Flawed Variant Information Fuels Baseless COVID-19 Theory

By Angelo Fichera

Posted on July 29, 2021

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SciCheck Digest

A conspiracy theory online baselessly suggests that the World Health Organization and other groups preplanned the variants of the novel coronavirus — citing a dubious timeline. But the timeline doesn’t square with the reality of when variants have been identified and designated thus far.



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The World Health Organization in late May moved to a new system for naming certain variants of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Specifically, the WHO said it would use letters of the Greek alphabet for labeling variants of interest and variants of concern. As we’ve explained, viruses mutate as they replicate. A mutation is one change to the genetic sequence of a virus, and a variant is a distinct virus, typically with several mutations.

A conspiracy theory shared on social media, however, is baselessly suggesting that public health officials and others somehow preplanned the variants. But the posts spreading the theory ignore the facts of how — and, more importantly, when — SARS-CoV-2 variants have been identified to date.

“These are the PLANNED COVID-19 VARIANTS – just look at the dates when they will be ‘released’ to the media,” reads one image shared in a July 26 Instagram post, which was liked more than 1,000 times. “DON’T BE STUPID, YOU ARE BEING PLAYED AND MANIPULATED.”

The image includes a table with a list of the letters of the Greek alphabet (though the table begins with delta) under the Spanish label “Cepa/variante,” meaning “strain/variant.” Next to each letter is a month and year for “Lanzamiento,” Spanish for “launch,” through February 2023.

Beside the table are the logos of various groups — including the World Health Organization, World Economic Forum, Johns Hopkins University and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — seeming to suggest the groups are behind the purported plan to announce a new variant every month.

It’s unclear where the table actually originated though, and there’s no proof it came from the entities cited. Representatives for the World Health Organization, the World Economic Forum and the Gates Foundation all told us the table did not come from their organizations.

What we do know is that the dubious timeline has been circulating on social media since at least early July, and has been spread with posts in various languages — such as English, Spanish and Italian.

But the table doesn’t square with the actual timing of when SARS-CoV-2 variants have been identified and labeled to date.

For example, the table indicates that the delta variant will be launched in June 2021. But that variant was first documented in India in October 2020, according to the WHO, and was deemed a variant of interest in April 2021. It became a variant of concern in May and has now become the dominant variant in the U.S.

A number of other variants also have been identified months ahead of what the timeline purports will happen.

The eta, iota, kappa and lambda variants were all first documented in late 2020, and were deemed variants of interest between March and June 2021. But the social media table suggests those variants wouldn’t be announced until later this year or early 2022.

Baseless claims that the pandemic was somehow preplanned have been circulating since the very start of the spread of the novel coronavirus. The social media posts now citing a purported variant timeline don’t make that theory any more credible.

Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over our editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.

Sources

Drysdale, Carla. Spokesperson, World Health Organization. Email to FactCheck.org. 28 Jul 2021.

Hale Spencer, Saranac. “Meme Trumpets Falsehood About Delta Variant.” FactCheck.org. 9 Jul 2021.

Media Relations, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Email to FactCheck.org. 28 Jul 2021.

Tracking SARS-CoV-2 variants.” World Health Organization. Accessed 27 Jul 2021.

Robertson, Lori. “So Far, Vaccines Remain Effective Against Variants.” FactCheck.org. Updated 12 Jul 2021.

Russo, Amanda. Spokesperson, World Economic Forum. Email to FactCheck.org. 28 Jul 2021.

WHO announces simple, easy-to-say labels for SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Interest and Concern.” Press release, World Health Organization. 31 May 2021.

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