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Clive Palmer. (Image: AAP/Dan Peled)

As the world grapples with an unprecedented health crisis, it is now more important than ever to ensure that the information we share is accurate and fact-based. Fake news and misinformation seem to be spreading as fast and as far as the virus itself, infecting our newsfeeds and timelines at this crucial moment.

For this reason, RMIT ABC Fact Check has launched CoronaCheck, an email newsletter in which we will bring you the latest in fact-checking from around the world in relation to the coronavirus.

You can read the latest edition below, and subscribe to have the next newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

CoronaCheck #13

Newspaper readers on the east coast were this week confronted with a series of full-page advertisements placed by billionaire Clive Palmer, who announced he had bought up nearly 33 million doses of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to aid the fight against COVID-19. We’ve taken a look at his suggestion that the drug has helped flatten the coronavirus curve in Australia.

We’ve also run the rule over an onslaught of misinformation being spread about another billionaire, Bill Gates, and gone back in time to compare previous pandemics and epidemics to the one we’re facing now.

Checking Clive Palmer’s hydroxychloroquine ads

Billionaire businessman and former federal MP Clive Palmer took out back-to-back full-page advertisements in the Murdoch press this week announcing that his foundation had purchased 32,900,000 doses of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a donation towards Australia’s fight against COVID-19.

The advertisements implied a link between a decision taken by Health Minister Greg Hunt four weeks ago to make hydroxychloroquine available to doctors treating COVID-19 patients and Australia’s death rate since from the virus, which was the “lowest in the world”, while acknowledging “the [infections] curve has flattened”.

However, Australian Medical Association federal vice-president Dr Chris Zappala told RMIT ABC Fact Check that “no correlation can be drawn” between Australia’s success and Hunt’s announcement. Instead, he credited the low infection and death rates to basic hygiene measures, protecting people at greater risk and having avoided overburdening the healthcare system.

As for hydroxychloroquine, Zappala said the published evidence remained “very mixed” and it was unclear whether the drug would be effective beyond its current approved limited use, which includes treatment of lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Hydroxychloroquine received global attention after US President Donald Trump tweeted that it would be a “game changer” in the fight against the coronavirus, based on small, preliminary trials in China and France

But Politifact found the evidence was based on loosely controlled studies.

In another recent US study, which looked at 368 COVID-19 cases, researchers actually found a higher death rate in patients treated with hydroxychloroquine alone, while the drug also risked serious side effects, especially for people with pre-existing heart conditions.

The World Health Organisation recently announced a large-scale trial of several existing drugs, including hydroxychloroquine but cautioned “against physicians and medical associations recommending or administering these unproven treatments to patients with COVID-19 or people self-medicating with them”.

A history of pandemics

COVID-19 has captured humanity’s attention in 2020, but epidemics and pandemics are not new phenomena.

In RMIT ABC Fact Check’s latest fact file, we’ve taken a look at past global health disasters.

The list goes all the way back to the Black Death which is estimated to have killed more than 50 million people in the 14th century. 

One interesting fact: the strain of influenza which caused the so-called Hong Kong flu pandemic in 1968 is still in circulation today.

No, Bill Gates isn’t trying to plant microchips in us

Microsoft founder, philanthropist and world’s third-richest man Bill Gates has been the subject of an overwhelming volume of coronavirus-related misinformation.

Conspiracies around Bill Gates and the coronavirus started circulating as early as January with claims the Gates Foundation had predicted 65 million deaths in a pandemic simulation (it didn’t) and have continued to spread throughout April with claims that a Gates Foundation-funded vaccine paralysed nearly 500,000 children (also false) and that Gates is being sued by India (wrong again).

In another example, a Facebook post claimed Gates was freely able to prescribe drugs. However, given Gates is not a medical doctor, the claim was rated false by fact checkers at Lead Stories.

The multi-billionaire, whose foundation has so far promised $250 million in funding for the coronavirus response, is also not trying to “microchip” the world’s population through a coronavirus vaccine, nor is he using invisible tattoos and monitoring bracelets to track Americans.

Speaking of the Gates Foundation — despite helping fund the vaccine search, it doesn’t hold a patent for such a jab. Microsoft also doesn’t own “patent 666” for a microchip to be inserted into people for cryptocurrency purposes.

The problem with Facebook

While Facebook has talked up its efforts in stopping coronavirus misinformation from spreading on its platforms, reporters have found that the company’s actions are falling short.

In the same week that Mark Zuckerberg boasted that his company had “taken down hundreds of thousands of pieces of misinformation related to COVID-19”, reporters at The Markup were able to place ads on both Facebook and Instagram targeting an ad category of 78 million users who were deemed interested in pseudoscience.

Kate Starbird, a professor at the University of Washington, told The Markup that by allowing advertisers to target such people, Facebook was taking “advantage of this sort of vulnerability that a person has once they’re going down these rabbit holes, both to pull them further down and to monetise that”.

Facebook has since removed the pseudoscience category from its ad manager.

NewsGuard, an online trust tool, also found Facebook’s misinformation-fighting practices to be lacking, revealing that it had identified 31 Facebook pages, with an audience of 21 million people, as “super-spreaders” of coronavirus misinformation.

The researchers say that the pages continue to publish “blatant misinformation”, even where there was evidence of coordinated inauthentic behaviour, which violates Facebook’s policies.

“Of the posts we have identified so far publishing COVID-19 misinformation, 63% did not have any warning or fact-check link attached to the post,” NewsGuard noted.

Can UV light kill a virus?

Supporters of US President Donald Trump have taken to social media to defend his musings that “powerful light” and disinfectant could possibly be used to kill the novel coronavirus inside human bodies.

One such Facebook post claims that when Trump talked of internal disinfectant, he was referring to “Ultraviolet Radiation” administered into the body. According to the post, the method kills bacteria and has been “used for a while now”.

“Just because it’s called a ‘disinfectant’ doesn’t mean it’s Pine-Sol,” the post states.

PolitiFact found that while the post may be referring to a treatment called “ultraviolet blood irradiation”, used mainly in the alternative-medicine community, there was no evidence such treatments could kill viruses or bacteria.

Things that don’t cure and/or prevent COVID-19 

  • #19: Herbs and spices such as oregano, licorice, elderberries and fennel: “Some of these purported [COVID-19] remedies include herbal therapies and teas. There is no scientific evidence that any of these alternative remedies can prevent or cure COVID-19.” — The National Institutes of Health (US), as quoted by Reuters

From Washington, D.C.

A report by the US State Department has found that Russian, Chinese and Iranian coronavirus disinformation narratives echo one another.

According to Politico, the report warned that the three countries were using the coronavirus pandemic to launch a “disinformation onslaught” against the US.

Messages spread by the three include that the coronavirus is an American bioweapon, that the Chinese response to the virus was superior to that of the US, and that the US economy wouldn’t be able to handle the crisis.

The report found that some of the disinformation was pushed by state-run media outlets, as well as governments themselves. In one example, a website run by the Russian Defence Ministry is said to have promoted a conspiracy theory that Bill Gates had a hand in creating the virus.

Politico also noted that the State Department had discovered that, while the three governments had pushed out the same messages in the past, the coronavirus pandemic had accelerated the convergence of disinformation narratives.

Sites we recommend

Got a fact that needs checking? Tweet us @ABCFactCheck or send us an email at [email protected].

For more from the RMIT ABC Fact Check team, go here.

Peter Fray

This crisis will cut hard and deep but one day it will be over.

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