coronavirus china

As Coronavirus Spreads, So Do Misinformation and Xenophobia

In a reversal of its decision last week, the World Health Organization on Thursday officially declared the spread of a novel coronavirus a global health emergency. The virus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of December, has according to the WHO been confirmed in 7,818 cases globally, though China itself has reported higher numbers. Most infections reported by the WHO — 7,736 as of Thursday — remained in China, as have all of the 170 related deaths. Still, cases of the virus — also called 2019-nCoV — have have now been confirmed in 18 other countries, including the United States, and most recently in the Philippines, Finland, and Canada.

While containing the virus, which causes acute respiratory illness and has no known vaccine, has proved a formidable test for the Chinese government, the country’s swift response has drawn praise from a number of health officials, including WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Announcing the committee’s decision to declare an emergency at a press conference on Thursday, Tedros, as he is known, called for “solidarity not stigma,” and “science, not rumors.” While this call to action was perhaps typical of an aspirational public health official, the public discourse surrounding the outbreak has so far been heavy on rumors and light on science.

Much of the blame for a swirling cloud of inaccurate information has been levied at social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — all of which claimed in recent months to be making changes to better combat misinformation — and their inability to stop viral content from going … well, viral. Misleading, unverified, and downright absurd claims circulated this week on a number of platforms, sowing confusion about the rate of the virus’s spread, its origin, progress on a treatment, and measures to prevent transmission.

Even as platforms take steps to remove false content, tweak search results, and direct users towards more reliable sources, the very nature of social media makes it easy for sensational or alarmist takes to drown out more nuanced content from health experts.

TikTok, the short form video app, has emerged as a particularly powerful vehicle for coronavirus misinformation among teens and young adults. A video appearing to show a lab-coated doctor comparing regular and infected blood samples received at least 2.4 million hits before it was removed by moderators. Another popular video falsely suggested the Chinese government created the virus as a form of population control. Some teens are even claiming to have contracted the virus in order to gain clout on the app.

Fear about the virus has unleashed xenophobic sentiment both online and off. According to The New York Times, anti-Chinese hashtags have trended on Twitter in a number of countries, and shopkeepers in Hong Kong, South Korea and Vietnam have posted signs barring patrons from mainland China. In Canada, people of Asian descent have reported racist interactions.

The coronavirus’s supposed origin at a seafood and poultry market, conflated with observations about its similarity to viruses previously observed in bats and snakes, has also fueled racist tweets, TikTok videos, and posts about Chinese hygiene and eating habits.

Also in the news:

• As part of its response to the coronavirus epidemic, China has issued a ban on its wild animal trade, set to remain in effect until the virus is eliminated. The ban — which prohibits markets, grocery stores, and restaurants from trading wild animals in any form — follows evidence linking the epidemic’s origin to a wholesale market in Wuhan which sells a variety of wild animal species in close proximity to one another. Medical experts, wildlife organizations, and some Chinese citizens say they hope the ban will become permanent, unlike the six-month wildlife trade ban instituted 17 years ago following the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). SARS began in bats before jumping to the masked palm civet — a small, tree-dwelling mammal — and then infecting humans, and the new epidemic is suspected to have followed a similar trajectory. There is concern that lifting the ban and returning to current animal handling practices could lead to more spillover infections in the future. (The Washington Post)

• A prominent Harvard professor is the latest scientist to be ensnared in the government’s crackdown on foreign influence in U.S. research. Charles Lieber, a world-renowned chemist, was arrested Tuesday and charged with making false and fraudulent statements about his ties to the Chinese government. U.S. agencies have now opened more than 180 investigations into scientists for potentially improper foreign relationships, but Lieber is considered the most high-profile target to date. The FBI alleges that in 2011, Lieber signed a deal to work as a “strategic scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology in China. For that, he would be paid $50,000 a month and receive $150,000 annually in living expenses, along with more than $1.5 million to run a second lab in Wuhan. In 2012, the FBI alleges, he was told he had been chosen to join China’s Thousand Talents program. He later denied that arrangement to government authorities and university officials, the FBI alleges. The U.S. has deemed the Thousand Talents program a threat to the domestic research enterprise. But some academics feel the government’s crackdown has been heavy handed. Said Ross McKinney Jr., of the Association of American Medical Colleges to The New York Times, “We worry that, slowly but surely, we’re going to have something of a McCarthyish purity testing.” (The New York Times)

