On Dec. 29, The Gateway Pundit, a far-right website that often spreads conspiracy theories, published an article falsely implying that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had withdrawn authorization of all P.C.R. tests for detecting Covid-19. The article collected 22,000 likes, comments and shares on Facebook and Twitter.
On TikTok and Instagram, videos of at-home Covid-19 tests displaying positive results after being soaked in drinking water and juice have gone viral in recent weeks, and were used to push the false narrative that coronavirus rapid tests don’t work. Some household liquids can make a test show a positive result, health experts say, but the tests remain accurate when used as directed. One TikTok video showing a home test that came out positive after being placed under running water was shared at least 140,000 times.
And on YouTube, a video titled “Rapid antigen tests debunked” was posted on Jan. 1 by the Canadian far-right website Rebel News. It generated over 40,000 views, and its comments section was a hotbed of misinformation. “The straight up purpose of this test is to keep the case #’s as high as possible to maintain fear & incentive for more restrictions,” said one comment with more than 200 likes. “And of course Profit.”
Previous spikes in pandemic-related falsehoods focused on the vaccines, masks and the severity of the virus. The falsehoods help undermine best practices for controlling the spread of the coronavirus, health experts say, noting that misinformation remains a key factor in vaccine hesitancy.
The categories include falsehoods that P.C.R. tests don’t work; that the counts for flu and Covid-19 cases have been combined; that P.C.R. tests are vaccines in disguise; and that at-home rapid tests have a predetermined result or are unreliable because different liquids can turn them positive.
These themes jumped into the thousands of mentions in the last three months of 2021, compared with just a few dozen in the same time period in 2020, according to Zignal Labs, which tracks mentions on social media, on cable television and in print and online outlets.
The added demand for testing due to Omicron and the higher prevalence of breakthrough cases has given purveyors of misinformation an “opportune moment” to exploit, said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracy theories. The false narratives “support the whole idea of not trusting the infection numbers or trusting the death count,” she said.
policies that prohibit misinformation that could cause harm to people’s physical health. YouTube said it was reviewing the videos shared by The New York Times in line with its Covid-19 misinformation policies on testing and diagnostics. Twitter said that it had applied a warning to The Gateway Pundit’s article in December for violating its coronavirus misinformation policy and that tweets containing false information about widely accepted testing methods would also violate its policy. But the company said it does not take action on personal anecdotes.
Facebook said it had worked with its fact-checking partners to label many of the posts with warnings that directed people toward fact checks of the false claims, and reduced their prominence on its users’ feeds.
“The challenges of the pandemic are constantly changing, and we’re consistently monitoring for emerging false claims on our platforms,” Aaron Simpson, a Facebook spokesman, said in an email.
No medical test is perfect, and legitimate questions about the accuracy of Covid-19 tests have abounded throughout the pandemic. There has always been a risk of a false positive or a false negative result. The Food and Drug Administration says there is a potential for antigen tests to return false positive results when users do not follow the instructions. Those tests are generally accurate when used correctly but in some cases can appear to show a positive result when exposed to other liquids, said Dr. Glenn Patriquin, who published a study about false positives in antigen tests using various liquids in a publication of the American Society for Microbiology.
“Using a fluid with a different chemical makeup than what was designed means that result lines might appear unpredictably,” said Dr. Patriquin, an assistant professor of pathology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.
Complicating matters, there have been some defective products. Last year, the Australian company Ellume recalled about two million of the at-home testing products that it had shipped to the United States.
But when used correctly, coronavirus tests are considered reliable at detecting people carrying high levels of the virus. Experts say our evolving knowledge of tests should be a distinct issue from lies about testing that have spread widely on social media — though it does make debunking those lies more challenging.
said in July that it would withdraw its request to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency-use authorization of one specific test at the end of the year. Hundreds of other Covid-19 tests are still available from other manufacturers, the C.D.C. later clarified.
