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Infodemic: Breakdown of major false claims about coronavirus in Japan

A customer is seen walking past an emptied-out cart that is usually filled with toilet paper for sale, outside a supermarket in Ota Ward, Tokyo, on March 1, 2020. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

TOKYO -- The spread of the new coronavirus has been a catalyst for dubious information to make the rounds on social media sites including Twitter.

Among the false rumors are that hot water, vitamin D and other easy remedies are effective against infection, and fear-stoking claims that certain regions of Japan are not announcing confirmed infections have also taken hold.

Tedros Adhanom, director general at the World Health Organization (WHO), has previously spoken publicly about the threat posed by rampant misinformation and urged caution, stating on Feb. 15 that "we're not just fighting an epidemic; we're fighting an infodemic."

As the coronavirus began to spread more rapidly around Japan, posts on Twitter and other social media appeared that read, "This virus has no heat resistance, it dies at about 26 to 27 degrees Celsius," and, "Please drink as much hot water as you can." Similar posts can be found online, including ones that claim the uppermost temperature the virus can bear is actually 36 or 37 C.

But the basis for all of this information, which boils down to drinking more hot water as a viral preventative, is hearsay; posters claimed they were told by doctors they know, or friends working at medical facilities.

Elsewhere, granite typically used for gravestones and other hardwearing goods is being pushed on marketplace apps and websites for having properties effective against the new coronavirus. Some of the granite is listed with price tags in the many thousands of yen, and there are also claims circulating that ultraviolet rays emanating from granite are effective at killing bacteria.

But the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has flatly rejected the claims, saying, "There is no evidence to suggest hot water or granite is effective against the new coronavirus."

Another preventative being touted on Twitter are vitamins C and D. But according to the National Institute of Health and Nutrition, although there are papers that suggest vitamin D has a limited effect in preventing influenza, the findings have no connection to the new coronavirus. The institute added that at present there isn't sufficient data to say for certain that vitamin D does have a positive effect against influenza, and is warning the public to be aware that any suggestions otherwise are "stretching the truth."

Chubu University, in the city of Kasugai in the central Japan prefecture of Aichi, published a press release on its official website about sea lettuce, a kind of seaweed, on Feb. 20. Its title claimed that sea lettuce had been confirmed to restrain the reproduction of human-infecting coronaviruses, and there were expectations this might be the case against the new coronavirus, too.

Piles of toilet paper are seen before being shipped out from Kamiyama Paper Co. in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, on March 4, 2020. (Mainichi/Yutaka Yamada)

The release was then widely cited in a series of rumors claiming that sea lettuce was effective against the new coronavirus, and soon it was being sold on marketplace websites as a viable preventative.

But five days after it released the post, Chubu University pulled it from its site. A public relations official at the university said, "A part of the content which was not based in fact ended up being emphasized and we have caused trouble as a result."

There has also been an increase in the prevalence of conspiracy theories concerning the actions of governments around the viral outbreak.

The most notable of these so far have been claims that the new coronavirus is actually a Chinese biological weapon. The theories posit that because China's Wuhan Institute of Virology is in the city of Wuhan, where the viral spread was first widely reported on, the new coronavirus is a laboratory-made, artificial pathogen.

A researcher from India who examined the virus published findings on the internet in January in which they wrote that its proteins suspiciously resemble those in HIV. This too spurred such conspiracy theories.

But with no clear evidence available, the researcher's paper was withdrawn two days later following sustained criticism. In the British medical journal The Lancet, 27 renowned experts signed a declaration against such conspiracy theories. Among its positions, it read, "We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin." Additionally, a representative for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the accusations at a February press conference, saying the theories were sensational rumors.

Other conspiracy theories claim that China is attempting to christen the new coronavirus "Japanese pneumonia." The proof being given for this assertion is a post on the Chinese Embassy's website uploaded Feb. 27, titled an open letter to Japan from the Chinese Embassy. A reference it contains to the new coronavirus in Japan appears to have been misread by non-Chinese speakers as "Japanese pneumonia."

But what the sentence actually says is that the state of infections in Japan is changing. The full text itself also includes passages thanking Japan for its cooperation. A PR official at the embassy responded to a request for comment from the Mainichi Shimbun, saying, "There was no intention by China to say Japanese pneumonia, and it is a total misunderstanding. The embassy is expressing its thanks for Japan's support in a number of areas."

Additionally, in 2015 the WHO drew up guidelines stating that the names given to future viral diseases should be based on the symptoms or the pathogen, because appellations based on places or people could cause negative effects on them. For this reason, the disease caused by the new coronavirus was named COVID-19, an acronym for coronavirus disease and 2019, the year it was first discovered.

Regarding infections in Japan, there have also been many online claims of confirmed coronavirus cases in specific places, but that the government has not announced them publicly.

However, the health ministry has said that when infections are ascertained, both the national and prefectural governments have been publicizing the information. A representative said, "We are also asking municipal authorities to actively announce cases." Additionally, the ministry's website has a tally of those infected so far, which is collated based on which prefecture they are located.

Toilet paper and other paper products have also been hit by the virus' nebulous sphere of influence, as people have been taken in by false rumors that imports of toilet paper to Japan will stop, leading to shortages across the country.

The Japan Household Paper Industry Association released a statement on its website reading, "Around 98% of the toilet paper used in this country is made domestically." It went on to stress that there were no shortages of supplies. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry also announced on its website that "production and supply is going ahead as normal."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen using a method recommended by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to block a cough, in the Diet on March 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

Meanwhile, a medical cooperative in the city of Yonago in the western prefecture of Tottori put out an apology on its website on March 3 after it emerged that one of its employees had been responsible for putting out false information on social media concerning toilet paper shortages.

Amid the panic over the new coronavirus, the internet is overflowing with information; so how do we know who to trust? The Tokyo Metropolitan Infectious Disease Surveillance Center has called for users to check the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's official website and other sites which are highly trustworthy.

A representative for the center said, "People who are desperately looking for hope are trusting it (information on the internet) and acting on it, and the concern is that these actions may conversely cause the greater spread of the virus. The most effective thing people can do is to strictly follow the guidance given by the Ministry of Health."

The current guidance from the ministry is for people to wash their hands often, and to closely practice "coughing etiquette" such as covering the mouth with the arms when coughing. Information, such as the current state of infections in Japan and how to prevent the viral spread, can be found compiled on the ministry's official website.

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Major mis- and disinformation regarding the coronavirus:

Drinking hot water to prevent infection

That vitamin C and D is effective against it

That granite can kill bacteria including the new coronavirus

That sea lettuce is effective against it

That garlic and ginger is effective against it

Claims that the new coronavirus is a biological weapon developed by China

That China is attempting to call the new coronavirus "Japanese pneumonia"

That certain regions of Japan are not announcing when infection cases are confirmed locally

That Japan is running out of stocks of toilet paper

That all of the Indian people evacuated from Wuhan to their home country were found to not be infected because they have a custom of washing their hands due to eating curry without utensils.

(Japanese original by Jun Kaneko, City News Department)

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