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Coronavirus outbreak: WHO and social media platforms tackle misinformation and fake news

Social media platforms, the unwitting channels for misinformation, have also begun to take action.

February 05, 2020 / 05:59 PM IST

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been posting regular reminders to dispel misinformation about the novel coronavirus (nCoV) by calling out fake news and quack treatments for the illness that made the rounds on social media platforms.

On February 4, the organisation’s Twitter account tweeted: “It is important to tackle misinformation as soon as possible.”

Fake social media alerts claiming to be advisories from the WHO or various health ministries that target scared individuals have been doing the rounds.

WHO's Twitter account now periodically puts myth-busting posts with the hashtag #KnowYourFacts, the latest of which addressed “evidence that garlic has protected people from the nConV”.

COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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These are not isolated incidents. A WhatsApp post that falsely claimed to be from the UAE’s Ministry of Health  said the virus would “attack your throat within 10 minutes if you don’t drink enough water”, CNBC reported.

In Malaysia, a Facebook post showed a fake “picture” of the virus with the text as: "This is an image of one of many 'Allah's armies' sent to attack China in the form of coronavirus. This is the actual image of the virus as seen under a very powerful microscope."

The post, which is still on Facebook, was falsely claimed to be from a government department and was shared 700 times, the CNBC report said.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the WHO, also addressed the issue at the UN Geneva Council. The WHO tweeted him saying: “In our era of fake news & misinformation, more than ever the world needs a WHO that brings reliable science & evidence to bear on the decisions we make about health.”

Social media platforms, the unwitting channels for misinformation, have also begun to take action. Google has begun plugging in information from WHO in search terms related to the virus, while YouTube has stepped up promotions for credible source videos that provided information on the illness. 

Facebook on its part has also pledged to "take down information" about China's fast-spreading coronavirus.

Ghebreyesus also acknowledged the efforts taken by these platforms to combat misinformation: “It's time for facts, not fear. We appreciate Google, Facebook, TencentGlobal, TikTok and Twitter's efforts to combat misinformation and rumours on #2019nCoV & direct users to reliable sources."

The coronavirus outbreak has stoked a wave of anti-China sentiment around the globe. Hoaxes have spread widely online, promoted by conspiracy theorists and exacerbated by a dearth of information from the cordoned-off zone around China's central city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began.

For all the updates from WHO on #KnowYourFacts follow this thread:

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first published: Feb 4, 2020 05:22 pm