Still, posts claiming that the agency had withdrawn support of P.C.R. tests went viral on Facebook. The most widely shared post pushing the falsehood in July collected 11,500 likes, shares and comments, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media analytics tool. The post added the falsehood that the C.D.C.’s advisory meant that P.C.R. tests could not distinguish between the coronavirus and the flu, when in fact the agency had simply recommended the use of tests that could simultaneously detect and distinguish between the flu and Covid-19.
Despite being fact-checked within days, the claim never fully went away. The Gateway Pundit article revived the claim at the end of the year, collecting nearly double the earlier post’s likes, shares and comments on Facebook. On Instagram, screenshots of the article also went viral, collecting hundreds of likes.
Mr. Gregory said a similar phenomenon had occurred with social media posts claiming various liquids turned at-home coronavirus tests positive.
On Dec. 23, 2020, a video on YouTube showed coronavirus tests turning positive after being tested on kiwi, orange and berry fruit juice. It collected over 102,000 views. In the same month, a video producing the same results with Coca-Cola was posted on YouTube, collecting 16,800 views.
One year later, a spate of similar videos with the same theme appeared on TikTok and Instagram.
For Ms. Koltai, the re-emergence of false narratives even after social media companies labeled them a year earlier shows the power of misinformation to “thrive when it can latch on to a current event.”
“That is how narratives can peak at different times,” she said.
SYDNEY, Australia — All across the Asia-Pacific region, the countries that led the world in containing the coronavirus are now languishing in the race to put it behind them.
While the United States, which has suffered far more grievous outbreaks, is now filling stadiums with vaccinated fans and cramming airplanes with summer vacationers, the pandemic champions of the East are still stuck in a cycle of uncertainty, restrictions and isolation.
In southern China, the spread of the Delta variant led to a sudden lockdown in Guangzhou, a major industrial capital. Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and Australia have also clamped down after recent outbreaks, while Japan is dealing with its own weariness from a fourth round of infections, spiked with fears of viral disaster from the Olympics.
the new outbreak in southern China will affect busy port terminals there. Across Asia, faltering vaccine rollouts could also open the door to spiraling variant-fueled lockdowns that inflict new damage on economies, push out political leaders and alter power dynamics between nations.
The risks are rooted in decisions made months ago, before the pandemic had inflicted the worst of its carnage.
blocked the export of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine meant for Australia to control its own raging outbreak. Other shipments were delayed because of manufacturing issues.
“The supplies of purchased vaccine actually landing on docks — it’s fair to say they are not anywhere near the purchase commitments,” said Richard Maude, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Australia.
with the United States and Europe.
In Asia, about 20 percent of people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, with Japan, for example, at just 14 percent. By contrast, the figure is nearly 45 percent in France, more than 50 percent in the United States and more than 60 percent in Britain.
Instagram, where Americans once scolded Hollywood stars for enjoying mask-free life in zero-Covid Australia, is now studded with images of grinning New Yorkers hugging just-vaccinated friends. While snapshots from Paris show smiling diners at cafes that are wooing summer tourists, in Seoul, people are obsessively refreshing apps that locate leftover doses, usually finding nothing.
“Does the leftover vaccine exist?” one Twitter user recently asked. “Or has it disappeared in 0.001 seconds because it is like a ticket for the front-row seat of a K-pop idol concert?”
keep its borders closed for another year. Japan is currently barring almost all nonresidents from entering the country, and intense scrutiny of overseas arrivals in China has left multinational businesses without key workers.
The immediate future for many places in Asia seems likely to be defined by frantic optimization.
China’s response to the outbreak in Guangzhou — testing millions of people in days, shutting down entire neighborhoods — is a rapid-fire reprise of how it has handled previous flare-ups. Few inside the country expect this approach to change anytime soon, especially as the Delta variant, which has devastated India, is now beginning to circulate.
has threatened residents with fines of around $450 for refusing vaccines. Vietnam has responded to its recent spike in infections by asking the public for donations to a Covid-19 vaccine fund. And in Hong Kong, officials and business leaders are offering a range of inducements to ease severe vaccine hesitancy.
