FactCheck Social Media

‘Proof’ the virus behind COVID-19 doesn’t exist fails basic biology test

2020-11-13 17:39:16

The Statement

An Instagram post claims that COVID-19 does not exist because the virus that causes the disease has never been isolated.

The lengthy post, from November 4, claims UK government documentation “outlines that the viru$ has never been shown ‘to exist'” and COVID-19 restrictions are part of a “global agenda”.

“Victorians, as shitty as things are here with our police and with the restrictions that are still in place, remember this a global agenda and we are not alone in our fight,” the post reads.

The post includes a segment of a video featuring Irish former journalist Gemma O’Doherty. In the video, Ms O’Doherty claims SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes the disease COVID-19, has never been isolated nor shown to cause the illness – and therefore does not exist.

“Ask them (politicians) does SARS-CoV-2 exist, does it cause an illness that matches the characteristics of all of the deaths attributed to COVID-19, has it been isolated, reproduced and then shown to cause this illness? The answer will be no,” she says in the clip.

At the time of writing the Instagram post had been viewed more than 15,500 times, attracting more than 90 comments.

It was posted by Australian chiropractor Jennifer Barham-Floreani, whose website states she is an award-winning health practitioner and best selling author“. She has more than 19,000 Instagram followers.

Ms Barham-Foreani also posted a full eight-minute video featuring Ms O’Doherty, in which she says her claims are based on a Freedom of Information request to the UK health department which shows “the ministry does not hold any information on the isolation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus”.

“In other words, it does not exist,” Ms O’Doherty concludes.

Ms O’Doherty has been campaigning against restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19 in Ireland. She has previously had her YouTube account suspended for hate speech and her Twitter account permanently suspended for breaching policies to prevent abusive behaviour and hateful conduct.

At the time of publication the post had been viewed more than 12,400 times, attracting more than 80 comments.

The full video has been shared multiple times online to various platforms, including here, here, here and here.

Instagram post
 An Instagram post and video claim the virus that causes COVID-19 has never been isolated. 

The Analysis

Since being identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has led to more than 51 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide and over 1.2 million deaths, according to the World Health Organization’s tally from November 12.

Research shows the virus was isolated early in the outbreak and has since been isolated many times in multiple countries.

An article in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization said researchers first isolated the virus in December 2019, and in February scientists analysed the genome from 10,022 samples to understand its variability.

An article published in the journal Nature in February detailed how SARS-CoV-2, a novel coronavirus, was isolated by scientists in Wuhan.

It said full-length, near-identical genome sequences for the virus were obtained from five patients at an early stage of “an epidemic of acute respiratory syndrome” that began in the Chinese city on December 12.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said SARS-CoV-2 had been isolated in its lab and had been available for free to researchers and scientists to study since February.

An article in the CDC journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, detailed how US scientists isolated SARS-CoV-2 from a patient in January.
Journal articles also detail how the virus was isolated in Korea and Germany.

In Australia, it was isolated from the first person in the country diagnosed with COVID-19, a Wuhan man who was admitted to a Melbourne hospital with fever, cough and laboured breathing.

The University of Melbourne explained in January how scientists in the city had been the first to grow the virus in a lab outside China.

Pathology professor Karen Mossman, part of the team that isolated the virus in Canada, wrote in an article on The Conversation that isolating the virus required collecting specimens from patients and culturing, or growing, it by getting it to infect live mammalian cells in a lab.

A blog post by virologist and adjunct associate professor at the University of Queensland Ian M Mackay also detailed a number of instances where the virus had been isolated around the globe and debunked some of the misconceptions that the virus had not been isolated.

The virus had also been successfully isolated from urine and from ocular secretions.

University of Auckland associate professor and microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles said the theory that SARS-CoV-2 had not been isolated was spreading based on government information requests worded in ways that misunderstood how the isolation process and viruses worked.

In the extended video posted on Instagram, Ms O’Doherty discusses an information request which asked the UK health department for records that showed SARS-CoV-2 had been isolated “from a symptomatic patient of COVID-19 where the sample was not first combined with any other source of genetic material”. (video mark 2min 50secs)

Dr Wiles said that was not possible – describing the request as “a problem of definitions”.

“Viruses are basically inanimate objects which need a culture to activate in. But the way they are phrasing the requests is that the sample must be completely unadulterated and not be grown in any culture – and you can’t do that,” she told AAP FactCheck in a phone interview.

“You can’t isolate a virus without using a cell culture, so by using their definition it hasn’t been isolated. But it has been isolated and cultivated using a cell culture multiple times all around the world.”

University of Auckland senior virology lecturer John Taylor told AAP FactCheck that SARS-CoV-2 had been isolated many times using cells to amplify the virus from patient samples and the idea it could represent some kind of contamination originating in the cells was nonsense.

“Viruses are obligate parasites, which means that they only grow within a living host cell. So if you have the caveat that you can’t combine the virus with a host cell then you get the answer you want by ignoring the fundamental biology,” he said.

University of Auckland vaccinologist and associate professor Helen Petousis-Harris said SARS-CoV-2 had been isolated – and it could even be viewed with a powerful microscope.

“We know what it looks like, we’ve got the architecture of it; for example, you can see the spike proteins under a microscope which looks like a halo, or a corona, which is why it’s called a coronavirus.

“You can’t grow a virus without a cell culture, it can’t replicate without the cell machinery, but you can recreate the virus from its genome.”

University of Otago public health professor Nick Wilson told AAP FactCheck the argument posed by the Instagram post “is approaching the level of arguing about the Earth being flat or not”.

SARS-CoV-2 microscope image
 SARS-CoV-2 can be seen under an electron microscope after its isolation from numerous sources. 

The Verdict

AAP FactCheck found the claims in the Instagram post and related videos to be false.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has been isolated multiple times around the world by harvesting it from ill patients or other sources and growing it in cell cultures. Scientists said the definition of isolation discussed in the video defied fundamentals of biology as all viruses required a host cell in which to live.

False – Content that has no basis in fact.

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