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Fake News On Coronavirus Thrives As New Variant Is Detected

The B.1.1.529 or the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is a new variant of the novel Coronavirus, detected in South Africa on 24 November 2021. The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution, which as per the WHO website is “independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 …” was convened on 26 November 2021 to discuss the B.1.1.529 variant. 

In late 2020, due to the emergence of variants of the coronavirus the WHO introduced the classification of Variants of Concern (VOCs) and Variants of Interest (VOIs). This was done to facilitate the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new B.1.1.529 variant was named Omicron after the Greek alphabet by the same name. This is a part of WHO’s efforts to name the new variants after non-stigmatizing and easy-to-pronounce names for non-scientific audiences. 

Read: An explainer on all that is known about Omicron so far here.

As the world grapples with this new strain of the coronavirus, there is also widespread misinformation around it on social media platforms. 

Here some of the claims debunked by Newschecker

Claim 1: The 1963 movie ‘The Omicron Variant’ predicted the new Omicron strain

A poster of an alleged movie from 1963 named ‘The Omicron Variant’ was shared widely on social media platforms Twitter and Facebook. The poster was also tweeted by Bollywood director Ram Gopal Verma

The poster, was accompanied by claims that the prediction made by the said movie in 1963 has come true in 2021 with the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus being detected recently in South Africa.

On running a reverse image search Newschecker found that the poster in question was an edited version of the poster for the film ‘Phase IV’. We found the original unedited poster on the Spanish website ‘todocoleccion’. 


Screenshot of website ‘Todocoleccion’

Further, on reading about the film ‘Phase IV’ on website Internet Movie Database (known as IMDb popularly) we found that the film is not related to the Omicron variant or the coronavirus pandemic in any way. 

To trace the source of the edited poster was traced back to Becky Cheatle via a keyword search on Twitter. Cheatle confirmed to Newschecker that she had edited the poster in question along with a few other film posters as a joke.

Tweet @BeckyCheatle

Conclusion

The poster in circulation claiming that a 1963 film predicted the Omicron variant is false. The poster was found to be edited. 

Read our detailed fact check on this claim here

Claim 2: The ‘release’ of new COVID-19 variants was planned.

A viral message on social media claims that the Omicron variant was ‘planned’ to hit in September 2021. These claims circulating on Facebook and Whatsapp are backed by a document which shows a tabular column with the month wise ‘release date’ of the coronavirus variants. The logos of  the World Health Organization (WHO), World Economic Forum (WEF) and Johns Hopkins University are also seen on the document. 

Screenshot tweet by user @CheekyChapie1

The image in circulation can be observed for factual inaccuracies, like the ‘release date’ of the delta variant mentioned as June 2021. The delta variant was actually detected around October 2020 in India—way prior to the claimed timeline —as per the WHO website

Screenshot WHO website

Discrepancies in the alleged ‘dates of release’ of the other variants can also be observed in the viral image in comparison with the information on the WHO website about when these variants were first detected. 

Newschecker also reached out to WEF who confirmed that they have no relation with the viral image and it is an attempt to promote misinformation. 

“We have zero connection to this fake graphic and blatant attempt to promote miscommunication.  It goes against the mission and purpose of the World Economic Forum.”

World Economic Forum

Conclusion

Claims about the new COVID-19 variants being ‘released’ are false. 

Read our detailed fact check on this claim here

Claim 3: Omicron is not a new variant of COVID-19-World Economic Forum’s website wrote about in July 2021

Claims are rife on social media with users on Twitter and Facebook claiming that  the World Economic Forum (WEF) published an article about Omicron—new COVID-19 variant—in July 2021. The posts assert this to be proof to show that the variant is not ‘new’ and that WEF knew about it in July 2021. The link to the WEF article in question is also being shared by many users.

The article in question on the WEF’s website, is dated as 26 November 2021. Furthermore, the article mentions, “This article was originally published on 12 July 2021. It was updated on 26 November to include information about the new strain, B.1.1.529.”.

Screenshot of website World Economic Forum

An archived version of the article accessed via the tool Wayback machine by Newschecker also confirms that the original article was published on 12 July, 2021 and it does not mention the Omicron variant. 

Screenshot of website World Economic Forum from Wayback Machine 12 July 2021

The World Economic Forum also confirmed to Newschechecer “Since people misinterpreted this article update, we have now issued a clarification at the top of the same article”

Conclusion

The article by WEF on how new variants arise and how they are detected was first published on 12 July 2021. The claim that WEF knew about the Omicron variant prior is false. 

Read our detailed fact check on this claim here

What is common amongst these claims?

These claims on social media point towards a concerted effort to promote the idea that the Omicron variant is premeditated. Further, an effort discrediting international organizations like the WHO which are otherwise reliable sources of information about the pandemic can also be observed. 

Preeksha Malhotra
Preeksha Malhotra
Preeksha is a journalism graduate interested in exploring and working on the phenomenon of fake news globally. She desires to work on compelling stories that employ digital journalism to bring forth narratives that matter. She is also a budding researcher, studying the COVID-19 infodemic as a research fellow with the Institute of Economic Growth.
Preeksha Malhotra
Preeksha Malhotra
Preeksha is a journalism graduate interested in exploring and working on the phenomenon of fake news globally. She desires to work on compelling stories that employ digital journalism to bring forth narratives that matter. She is also a budding researcher, studying the COVID-19 infodemic as a research fellow with the Institute of Economic Growth.

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