• “I woke up in a hotel room and I didn’t know … where I was. I was in a room with two random strangers. I thought I was in human trafficking or something.” So began the saga of Katherine Gibbons, one of thousands of teenagers each year who are drafted into so-called “wilderness therapy,” a sub-genre of the residential treatment industry that pairs psychological counseling with outdoor activities like hiking and camping. The practice has a long and sometimes scandalous history, but in recent years, wilderness therapy programs have sought to position themselves as a legitimate, science-based solution for desperate (and well-heeled) parents whose children are struggling with behavioral and emotional problems. But a lengthy examination by reporter Adiel Kaplan for Undark this week suggests there is little evidence that a wilderness setting offers anything more than an expensive add-on to therapy that could otherwise be provided at or near home — and for far less money. From a lack of outcome studies, randomized control trials, and other rigorous research, to a host of potential conflicts linking researchers in the outdoor therapy field to the for-profit programs themselves, Kaplan raises potent questions about what exactly wilderness therapy programs are selling, and whether it’s worth it. “It’s hard to make a case for spending a lot of money,” one expert told her, “on a program for which there is no strong evidence.” (Undark)

• The Pacific Ocean has become so acidic that it is corroding the shells of Dungeness crab larvae, reports a recent study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment. As ocean water gradually absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, its pH level begins to drop in tandem. Increases in atmospheric carbon due to human activity are widely suspected to be responsible for a similar acceleration in the process of ocean acidification. The study found that not only is the lower pH levels eating away at the young Dungeness crabs’ shells, it is also damaging the hair-like sensory organs the crustaceans use to navigate their surroundings. The authors of the study said they didn’t expect to see this severe an impact on the crabs’ shells until far later in the century. In a statement accompanying the study, Nina Bednarsek, senior scientist with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project and the study’s lead author, cautioned that “if the crabs are affected already, we really need to make sure we start to pay much more attention to various components of the food chain before it is too late.” (The Hill)

• Life expectancy at birth in the United States increased slightly in 2018 — the first such uptick since 2014 — according to data released this week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers attributed the improvement to success in lowering death rates from cancer and to a drop in narcotic overdose deaths. But both the agency and public health experts acknowledged that the rise in overall lifespan — from 78.6 to 78.7 years — represents at best a minor improvement. The projected lifespan is still below U.S. figures for 2014 (78.9 years) and far lower than many other developed countries, including Hong Kong (85.29 years) and Iceland (83.52 years). Health officials say the positive health news in the U.S. is offset by increases in deaths from influenza, pneumonia, suicides, and the still stubborn effects of the opioid epidemic. Although overall drug related deaths dropped from about 70,000 in 2017 to 67,000 in 2018, there are signs that narcotic epidemic has not ended — fatal fentanyl overdoses are continuing to increase, especially in western states. In essence, “We live sicker and die younger than our counterparts around the world — despite spending around twice as much as other nations on health care,” said the lead author of the CDC report. “We can do better.” (The Washington Post)

• On Wednesday, astronomers dazzled the world by releasing the most detailed photograph ever taken of the Sun’s surface. The image, taken by the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) in Maui, Hawaii last month, shows cell-like structures of hot, billowing plasma, each the size of Texas. When DKIST officially begins operating in July, it will be the world’s most powerful solar telescope. Armed with a mirror 13 feet across, cooled by 7.5 miles of piped liquid, it will be able to photograph areas on the Sun as small as 18.5 miles. The telescope is designed to help scientists understand why the Sun’s corona — its outer atmosphere — is so much hotter than its surface. It could also help them predict “space weather” — high-energy ejections from the Sun that can disrupt power grids and GPS on Earth, and harm astronauts in space. (MIT Technology Review)

• And finally: After years of debates and delays, the United Kingdom will formally leave the European Union on Friday. To ease the break-up, the U.K. will enter an 11-month transition period, during which it will negotiate new agreements on issues including trade, immigration, and research. As Brexit approaches, British scientists are particularly worried about their participation in the European research program, Horizon Europe, which is set to run from 2021 to 2027. Unlike its current participation in Horizon 2020, the U.K. will need to pay for access as a non E.U.-member. If the U.K. is left out, however, Graeme Reid, a science policy researcher at University College London, says the impact will be uneven, with disciplines including archaeology and software engineering losing more than 30 percent of their research and development funding. The impact, he told Science, “is going to make the research base in this country look like a Swiss cheese.” (Science)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff and interns.