‘US let monkeypox loose’ conspiracy theories swirl on China’s Weibo platform
- Chinese state media has not accused US of intentionally spreading virus, but many social media users have not refrained from such accusations
- Meanwhile, a leading WHO adviser says monkeypox outbreak may have spread through sex at 2 raves, in Belgium and Spain
Chinese social media users are speculating the US could be the source of monkeypox infections now reported in at least a dozen countries, including the UK, Spain and Australia.
The viral infection has been highlighted as a trending topic on popular social media platform Weibo for the past three days with a hashtag on the US reporting two suspected monkeypox cases attracting more than 51 million views as of Monday.
While Chinese state media has refrained from accusing the US of intentionally spreading monkeypox, an accusation it made about Covid-19, many social media users have not held back.
A 2021 report on biosecurity preparedness planning by a US non-government organisation, Nuclear Threat Initiative, which included a scenario of a monkeypox pandemic, has been taken out of context to suggest that the US government knew the outbreak was coming.
Nationalist influencer Shu Chang, who has 6.41 million Weibo followers, deliberately misconstrued the report and posted that it showed “a plan by the US to leak bioengineered monkeypox virus”.
The post was liked by more than 7,500 users and received more than 660 comments, many of them agreeing with her. One said that the US was “evil beyond the imagination of humankind”.
Posts pushing this conspiracy theory have been liked tens of thousands of times on Weibo.
The rare and potentially deadly cousin of the smallpox virus is traditionally confined to regions in Africa, but health officials are concerned about its recent wider spread in Europe, North America and elsewhere. No cases have been found in China.
Disinformation over health has been rife in China and the US during the Covid-19 pandemic. The two countries had engaged in a spat over the origins of the virus.
Beijing made unsubstantiated claims the US engineered the virus at a military base, while some US media outlets questioned whether the virus may have leaked from a research facility in Wuhan, the city where Covid was first detected.
President Joe Biden has sought to reassure Americans that the monkeypox outbreak was unlikely to cause a pandemic on the scale of Covid-19.
“I just don’t think it rises to the level of the kind of concern that existed with Covid-19,” he said on Monday in Tokyo during a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
The US has enough small pox vaccine stockpiled to deal with the outbreak, Biden said. Still, he said people should be cautious.
The president struck a more cautious note a day after telling reporters that the outbreak was “something everyone should be concerned about,” and that if it “were to spread, it would be consequential”.
As of Saturday, 92 confirmed cases and 28 suspected cases of monkeypox had been reported from 12 member states that are not endemic for the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday. But it also said there was no evidence the virus has mutated.
Meanwhile, a leading WHO adviser described the unprecedented outbreak in developed countries as “a random event” that might be explained by risky sexual behaviour at two recent mass events in Europe.
Dr. David Heymann, who formerly headed WHO’s emergencies department, said the leading theory to explain the spread of the disease was sexual transmission among gay and bisexual men at two raves held in Spain and Belgium.
Monkeypox has not previously triggered widespread outbreaks beyond Africa, where it is endemic in animals.
“We know monkeypox can spread when there is close contact with the lesions of someone who is infected, and it looks like sexual contact has now amplified that transmission,” said Heymann.
That marks a significant departure from the disease’s typical pattern of spread in central and western Africa, where people are mainly infected by animals like wild rodents and primates and outbreaks have not spilled across borders.
Although the disease belongs to the same virus family as smallpox, its symptoms are milder. People usually recover within two to four weeks without needing to be hospitalised, but the disease is occasionally deadly.
Additional reporting by Reuters