Debunking the most dangerous claims of 'Plandemic'

Abstract illustration representing coronavirus mysteries and conspiracy theories.
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Last week, a slickly produced video titled "Plandemic" began making the rounds on social media before being banned by Facebook and Twitter because of the misinformation it spread about the novel coronavirus.

Among the unfounded claims in the video is that masks "activate" the virus, that beaches have healing powers and that a vaccine against COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, will kill millions. These claims, experts in immunology and viruses told Live Science, are flatly untrue. Some echo the tropes of the anti-vaccine movement.

The video is a softball interview with Judy Mikovits, a biochemist whose 2009 paper on the causes of chronic fatigue syndrome was retracted from the journal Science after no one could replicate the findings and they were shown to be a result of laboratory contamination. In the interview, Mikovits makes a number of claims about her work and career being suppressed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Mikovits' history has been examined and explained thoroughly by other outlets such as Science magazine.

Related: 13 Coronavirus myths busted by science

But beyond trying to discredit Fauci, Mikovits makes a number of assertions that could directly increase people's risk of catching SARS-CoV-2. Live Science asked experts about these assertions and what's behind them.

The claim: Masks "activate" the coronavirus.

The reality: "Nobody seems to understand what she meant by that," said Bertram Jacobs, a professor of virology at Arizona State University. In the video, Mikovits says, "Wearing the mask literally activates your own virus. You're getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expressions, and if it happens to be SARS-CoV-2, then you've got a big problem."

The claim just doesn't make sense, said Marsha Wills-Karp, the chair of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "She doesn't know anything about immunity if she thinks that breathing in the inoculum [virus] you already have in your nose is going to somehow change your exposure," Wills-Karp told Live Science. "If your immune system has seen it, you've either mounted a protective response or you haven't."

The level of protection from other people's viral particles offered by masks depends on the mask type, with medical-grade N95s being most protective. But public health researchers think that fabric masks may slow transmission of the coronavirus at least somewhat by keeping people's own respiratory droplets from traveling as far — and in a pandemic situation, any slowing of transmission can help.

The claim: Italy was hard-hit by coronavirus because their flu vaccine was grown in dog cells.

The reality: Coronavirus has nothing to do with flu vaccination. In the documentary, Mikovits says, "Italy has a very old population. They're very sick with inflammatory disorders. They got at the beginning of 2019 an untested new form of influenza vaccine that had four different strains of influenza, including the highly pathogenic H1N1. That vaccine was grown in a cell line, a dog cell line. Dogs have lots of coronaviruses."

It's true that one of Italy's flu vaccinations had four different strains of flu (though that flu vaccine had been tested) and that the virus was grown in a cell line that came from dogs. But there's "no justification" to make any link to coronavirus, Jacobs told Live Science. The flu virus in the vaccine, like any flu vaccine, was inactivated with chemicals to kill it and make it non-infectious. In the event that any dog coronavirus could have been in the cell line, this inactivation step would have killed it, too, Jacobs said. (And, had any of this happened, the flu vaccine would then have presumably inoculated people against a coronavirus, not infected them with it.) More importantly, genetic analysis of the coronavirus strain in Italy clearly shows that it's the same coronavirus that originated in China, he said. And that strain has been shown to be closely related to bat coronaviruses.

But, Jacobs said, the claim does echo familiar tropes from the anti-vaccine movement. During the AIDS epidemic, he said, conspiracies arose that HIV came from contaminated polio vaccination in Africa.

"It's an off-the-wall comment, but it's part of the folklore of the anti-vaccine movement, I believe," Jacobs said.

Related: 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history

One final nail in the flu shot-coronavirus connection conspiracy? Preliminary data out of Italy is actually suggesting that people who got flu shots fared better during the coronavirus outbreak there, said Benjamin tenOever, a microbiologist at the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine. Most likely, the people who got their flu shots are those who are more likely to go to the doctor regularly, eat healthy, exercise and take care of their health in other ways, making them more resilient to the new disease, tenOever told Live Science.

The claim: Vaccines don't work and they kill people.

The reality: Despite claiming not to be anti-vaccine, Mikovits again pushes anti-vax tropes by saying that a new coronavirus vaccine will "kill millions." She tells the interviewer, "There is no vaccine currently on the schedule for any RNA virus that works."

It's a "ridiculous" claim, said tenOever. Some of the greatest success stories of vaccination are vaccines against RNA viruses, including polio, measles and yellow fever. (RNA is a nucleic acid that carries an RNA virus's genetic code.)

"People study the yellow fever vaccine because it's such a good vaccine," Jacobs said. One shot confers a lifetime of protection.

Likewise, the claim that vaccines have killed millions has no basis in reality. "We first started using vaccines in the West about 200 years ago, and they have saved millions of lives," Jacobs said.

Labs around the world are now working to create a coronavirus vaccination in record time. But this can happen safely, Jacobs said. Animal studies are first used to test for any dangerous side effects, he said, before testing in humans. And the development of the new vaccine can build on what is known about safety from old vaccines, he said. For example, a team out of Oxford University in England has started human trials of a coronavirus vaccine that is based on the structure of a vaccine for Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Related: When will a COVID-19 vaccine be ready?

"They've got a huge amount of data on use of this platform against a coronavirus, including animal studies," Jacobs said. "Because they had all that background, they could move into human trials much quicker. It's just a matter of taking out the MERS genes and putting in the SARS-CoV-2 gene."

Safety probably won't end up being a major issue for the coronavirus vaccine, which won't use live virus, but inactivated fragments that aren't infectious, Jacobs said. The bigger challenge will be making sure the vaccine is effective enough to confer good immune protection.

The claim: Microbes and "sequences" on the beach are healing.

The reality: Some of Mikovits' statements seem designed to appeal to people's knowledge of some scientific theory, but in a way that makes little logical sense — or, to put a finer point on it, in ways that are downright "hokey," said tenOever.

In one example, she decries lockdowns, saying "Why would you close the beach? You've got sequences in the soil, in the sand. You've got healing microbes in the ocean in the saltwater. That's insanity."

You'd close the beach, Wills-Karp said, because too many people are there and they aren't maintaining at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) of distance from one another. But as to "sequences" and ocean microbes, the claim is perplexing.

"I don't know what she's talking about," Wills-Karp said. What Mikovits may be doing is trying to link her conspiratorial theories to legitimate science like the hygiene hypothesis, which holds that exposure to "good" bacteria helps train the immune system not to overreact to threats and prevents autoimmune disorders and allergies. Or she could be appealing to people's knowledge of beneficial gut bacteria, which help digest food and which do help prevent harmful infectious bacteria from establishing themselves in the intestine.

Related: Conspiracy theorists falsely claim coronavirus pandemic is an elaborate hoax

A healthy microbiome may even result in a healthier immune system that can fend off viruses better, Wills-Karp said. But sand and surf have no known antiviral role. To stay healthy in quarantine, cut down on sugar and alcohol, Wills-Karp suggested. Eat foods that aren't processed, like fresh vegetables. Take probiotics.

"Those are ways to maintain a healthy gut microbiome," she said. "I don't think anybody would claim that going swimming in the ocean is going to help you do that."

Originally published on Live Science.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.