A recurring bit of pandemic misinformation alleges that COVID-19 is not caused by a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) or, for that matter, any virus at all. Despite voluminous evidence that COVID-19 is a viral infection, this claim — or aspects of it — persist online. In general, the same flawed pseudoscientific argument has been employed in multiple instances to suggest that COVID-19 — with over 20 million cases and a death toll of over 160,000 at the time of this reporting — is just a big classification error.
The claim that went viral on several social media platforms blends the misinterpretation of a preliminary and unpublished research paper with the baseless assertion that the World Health Organization (WHO) mandated that no autopsies be performed on COVID-19 victims — a paranoid flourish used to imply a global conspiracy. By ignoring this alleged ban, the story goes, Italian doctors revealed that COVID-19 was actually a bacteria, and that, for some reason, aspirin can cure the disease.
The only factual element of the above narrative is that Italian researchers analyzed autopsy results of COVID-19 patients. They published a preprint of a research study based on post-mortem lung analyses of 38 patients in two Italian hospitals in April 2020. That study, which explicitly stated that COVID-19 is caused by coronavirus, suggested that a condition known as Diffuse Alveolar Damage (DAD) was the “predominant” feature of all of the cases. This potential finding was notable since pneumonia was thought to be the primary factor leading to death in COVID-19 cases at the time. While it is a general medical term used to describe a damaging immune and blood-clotting response to a lung injury, DAD is not a disease, but instead a condition potentially caused by a variety of diseases.
That finding — along with the presence of clotting cells known as “platelet-fibrin thrombi” in the patients’ lungs — suggested to the authors that preventing complications from blood clotting (coagulopathy) could be a promising area for potential COVID-19 treatments. After this paper was uploaded to the preprint server MedRxiv, misinformation followed.
An inaccurate copypasta description of this study from mid-May interpreted those results as evidence that Covid-19 stemmed from “a serious pathophysiological diagnosis error,” that death from the disease stems from thrombosis (or blood clotting), and that the COVID-19 “ought to be fought with antibiotics, antivirals, anti-inflammatories and anticoagulants.” This is how aspirin entered the zeitgeist. As a drug with anticoagulant properties, it could theoretically be employed to reduce complications from thrombosis.
Perhaps because the inaccurate but viral description of the study included antibiotics (which would be used to prevent bacterial co-infections, not the actual COVID-19 infection) as a treatment, or perhaps because some online conspiracy accounts asserted it, online claims about this Italian study soon morphed into the notion that it exposed the coronavirus as a bacterial infection.
“Breaking Covid news!” began a loosely intelligible bit of copypasta from late May, “Italy has allegedly discovered covid is not a virus, but a bacterium.” These results were only possible, viral claims now asserted, because Italian doctors had defied a WHO ban on autopsies.
It is unclear how the notion that a ban on autopsies was instituted by the WHO first emerged. As British fact-checking outlet Full Fact pointed out when the claim first went viral, “the WHO released guidance on [March 24 2020] on safety measures for managing bodies and performing post-mortems on patients who had died of Covid-19.” Numerous studies have published post-mortem analyses of Covid patients, including some that predate the Italian study.
On top of that, there is no actual scientific debate regarding the viral origins of COVID-19, which was linked to a coronavirus even in the earliest public reports from China. Scientists have isolated and mapped SARS-CoV-2’s entire genome based on samples taken from infected humans. Billions of dollars have been invested into finding a vaccine against it based on science’s understanding of the basic fact that a coronavirus caused this pandemic.
Despite the myriad factual hurdles one must leap over to label COVID-19 a bacterial infection, the claim (based on this same paper) persists. Some versions of the Italian autopsy story have been used to make an even more dubious assertion that the bacteria allegedly causing COVID-19 are “amplified by 5G.” This claim, despite still being pushed by snake oil salesmen like David “Avocado” Wolfe, comes from a study that was retracted because its authors were found to have manipulated the peer-review process to get it published.