NOT REAL NEWS: Debunking false coronavirus claims, phony remedies

SAN FRANCISCO -- A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these are legitimate, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out.

Here are the facts:

CLAIM: Eating alkaline foods will stave off the novel coronavirus, which has a pH level of 5.5 to 8.5.

THE FACTS: A false post circulating on social media claims that COVID-19 has a pH level between 5.5 to 8.5, and in order to fend off the virus people must consume alkaline foods. Both points are false. First, a virus does not have a pH level. Second, the body’s pH levels cannot be changed through diet. “A virus itself does not have a pH,” said Sarah Stanley, associate professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. Stanley explained in an email that “pH is something that applies to a water based solution, which a virus is not.” In addition, she said, it’s not possible for diet to change the pH of blood, cells or tissues. The body regulates pH levels; it’s not something a person would want to change. “Eating a healthy and balanced diet supports immunity and can be helpful for fighting off infections. However, there is no evidence that consuming alkaline foods specifically is beneficial,” she said. The post cites the “Journal of Virology & Antiviral Research” and states: “This is to inform us all that the pH for corona virus varies from 5.5 to 8.5. All we need to do, to beat coronavirus, we need to take more of an alkaline foods that are above the pH level of the virus.” It lists a number of foods to fight off the novel coronavirus, including lemons, limes and pineapples, but the pH levels provided for them are incorrect. For example, it gives a pH level of 9 for lemons and a level of 9.2 for limes, when both have a pH of about 2, a food science specialist noted. “These pH values for these foods are completely wrong,” Donald Schaffner, extension specialist in food science at Rutgers University, told the AP. “The human body is designed to be really good at maintaining its pH.” Schaffner said people should eat those foods if they want, but “the best way to keep from getting a virus is to stay away from people.”


CLAIM: Drinking alcoholic beverages can prevent coronavirus.

THE FACTS: A Facebook post with the caption “Time to disinfect our insides” featured a fabricated memo made to appear like a recommendation from a Kansas City hospital that drinking alcoholic beverages would reduce the risk of coronavirus. The manufactured memo attributed to St. Luke's Hospital said, “After extensive research, our findings show that consuming alcoholic beverages may help reduce the risk of infection by the novel coronavirus; COVID-19. Vodka is the most recommended for drinking, cleaning, and sanitizing.” Saint Luke’s Health System, a hospital network that includes the hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, issued a statement in response on March 11, stating: “False reports are circulating that say drinking alcohol can reduce the risk of COVID-19. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Saint Luke’s follows CDC guidance.” The hospital suggests practicing good hand hygiene, washing hands for at least 20 seconds, and when soap and water is not available, using a hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol. Dr. Robert Legare Atmar, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College, said consuming alcohol will not protect against infectious diseases like COVID-19. “Alcohol consumption has long been touted as a means to prevent infection with a variety of pathogens, but there is no evidence that such alcohol consumption protects against any infection," Dr. Atmar told the AP in an email. "In fact, the evidence is often the opposite –- that alcohol consumption is associated with increased risk of infection.”


CLAIM: Put a small pea-sized amount of antibiotic ointment like mupirocin inside your nostrils. The ointment will kill any infectious germs when you breathe and should kill the coronavirus before it gets to your lungs.

THE FACTS: The antibiotic ointment will not protect you from the coronavirus. Antibacterial medications like mupirocin will only help fight off bacteria like staphylococcus and streptococcus, not COVID-19, which is a virus, said Dr. Daniela Kroshinsky, director of inpatient dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital. "The most important steps to prevent infection with COVID are physical distancing, good hand washing, and avoiding touching your face,” she said in an email. The false posts circulating online, which included a photo of mupirocin, recommended that people protect themselves and others by putting a “small pea-sized amount on the tip of a Q-tip” and swabbing the inside of their nostrils. Dr. Carrie Kovarik, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, said mupirocin can be used in the nose of patients who have bacterial infections like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA. “It’s an antibiotic not an antiviral and does not have activity against viruses,” she said. “People are just sort of grasping at straws.”


CLAIM: Israel has had no deaths from coronavirus because people in the country have been cured by drinking hot water with lemon and bicarbonate of soda at night.