Nonetheless, the prognosis for much of Asia this year is billboard obvious: The disease is not defeated, and won’t be anytime soon. Even those lucky enough to get a vaccine often leave with mixed emotions.
“This is the way out of the pandemic,” said Kate Tebbutt, 41, a lawyer who last week had just received her first shot of the Pfizer vaccine at the Royal Exhibition Building near Melbourne’s central business district. “I think we should be further ahead than where we are.”
Reporting was contributed by Raymond Zhong in Taipei, Taiwan, Ben Dooley in Tokyo, Sui-Lee Wee in Singapore, Youmi Kim in Seoul and Yan Zhuang in Melbourne, Australia.
In less polarized times, Dr. Shi was a symbol of China’s scientific progress,at the forefront of research into emerging viruses.
She led expeditions into caves to collect samples from bats and guano, to learn how viruses jump from animals to humans. In 2019, she was among 109 scientists elected to the American Academy of Microbiology for her contributions to the field.
“She’s a stellar scientist — extremely careful, with a rigorous work ethic,” said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology employs nearly 300 people and is home to one of only two Chinese labs that have been given the highest security designation, Biosafety Level 4. Dr. Shi leads the institute’s work on emerging infectious diseases, and over the years, her group has collected over 10,000 bat samples from around China.
Under China’s centralized approach to scientific research, the institute answers to the Communist Party, which wants scientists to serve national goals.“Science has no borders, but scientists have a motherland,” Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, said in a speech to scientists last year.
Dr. Shi herself, though, does not belong to the Communist Party, according to official Chinese media reports, which is unusual for state employees of her status. She built her career at the institute, starting as a research assistant in 1990 and working her way up the ranks.
Dr. Shi, 57, obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Montpellier in France in 2000 and started studying bats in 2004 after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed more than 700 people around the world. In 2011,she made a breakthrough when she found bats in a cave in southwestern China that carried coronaviruses that were similar to the virus that causes SARS.
LONDON — A new and potentially more contagious variant of the coronavirus has begun to outpace other versions of the virus in Britain, putting pressure on the government to shorten people’s wait for second doses of vaccines and illustrating the risks of a faltering global immunization drive.
The new variant, which has become dominant in India since first being detected there in December, may be responsible in part for a grievous wave of infections across Southeast Asia, including Nepal, where people have been dying in hospital corridors and courtyards. But efforts to understand the variant picked up once it began spreading in Britain, one of at least 49 countries where it is present. Scientists there are sequencing half of all coronavirus cases amid a push to complete the reopening of its economy.
The preliminary results out of Britain, drawn from only a few thousand cases of the variant, contained both good and bad news, scientists said.
The variant, known by evolutionary biologists as B.1.617.2, is “highly likely” to be more transmissible than the variant behind Britain’s devastating wintertime surge, government scientists have said. That earlier variant, known as B.1.1.7, was itself considerably more contagious than the one that first emerged last year in Wuhan, China.
Public Health England report published this weekend provided signs that government scientists said were consistent with a more transmissible virus: The variant first seen in India was roughly 50 percent more likely than B.1.1.7 to be transmitted to the close contacts of an infected person. Government scientists said last week that it could be anywhere from a few percentage points to 50 percent more contagious than B.1.1.7.
Helpfully for Britain and other wealthy nations, the latest worrisome variant has emerged at a less dire moment of the pandemic. More than four out of every five people in England above the age of 65 — among the groups most vulnerable to the virus — have been given both doses of a coronavirus vaccine, driving down hospitalizations and deaths.
And a new study by Public Health England offered reassuring signs that fully vaccinated people were about as well protected from the variant first detected in India as they were from other forms of the coronavirus.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine offered 88 percent protection against the variant first sampled in India, only a slight drop from the 93 percent protection given against the variant from Britain, Public Health England said. The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine was 60 percent effective against the variant from India, compared to 66 percent effective against the one first seen in Britain.
Other studies in England have shown little to no difference between the effectiveness of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.
wrote on Twitter.
