Virus and other misinformation goes viral

Self Isolation has led many to delve into crackpot theories that go from man-made viruses to spread of infections via 5G cell phone towers.

By Jason Shepherd

Associate Professor Jason Shepherd

Now, those that are rational are already asking the right questions and seeking legit sources of information…but more and more people are losing it. Feel free to use the information in this story to educate your friends. This pandemic is stressful enough without people confabulating nonsense!

I’ve found that people “listen” more if you have credentials, so while I’m not a fan of throwing letters at people…here are mine. I have a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Medicine from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I did my postdoctoral work at MIT and am now an Associate Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Utah .

I run a research lab that works on the molecular mechanisms of memory and brain plasticity ( More recently, we made a surprising discovery between memory and..viruses.

If interested, see here. Brain Cells Share Information With Virus-Like CapsulesHe saw that these Arc proteins assemble into hollow, spherical shells that look uncannily like viruses. “When we looked…

And here. How an ancient virus spread the ability to rememberDo you remember your oldest memory? Jason Shepherd clearly recalls a childhood filled with questioning the world around…

All of that just means that I spent a long time being trained to problem solve, analyze data and I know a fair amount about biology.

All of the links below are public and I encourage you to read them. In no particular order here are some common themes of misinformation:

  1. No, YOU (bar the first Chinese patients in Wuhan) did not have COVID19 prior to Jan 2020. The first documented cases in China were in late November/early Dec 2019. Scientists can “track” the origins of viruses by sequencing their genetic material. Over time, viruses accumulate mutations that make them identifiable. Think of family trees and tracing genetic mutations, this is very similar. See this article for a good explanation:

Most New York Coronavirus Cases Came From Europe, Genomes ShowTravelers seeded multiple cases starting as early as mid-February, genomes show. New research indicates that the…

UPDATE: If you are interested in the analysis mentioned in the NYTs article, here’s a great website that traces the sequencing data: and for the US:

2. The virus is NOT man made. Scientists can compare the sequence of the new virus with other known viruses and determine how similar it is. The most similar virus is a coronavirus found in bats and the differences are due to mutations that occur through natural evolution, rather than an artificial sequence that was suddenly added.There are literally billions of viruses, all with different hosts and life-cycles…some mutations allow those viruses to jump into new hosts. The clearest picture so far is that SARS-COV-2 originated from bats and maybe an intermediate host. The most likely scenario is that this jump from an intermediate host happened in the wild animal market in Wuhan (

In addition, the interaction between the virus spike protein (that make the “crown” of proteins that stick out from the balloon-like membrane) and the human receptor ACE2, which allows the virus to get into human cells, is something that would be extremely hard to engineer given the knowledge at the time (

4/17 UPDATE: There are insinuations that a lab in China working on bat coronaviruses may have let the virus “escape”. There’s a lot of finger pointing by various US agencies, but I’ve yet to see any scientific analysis that makes this claim credible…so far. There’s also precedent for coronaviruses jumping hosts and into humans, both SARS and MERS for example. Indeed, scientists had publicly warned that this would be one of the most probable causes for an international virus outbreak.

Here’s a good write up on the evidence for all of this:A Virologist Explains Why It Is Unlikely COVID-19 Escaped From A LabNearly five months into the first coronavirus pandemic, the debate rages on over the source of SARS-CoV-2, the virus…

3. NUMBERS and MODELS are not deliberately misleading people. Guys, this is a new virus and nothing was known about it prior to Dec 2019. The good news is that it is similar to the previously known coronaviruses SARS and MERS. But infectivity and mortality were completely unknown. Scientists use models to refine their ideas but no one model is correct. You’re seeing discrepancy in models/projections precisely because science isn’t magic…the more we know about the virus and how it works, infects people etc the better the model.

Mathematics of life and death: How disease models shape national shutdowns and other pandemic…Jacco Wallinga’s computer simulations are about to face a high-stakes reality check. Wallinga is a mathematician and…

Conversely, epidemiologists can study past and current data to INFER what will happen in the future. All models point to social distancing as a means to stop spread and indeed this is working.

Scientists need to figure out which measures best control Covid-19 – STATanning gatherings, having people stay at home, closing schools, and other measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19 are…

So no, there’s no conspiracy by scientists to “control the numbers”. While governments might be producing their own propaganda on how they are dealing with the pandemic, there are legit sources of data that are impartial to politics (eg. and

4. COVID is not the flu! By now, I hope most are convinced. But, here’s a representation of the worst case scenario happening in NYC right now (with updated numbers 4/16) and it’s scary !