THE FACTS: The drink is not a cure for the coronavirus, and there have been deaths attributed to the coronavirus in Israel. As of Friday, Israel had confirmed more than 7,030 cases of the virus and 39 deaths. Posts predominantly shared on Facebook and WhatsApps falsely state that “the action of the lemon with hotter baking soda immediately kills the virus, completely eliminates it from the body.” Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, told The Associated Press that nothing should be presumed to prevent or treat the virus unless it has gone through clinical trials. “There are no herbal remedies I would recommend for COVID-19,” she said. Medical experts have said that developing a vaccine for the virus could take at least 12 to 18 months. Dr. Doron recommends that people keep a well-rounded healthy diet, get sleep and minimize their stress, because those factors affect the immune system.


CLAIM: The proper way to wear a medical mask is with the colored side on the outside if you are sick and don’t want to spread your germs and with the white side out if you’re not sick and want to stop germs from getting in.

THE FACTS: Medical officials say the colored side of the mask should be worn on the outside, away from your face, regardless of whether you are sick or healthy. Social media users have been sharing the false claim since January, but it recently gained prominence in the U.S. as more Americans consider wearing face masks in an effort to protect themselves from the new coronavirus. Dr. Seto Wing Hong, co-director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control, said in January that the correct way to wear a mask is with the blue side on the outside and the white side on your face. “You see it has the blue color on the outside because it is waterproof and then you have white on the inside because it is absorbent,” he said. “So, if I cough, it absorbs it.” Surgical face masks like the one shown with the false claim online typically have a blue side and a white side. One post on Twitter with the false claim had 80,000 likes. The post shows a document from someone who says they went to a doctor’s office and a nurse taught them how to properly wear a medical mask depending if they are sick or healthy. The document includes two photos of women wearing masks. “Colored side out if you are sick and do not want to spread your germs around. Whiteside out (this is the filter part) for when you’re not sick and you want to stop germs from getting in,” the document reads. Experts stressed it is best to follow the instructions from the mask supplier.


CLAIM: Just three days after Attorney General William Barr announced the Department of Justice will prosecute hoarders of personal protective equipment needed to combat the coronavirus, a California union suddenly located a stockpile of 39 million N95 masks.

THE FACTS: That’s not what happened. The United Health Care Workers West chapter of the Service Employees International Union simply connected state governments and hospitals to a vendor. The union did not have a stockpile of masks. Social media posts that the California union was hoarding crucial medical supplies followed President Donald Trump’s March 23 signing of an order making it a crime to stockpile personal protective equipment needed by medical workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Barr also announced his agency was investigating people who were hoarding or price gouging medical supplies. Three days after the signing, the Services Employees International Union chapter announced it was connecting several counties in California, the state, and hospital networks with a vendor that could provide 39 million N95 masks. Fringe news sites and social media posts falsely suggested the union had been hoarding the masks all along, only handing them over once the federal government had threatened to prosecute such activity. “Hmm ... SEIU Union in California Suddenly Finds Mysterious Stash of 39 Million Face Masks -- 3 Days After AG Bill Barr Announces They’re Going After Hoarders,” one headline stated. The union didn’t stock or sell the masks, Steve Trossman, a spokesman for the union chapter, confirmed to The Associated Press. It searched for leads and potential suppliers for the masks. “We had nothing to do with the transactions,” Trossman said. “We found suppliers, we had hospitals and health systems that needed supplies and connected them.” Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the California governor’s emergency services office, also confirmed to the AP that the state bought them from a vendor.


CLAIM: If you are in Las Vegas and you get a knock on your door from Nevada Power, 2020 Census or COVID-19 testers do NOT open your door! They are robbing people at gunpoint.

THE FACTS: No verified reports of such criminal activity have occurred in the city, the Las Vegas Police Department confirmed to The Associated Press. Facebook posts are spreading an old hoax that homeowners shouldn’t answer the door if they get a knock from people claiming to represent certain government agencies. The U.S. Census Bureau has seen false reports of criminals posing as census workers hoping to rob anyone who answers the door since last year. A new twist on the unsubstantiated report circulating in recent days on Facebook warned Las Vegas residents not to answer the door for someone offering to swab for the coronavirus, or claiming to be from the U.S. Census Bureau or Nevada’s public utility. “There are no verified reports of this going on in the Las Vegas valley,” a spokesman for the Las Vegas Police Department said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press. The Census Bureau, which has repeatedly knocked down online hoaxes that people are impersonating census workers and robbing homes, has delayed dispatching census workers to collect answers to the once-every-decade survey until April 29 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.