed the genome of the virus and come to the same conclusion. A July 28 study in the journal Nature Microbiology confirmed what many others have indicated: The virus came from bats.
3. It’s not that bad
This is just total B S— a product of political efforts to detract from the seriousness of the pandemic or outright denial of facts. Sure, early on we didn’t have a clear picture of the full extent of the ravages of Covid-19. But scientists now say it’s about five times as deadly as the flu. The pandemic has already killed more Americans in a few months than any disease outbreak has in an entire year since 1918 (and no, the death toll is not inflated — in fact, it’s thought to be well below the real total). In addition, the notion that only old people suffer is bunk. More than 12,000 Americans under age 55 have died of Covid-19, according to the CDC. Meanwhile, thousands of American at various ages are dealing with dozens of crippling long-haul symptoms, ranging from exhaustion to confusion to pain — weeks and months after their supposed recoveries.
4. The coronavirus is mutating into something more (or less) dangerous
Yes, the virus has mutated, surprising exactly zero virologists. No it hasn’t changed in any way important to our understanding of its seriousness. “Viruses mutate all the time,” says Jha, the Harvard doctor. “Most of them have no clinical biological significance,” adding: “I haven’t seen any data at least that I’m aware of that compels me to think that the virus has become any more or any less lethal.” A review of the existing research in Science magazine, citing several experts, concludes there is no firm evidence that the mutations have had any effect — positive or negative — on how infectious or deadly the virus is.
5. Drinking alcohol can protect you from the coronavirus
Unlike 5G networks, alcohol does have an effect on Covid-19: It raises your risk. “Alcohol use, especially heavy use, weakens the immune system and thus reduces the ability to cope with infectious diseases,” the World Health Organization states. And for the record, drinking alcohol-based hand sanitizer won’t help, either. In fact it could kill you straight away, as it has a few folks already.
6. Ingesting garlic, bleach, or hot peppers will kill coronavirus
Let’s take these one by one. Drinking bleach can destroy your organs and kill you. Spraying it on your body will irritate your skin. Neither is effective against any virus that’s inside you. Garlic? Save it for the vampires. It’s a healthy food, but “there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Hot peppers? If they’re super hot, you might feel the pain, but the coronavirus won’t.
7. Hydroxychloroquine might work. Who knows?
No matter how many times someone with a big audience says this, it continues to be a fantasy, scientists know. The Food & Drug Administration says “recent results from a large, randomized clinical trial in hospitalized patients” found hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine phosphate (the stuff of fish-tank cleaners that an Arizona man fatally drank) “showed no benefit for decreasing the likelihood of death or speeding recovery.” That study was in line with other research, the FDA says. What does it have? A long list of side effects. The hydroxychloroquine ruse has, of course, been pitched by the U.S. president. It’s also promoted by professional-looking websites riddled with plausible-sounding disinformation about supposed supporting scientific evidence. “This is an infuriating new frontier in Covid-19 disinformation,” says Carl Bergstrom, PhD, a professor of Biology at the University of Washington and author of the new book Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World. Worse, the false claims get picked up by popular media outlets and relayed as factual or possible. “This is already being presented as serious science on Fox News,” Bergstrom says of one of the bogus sites.
8. Kids aren’t contagious
First there was the false notion that kids didn’t catch Covid-19. As of late May, nearly 10% of American believed that one, according to an Ipsos poll. The Coronavirus in Kids project, which draws on state and federal data and does its own research to find cases not in the official numbers, estimates that about 3 million American children 17 and younger have been infected. Talk shifted to “Well, yeah, but kids don’t pass it on.” And, lo and behold, they do. Kids 10 and older are thought to be as contagious as adults. Younger children can pack a boatload of coronavirus in their snot, and one study estimated they are about half as contagious as adults, though subsequent research has suggested the rate may be lower.
Still, there’s this myth…
9. Kids don’t get sick with Covid-19
It’s true that children and also young adults seem less likely to become seriously ill or die from the disease, but less risk is clearly not no risk. The CDC data is not thought to paint a complete picture of childhood Covid-19 deaths, given poor reporting by some states and reporting lags, but here are the agency’s numbers as of Aug. 22:
12 kids ages 1–4
28 kids ages 5–14
The Coronavirus in Kids project paints a fuller picture. As of Aug. 27, the project counts 1,240 pediatric intensive care admissions and 118 deaths of children and teens 19 and younger, with only 27 states reporting such data. Some people are quick to note how low these numbers are, to which others might respond: They are not low if your child is among them. And the picture is changing: The CDC recently said cases among kids are rising — perhaps a reflection of lockdowns being lifted — as is the rate of hospitalization among children. We’ve only begun to experience, let alone analyze, what happens in communities where classrooms open and children are reintroduced into society after being largely locked down since the early days of the pandemic. Recent data from the American Academy of Pediatrics actually finds Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths are now rising at a faster rate in children and teens than among the general public, The New York Times reports Aug. 31.
10. Six feet is the golden rule
It would be nifty if the coronavirus, when emitted by coughing, sneezing, or just breathing, always fell to the ground within 6 feet. While it makes really good sense to stay six feet away from other people to reduce the risk of infection, this guideline is rooted in data from the 1930s. Scientists have since learned that while large respiratory droplets do fall within a few feet, smaller droplets called aerosols can go farther. Scientists and health organizations like the WHO now agree that the coronavirus can become airborne and travel throughout a room. This is why experts say six feet is great, 10 feet is better, and neither are fully effective in crowded rooms with poor ventilation.
11. Masks don’t help
Well, um, how do we say this? Masks work. Admittedly, public health officials messed up the messaging on this big time. But the basic science is settled: Properly worn, masks provide some protection to the wearer, and they are even more effective at protecting others. While not a silver bullet (see the six-foot rule above), masks are a key tactic in layers of mitigation needed to get the pandemic under control.
12. Neck gaiters may actually spread the virus
If you heard neck gaiters are worse than nothing, that’s wrong, too. Unfortunately, several media outlets misinterpreted a recent study and fueled this misconception. Any cloth face covering is better than nothing at reducing the amount of coronavirus an infected person releases, research shows. And no, wearing a mask “does not lead to CO2 intoxication nor oxygen deficiency,” WHO says. We know this from the millions of doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals who wear them constantly.
13. Herd immunity can end the pandemic
There could be some truth to this one, but before you follow the herd of disingenuous proponents of the idea, you might want to know the “ifs” and “buts.” If a successful vaccine is developed, and most people get the vaccine, the virus finds fewer people to infect and eventually goes sub-pandemic. Yet, we don’t know for sure that a safe and successful vaccine will emerge, nor when, nor just how effective it will be. But herd immunity can also occur naturally. If no vaccine is developed, and sans serious prevention efforts, the idea is that enough people would catch the coronavirus, creating sufficient population-level immunity to significantly slow or stop the spread. But we don’t yet know how much immunity develops from a Covid-19 infection, nor how long it lasts. Regardless, at least 40–50% of people would have to develop immunity for the herd effect to work, experts say, maybe as many as 70% (it depends on just how effective the immunity actually is). But that level of natural immunity would result in at least 1 million U.S. deaths. That’s a “but” with six zeroes. Still, natural herd immunity — letting the virus spread rapidly while letting the nation get back to business as usual — is reportedly being promoted to the president by Scott Atlas, who joined the White House recently as a pandemic adviser, according to the Washington Post. Angela Rasmussen, PhD, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, reacted on Twitter to the news: “If herd immunity through natural infection is even achievable, it will result in thousands — if not millions — more deaths,” she said.