Debunked: No, the media has not been told when future Covid-19 variants will be 'released'

The list of Covid variant ‘launch dates’ contained in the Instagram post is also inaccurate.

For debunks

AN INSTAGRAM POST that has been shared widely in recent weeks claims to contain a table of dates for when future variants of Covid-19 will be “released” to the media.

Tapping into well-worn conspiracy theories about the pandemic being a pre-planned or staged event, the image in the post — which has been spread across different platforms in multiple languages since at least early July — is marked with the logos of Johns Hopkins University and the World Economic Forum.

“Don’t be stupid,” the image warns. “You are being played and manipulated.”

But not only is the post’s central claim totally false, most of the information contained within the table is also incorrect. 

Let’s take a closer look.

The claim

Screenshot 2021-08-05 at 15.32.19 The Instagram post

The table in the post is made up of three columns.

The first includes a list of Greek alphabetic symbols; the second contains the names for those symbols in English and the third column contains a list of dates.

In this version of the image, above the first and second columns are the Spanish words “cepa/variante”, which in English means ‘strain/variant’. Above the third column is the Spanish word “lanzamiento”, which means ‘launch’.

Above the table is a line of text, which reads: “VARIANTS — Just look at the dates when they will be ‘released’ to the media.”

To the right of the table are the logos of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland in the United States and the World Economic Forum, based in Switzerland.

It’s not entirely clear whether the post is claiming that information about the variants will be released to the media on these dates or whether the variants themselves will be released among the population.

Either way, the implication is clearly that there is some kind of plan to release a Covid-19 variant each month until November 2022.

The post also implies that some combination of the medical, economic and media establishments are somehow involved in the conspiracy.

The evidence

The source of the image is far from clear.

While it seems to implicate the World Economic Forum, the organisation told The Journal that the table did not originate with them. “This is a fake document and has nothing to do with the World Economic Forum,” a spokesperson said.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which appears in some versions of the image, has previously said the same.

Johns Hopkins did not respond to a request for comment.

A search of each organisation’s respective websites found no trace of the table or ‘release dates’ either.

Furthermore, much of the information about when the Covid-19 variants will be ‘released’ is also inaccurate, as many of the named variants have already appeared.

According to the table of dates, the Delta variant of Covid-19 was only released in June 2021. But Delta was first detected in India in October last year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The strain was first designated as a variant of interest in April 2021 and a variant of concern by the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution in May.

The table also indicates that the Eta, Iota, Kappa and Lambda variants of Covid-19 will be released between September 2021 and January 2022. But that information is also false.

All four of those variants have been detected since October 2020 and each has been listed as a variant of interest by the WHO since March 2021.

Variants of concern

Variant strains of the SARS-CoV-2 have cropped across the globe ever since the virus was first detected in 2019.

As with all RNA viruses, variants arise naturally as the virus replicates in human hosts, which can change the way it interacts with cells. Geographic separation can result in genetically different variants popping up in different parts of the world. 

Other RNA viruses like influenza change often enough that doctors recommend getting a new flu vaccine every year.

SARS-CoV-2′s rate of mutation seems to be at least four times slower than influenza.

But even still, thousands of mutations of the virus have been detected across the world.

So far, only a handful of them become variants of interest or concern because they make the virus more transmissible, severe or because they could potentially reduce the impact of public health measures or vaccines.

Alpha – B117 or the ‘UK variant’ – was first detected in Britain in September 2020. By mid-March, it had become the dominant strain in 21 countries including the UK and Ireland and by April, it was also the dominant strain in the United States.

Why? Because natural, evolutionary changes in the virus as it replicated itself made altered the spike protein that allows the disease to invade cells, making it more transmissible.

By June, B117 (as it was then known) and other variants of concern were assigned letters of the Greek alphabet by the WHO to avoid stigmatising their places of origin.

So B117 became the Alpha variant.

Scientists have made efforts to predict when variants of concern will occur.

But experts like Ed Feil, a professor of microbial evolution at the University of Bath, say that forecasting of this nature is necessarily “riddled with uncertainty”.

Although the data can provide “pointers” for public health experts, he wrote in May that ”the vagaries of randomly mutating RNA, chaotic patterns of transmission and expansion, and partially understood forces of natural selection, present challenges to even the most insightful evolutionary soothsayer”.

Health experts cannot pinpoint the precise month when a variant of concern will crop up, so it is improbable that this information could be “released” to the media in advance.

More variants may arise in the future, but when they’ll occur and whether they’ll become variants of concern is unclear. When they do, it’s unlikely that the media will be given advanced knowledge.

The Journal debunked dozens of these claims last year and in recent months as well.

The clear intention of the post is to tap into well-trodden conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 pandemic being either a hoax or planned out in advance by elite individuals and organisations.

There is no evidence to back up this claim.

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