Debunking your favourite COVID-19 conspiracy theories

Your local Costco runs out of toilet paper, restaurants and businesses shut down and all non-essential travel is brought to a halt.

The unprecedented situations the pandemic brought about have forced people all over the world to search for answers as to how their day-to-day lives changed in a matter of weeks. The rapid spread of pseudoscience in the wake of the pandemic has allowed some absurd theories to take over the place of the truth.

According to a recent study conducted by the Carleton University School of Journalism in Ottawa, nearly 46 per cent of Canadians believe in at least one COVID-19 conspiracy theory circulating online.

We debunked some of the most widespread COVID-19 conspiracy theories to date.

1. COVID-19 was engineered in a Chinese lab and was released into the general population

Let’s start with what is, according to the study, the most popular theory: that the virus was released from a Chinese laboratory. Although this rumour was popularized because Wuhan is home to China's only biosafety level-four (BSL-4) laboratory that researches human infectious diseases — where researchers have been studying coronaviruses — it's false.

BSL-4 facilities maintain the highest level of bio-containment precautions as they work on life-threatening viruses such as Ebola. The universal standard set by the Centers for Disease Control includes ventilation systems, reinforced walls and security systems. Thus, the chances of COVID-19 escaping a BSL-4 facility are extremely low.

Scientific evidence of a natural rather than synthetic origin of COVID-19 has risen from a study recently published in Nature Medicine. After analyzing the genetic sequences coding for the protein spikes on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus responsible for COVID-19 — researchers found that the virus contains multiple spikes made to latch on to and invade cells.

Portions of these spike proteins are efficient in targeting receptors on human cells. The study concluded that this feature could have evolved over time naturally and not with existing technologies.

2. COVID-19 is not a serious illness but is being spread to cover the harmful effects associated with exposure to 5G wireless technology

Screenshot World Health Organization

One of the many 5G COVID-19 theories claims that the virus is transmitted through 5G radio waves and that the technology can weaken immune systems.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has busted this myth by confirming that viruses such as COVID-19 are unable to travel on radio waves or mobile networks and that COVID-19 is rapidly spreading in countries without 5G mobile networks.

In February, the organization stated that “exposure from 5G infrastructure at around 3.5 GHz is similar to that of existing mobile phone base stations.” It also explained that extensive research has shown that “no adverse health effects have been causally linked with exposure to wireless technology.”

3. Spraying or introducing bleach or any other disinfectant into your body will protect you against COVID-19

Contrary to US President Donald Trump’s belief, putting any strong disinfectant into your body such as bleach will not protect against COVID-19. The WHO has urged people to not, under any circumstance, spray or introduce bleach or other disinfectants into their bodies.

Dr. Aaron Shapiro, a toxicologist and clinical assistant professor in UBC’s department of pathology and laboratory medicine, explained that the side effects of ingesting bleach can be fatal.

“When [bleach is] administered internally ... it reacts in the body to produce hypochlorous acid, which can lead to cell death and tissue damage. If administered in large quantities, bleach can cause chemical burns, dangerous increases in serum sodium and chloride levels, lead to metabolic changes and cause kidney damage.

“ ... Additionally, the amount of bleach that would actually reach the target site of infection is unlikely to completely eliminate the viral load in the host.”

4. Being able to hold your breath for 10 seconds or more without coughing or feeling discomfort means you are free from the coronavirus or any other lung disease

Wrong! Just because you are able to hold your breath for 10 seconds without any discomfort does not mean you are COVID-19 free.

University of Maryland Chief Quality Officer and Chief of Infectious Diseases Dr. Faheem Younus tweeted that many young patients with coronavirus will be able to hold their breaths for much longer than just 10 seconds.

The WHO suggests that the best way to confirm your COVID-19 diagnosis is with a proper laboratory test. This breathing exercise can’t confirm if you have the virus producing COVID-19.

5. Regularly rinsing your nose with saline solution can help protect from infection with the coronavirus

Nearly 17 per cent of Canadians believe the myth that rinsing your nose with a saline solution can help in protecting from the infection which causes COVID-19. There is some limited evidence that rinsing noses with saline solution can help in recovering from the common cold. However, the WHO notes that there is “no evidence” that regularly rinsing the nose prevents respiratory infections like COVID-19.

According to Dr. Kristin Laurin, an associate professor in the UBC department of psychology, there are many reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories.

These reasons include confirmation bias, the phenomenon where people tend to seek out information that they already believe to be true; individual differences in rational and evidence-based thinking; and motivated reasoning, where people tend to believe in what they desire rather than what evidence suggests. For example, believing that they’re going to be okay regardless of the reality of COVID-19 in their location.

“There’s a bunch of work looking at what makes us want to believe conspiracy theories,” said Laurin.

“[T]here are epistemic reasons, because we want to understand the world; existential reasons, because we want to feel safe in the world; and more social reasons — we want to feel good about ourselves and the groups we belong to.”