In early May 2020, as the reported number of people infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus disease worldwide exceeded 1.2 million, people suspicious of the news media and politicians’ portrayal of the pandemic began widely sharing social media posts that claimed Tanzania President John Magufuli sent non-human samples to a COVID-19 testing lab and they came back positive.
Aiming to sound the alarm on allegedly faulty testing practices, several of the posts included a photograph of Magufuli, smiling in a crowd of people, with text including: “[He] has outsmarted somebody. He allowed coronavirus testing kits to be imported into his country. […] The tests were given human names and ages as they were sent off for results. They tested positive.”
Numerous people contacted Snopes to investigate the posts, including one person who identified as a resident of Tanzania, where the government has reported less than 500 COVID-19 patients and 16 deaths as a result of the virus. “This has created a lot of confusion among family and friends,” the reader said. “I’m afraid that people might actually refuse testing/avoid to be tested out of fear of getting infected,” referring to the claim’s suggestion that COVID-19 testing kits could be contaminated and that’s why the non-human samples tested positive.
For our research, we first looked at where the claim about Magufuli originated. In televised remarks on May 3, the president said he was placing an order for an herbal tonic drink developed in Madagascar and touted as a cure for COVID-19 — despite the fact that there were no proven scientific remedies for the disease at the time of this writing. Rather, scientists and public health officials said the best way to stay healthy during the pandemic was to avoid exposure to the virus.
On May 4, 2020, BBC News published a story titled, “Coronavirus: Tanzanian president promises to import Madagascar’s ‘cure.'” Responding to the speech and news coverage, scientists and health officials — including those with the World Health Organization (WHO) — in the following days issued advisories against self-medicating with purported remedies for COVID-19. Among their concerns, scientists said the drink could drive resistance to malaria drugs. In an April 20 statement, which the scientific journal Science translated into English for Snopes’ interpretation, the National Academy of Medicine of Madagascar said, “It is a drug whose scientific evidence has not yet been established, and which risks damaging the health of the population, in particular that of children.”
Here’s how that is related to the claim in the above-displayed meme: Within the same televised statement, the president questioned the credibility of the national laboratory where lab technicians processed COVID-19 tests, essentially alleging that they were mishandling samples and the number of positive tests were exaggerated as a result. In a BBC News story about Magufuli’s endorsement of the herbal drink, the news outlet translated the president’s comments to English, stating:
He said he had secretly had some animals and fruits tested at the laboratory and that a papaya (paw-paw), a quail and a goat returned positive samples.
“That means there is possibility for technical errors or these imported reagents have issues,” he said, without giving more detail.
The following day, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news network published a new story with the headline, “Tanzania COVID-19 lab head suspended as president questions data,” including the president’s claim regarding the fruit and animals.
But to better understand the potential motivation behind the Tanzanian president’s assertions alleging nefarious testing, one must keep in mind the tension between the country’s two main political groups — Magufuli’s party in power and the opposition — as well as criticism of the president’s handling of the pandemic unrelated to the claim.
At least one leader within the opposition party stood up for the national health laboratory despite Magufuli’s assertions, describing the leader’s suspension as “politics” interfering with his work, as outlined in the Al Jazeera piece. Additionally, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, defended the national health laboratory’s practices. He told reporters, according to Reuters, “The tests that Tanzania is using, we know they are working very well.”
Also, advocates for social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have criticized Magufuli’s decision not to put the country on a lock down and his public statements encouraging people to gather in places of worship.
In sum, given the full context for why the Tanzanian president shared what he believed to be an example of faulty COVID-19 testing — a fruit, quail, and goat allegedly tested positive for the novel virus under the guise of being human specimens — and given the lack of any evidence apart from his own statements to support it, we rate this claim “Unproven,” with the significant caveat that Magufuli has gone against public health officials’ advice for helping his residents overcome COVID-19 and the politically-charged climate surrounding the country’s response.