From; As More Death Data Becomes Available, COVID-19 Looks Less and Less Like the FluCoronavirus Flu versus COVID-19? Which is worse? It is quite true that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…

The weekly COVID numbers are compiled from the daily Johns Hopkins numbers pulled from their GITHUB repository. The CDC flu, pneumonia and total death numbers are downloaded from the FluView site here:

The CDC flu, pneumonia and total death numbers are downloaded from the FluView site here:

5. Bill Gates. When he announced that he was going to help develop a COVID vaccine, people went nuts. Gates wants to kill people with the vaccine. Gates patented the new virus. Gates knew about the virus before the Chinese. WTF people?! The richest man on earth gave up running a company to devote all his time to a foundation that is dedicated to public health ( Go check out their website. No, Gates won’t profit off of a new vaccine, no he doesn’t want to kill off people with it and NO he isn’t orchestrating some sort of grand plan to take over the world like a Bond villain!

Did Bill Gates Admit Vaccinations Are Designed So Governments Can Depopulate the World?On 21 January 2016, dubious news and conspiracy theory site Your News Wire (now NewsPunch) published an article with…

6. The claim — virus is spread by 5G cell phone towers. OMFG! First, 5G is just as safe as 4G. And 4G is just as safe as your home microwave. Second, a virus cannot be spread by cell phone towers because viruses, you know, only infect living things. So please don’t go and destroy cell phone towers. British 5G towers are being set on fire because of coronavirus conspiracy theories5G phone masts are being set alight in the UK, after online conspiracy theories have misleadingly linked the cell…

UPDATE: Since I’m now also getting a lot of questions about 5G itself, I thought I would say something here. Cell phones use radio wave frequencies to transmit. If you remember your HS physics, electromagnetic waves include visible light, radio and X-rays. Radio waves carry less energy and are long-forms, X-rays much more energy and shorter. The latter is called ionizing radiation and are dangerous as we all know. The milli- and microwaves are safe, except for the generation of heat (which is how microwaves heat up food).

So, 5G has a little more energy than 4G but has orders of magnitude less energy/harm than visible light. You should be WAY more worried about UV rays from the sun. For more info, see here:Worried About 5G’s Health Effects? Don’t BeEven as carriers around the world race to build 5G networks, some government officials are reaching for the throttle…

7. Health care workers and almost all the scientists I know are working to save lives. There are accusations that scientists manufactured the virus or that we are covering up for big pharma companies. We are not paid off by the government or big pharma! We really just want to help people. Health workers are literally putting their lives on the line under challenging conditions.

Scientists are racing to find treatments and produce a vaccine. Science works by a process and that takes time. You will see announcements that X drug works but often this need repeating and validation. This isn’t because scientists don’t know what they’re doing! For a nice explanation of how this works, see here:Thread by @jenheemstra: You might have seen a “scientific study” that said chloroquine can cure…Thread by @jenheemstra: You might have seen a “scientific study” that said chloroquine can cure #COVID19…and then…

I understand that people are afraid and desperate for good news, but we should all wait for confirmation from the medical community before rushing to conclusions.

8. Herd immunity. I’m loving that anti-vaxxers are now claiming that herd immunity is better than having a vaccine. Well, crap…did you know that vaccines actually WORK by accelerating herd immunity? Yes, that’s right..herd immunity is when enough people have recovered from the virus to then be immune and cannot reinfect other people or get sick. Now, there’s a lot of uncertainty of how well or how long people recovering from COVID will be immune, but ultimately the only way to control the pandemic is through herd immunity. BUT, natural herd immunity will need at least 70% of the total population to be immune. If this is done by just letting the virus spread unchecked, we are talking about millions of people dying world-wide over the next few years. Vaccines accelerate herd immunity without killing people by inducing antibody production that can kill the virus, the same kind of antibody response people achieve after recovering from an infection .What is Herd Immunity and How Can We Achieve It With COVID-19?By Gypsyamber D’Souza and David Dowdy | April 10, 2020 When the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 first started to…

We are all in this together! The internet is a double-edged sword, endless access to information…but often it’s hard to determine what information to pay attention to.

My advice, Keep Calm and listen to Experts!


Jason Shepherd, PhD Departments: Biochemistry – is Adjunct Assistant Professor, Neurobiology & Anatomy – Associate Professor…

First published at The Startup, Tuesday April 14 2020 with updtes on 17-4-20. See;

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