In Britain, part of its rapid growth may have to do with the particular places it was first introduced. Bolton, in northwest England, where the new variant is most advanced, is a highly deprived area with tightly packed housing that could be hastening its spread, scientists said.
“We do not know if the increase in transmissibility is the result of specific mixing patterns, or super-spreading events,” a group of researchers led by Robert Challen of the University of Exeter reported on May 11, in a study that was among those presented to an influential government advisory group.
That government advisory body said several days later that it had “high confidence” that the variant first seen in India was indeed more contagious, warning that a “substantial resurgence of hospitalizations” was possible. It said that the variant was gaining a foothold in diverse parts of Britain where “contact patterns or behaviors” alone could not explain its spread.
It is not clear if the variant from India is any deadlier than B.1.1.7.
With cases of B.1.1.7 falling, the variant first seen in India now accounts for roughly half of the sequenced coronavirus cases being monitored by Public Health England. The agency’s scientists have said it was likely to replace B.1.1.7 as England’s dominant virus within a month, a startling turnabout so soon after B.1.1.7 swept much of the world.
“For countries that are starting to struggle with B.1.1.7, they now know they have an even faster one close by,” said Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
experimenting with ways to encourage sick people to isolate.
Some scientists have urged the government to go further by dramatically closing the gap between doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, for instance, and rerouting those shots to cities hardest hit by the variant from India. Because the AstraZeneca vaccine appears most protective with a 12-week dosing interval, those scientists said, using it meant leaving people only partially vaccinated for a period of time.
At the very least, Professor Sridhar said, people needed to be reminded to remain cautious until they were fully vaccinated.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to scrap almost all remaining lockdown restrictions on June 21 rests in large part, scientists said, on how many second doses Britain can administer in the coming weeks.
For many poorer nations, starved for vaccines, there is little choice but to leave long delays between first and second doses. Some of them are uncertain about when shipments of second doses will arrive. Large portions of those countries remain entirely unprotected.
If the variant from India spreads as quickly in other countries as it has in Britain, the burden on unvaccinated nations may grow.
“It’s a warning,” Professor Sridhar said. “What we’re seeing in India is being repeated in Nepal, it’s being repeated in other countries. You need to get ahead of it.”
SINGAPORE — Singapore said on Friday that it would ban dining in restaurants and gatherings of more than two people to try to stem a rise in coronavirus cases, becoming the latest Asian nation to reintroduce restrictions after keeping the illness mostly in check for months.
The new measures came after the city-state recorded 34 new cases on Thursday, a small number by global standards, but part of a rise in infections traced to vaccinated workers at Singapore Changi Airport.
The airport outbreak began with an 88-year-old member of the airport cleaning crew who was fully vaccinated but who tested positive for the virus on May 5. Co-workers who then became infected later visited an airport food court, where they transmitted the virus to other customers, officials said.
None of the cases linked to the airport outbreak are believed to have resulted in critical illness or death, according to officials.
might be more contagious than most versions of the coronavirus.
Singapore health officials said that of 28 airport workers who became infected, 19 were fully vaccinated with either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, the only two approved for use in Singapore.
“Unfortunately, this mutant virus, very virulent, broke through the layers of defense,” Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung told a virtual news conference on Friday.
migrant workers living in dormitories, but a two-month lockdown and extensive testing and contact tracing contained the outbreak. Although Singapore has kept much of its economy open, its vaccination effort has not moved as quickly as many expected: less than one-quarter of the population has been fully inoculated.
Changi Airport, which served more than 68 million passengers in 2019, is operating at 3 percent of capacity as Singapore has paused nearly all incoming commercial traffic. Employees there work under strict controls, wearing protective gear and submitting to regular coronavirus tests.
Singapore joins Japan, Thailand and other Asian countries that have struggled to contain new outbreaks fueled in part by variants. But Paul Ananth Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, said that the rise in cases was not overly worrying.
“The reason for my optimism is that we now have effective vaccines, better diagnostics, proven treatments and even potential prophylactic agents,” he said. “If these are employed in a targeted approach, it is unlikely that we will end up with the same problems we had last year.”