Misinformation on the new outbreak has already begun to spread on social media
Monkeypox cases have almost tripled in Britain as health officials in Europe warn the disease could become endemic on the continent.
A further 14 cases were confirmed in England on Tuesday – taking the total across the country to 70 – the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said, as the virus continued to spread globally. Scotland also confirmed its first case on Monday.
Dr Susan Hopkins, the agency’s chief medical adviser, urged people to be aware of any unusual rashes or lesions and to contact a sexual health service if they have any symptoms.
UKHSA said it has purchased supplies of a “safe” smallpox vaccine and this is being offered to those who have had close contact with someone diagnosed with monkeypox. Those who are considered at high risk following exposure have been advised to isolate at home for up to 21 days.
The news comes as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said EU countries should review their small pox vaccine availability and update their contract tracing systems as a total of 85 cases of monkeypox across eight EU countries had been identified.
However, although the spread of monkeypox is still in its very early stages, various conspiracy theories have already begun springing up. From Bill Gates predicting the outbreak years ago to the Covid vaccine causing the virus, misinformation is making its way around the internet at speed.
So what are the most common conspiracy theories to come out of the monkeypox outbreak?
Conspiracy theory 1: The monkeypox outbreak is linked to Covid vaccines
One of the most prominent theories is that the Covid vaccine is directly linked to the monkeypox outbreak. Conspiracy theorists have claimed that the Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca Covid vaccines in particular, which use a live adenovirus vector usually causing the common cold in chimpanzees is behind the outbreak.
These vectors are a harmless, weakened adenovirus which has been genetically modified so it is unable to grow in humans. It is therefore considered safe even for use in elderly people or people with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes.
It’s also worth noting that monkies are not the natural source of monkeypox. It is. in fact, a disease of small African animals such as rodents, according to Imperial College virologist Dr Michael Skinner.
American radio host and far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones offered his voice in promoting this theory, also incorrectly claiming the vaccines “inject the genome of a chimpanzee” into human cells.
Although the Covid vaccine may cause some mild side effects, monkeypox is not one of them.
Conspiracy theory 2: Bill Gates predicted monkeypox outbreak
Bill Gates conspiracy theories dominated the Covid pandemic, so there’s little surprise the billionaire’s name has popped up in the latest discussion around the latest outbreak.
Social media posts recieving thousands of shares have drawn attention to statements Mr Gates made in 2021, suggesting terrorists could attempt to release smallpox as part of an attack.
As a philantropist with a focus on global health, Mr Gates’ comments on pandemics and the use of smallpox as a bioterrorism weapon are not new and predate both monkeypox and Covid.
In November 2021, during a Policy Exchange interview with the chair of the UK parliament’s health select committee, Jeremy Hunt, Mr Gates warned governments should prepare for future pandemics and smallpox terror attacks.
Responding to a question from Mr Hunt about what global governments should do to protect against future pandemics, Mr Gates said it would take “tens of billions” in research and development and “probably about a billion a year” to form a pandemic task force led at a World Health Organization (WHO) level.
In April 2017, almost three years before the emergence of Covid-19, he also said in an interview that “advances in biology have made it far easier for a terrorist to recreate smallpox.”
Conspiracy theory 3: The US deliberately released virus
Similar to the early Covid conspiracy that the virus was made in a lab and released by China, theories that the US deliberately released the monkeypox virus have gained traction on Chinese social media.
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, posted the report writing 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.”
Other Weibo users have also criticised the US for the monkeypox outbreak despite the virus having existed in central and west Africa for decades. It was originally discovered there in the 1950s.
“If the US let loose the virus to spread around the world, it’s harming the global health of people,” another Weibo user wrote, according to Insider. “The US should be reprimanded by the international community and made to pay compensation”.
Preparing for outbreaks is part of most nations’ strategies for mitigating the effects of a virus on its population and such planning doesn’t suggest the US was planning to release a virus into the world.
Scientists are analysing samples of the virus from the current outbreak to determine whether or not it has mutated, although the structure of monkeypox means it is less likely to mutate than viruses such as Covid.
The WHO said on Monday there is currently no evidence the monkeypox in this latest outbreak is a new variant, suggesting the chances a bioengineered version of the disease is spreading undetetected are highly unlikely.
Conspiracy theory 4: US stockpiled smallpox vaccine ahead of outbreak
News reports that the US had released doses of smallpox vaccine, which can be used to imunise against monkeypox, from its national stockpile prompted conspiracies over why it was holding onto roughly 100 million doses of a vaccine for a disease which was erradicated globally in 1980.
The US keeps two vaccines for smallpox in its Strategic National Stockpile — a product, in part, of a 9/11-enhanced fear of bioterrorism,
The Strategic National Stockpile was formed in 1999 and has been developed through the years to help the US prepare itself for public health emergencies. In addition to smallpox vaccines, it also includes ventilators and antitoxins.
Conspiracy theory 5: Munich Security Conference monkeypox exercise
Another angle explored by conspiracy theorists is that world leaders met in Munich last year to plan a response to monkeypox.
World health leaders did meet in Munich in 2021 for the Munich Security Conference where the annual tabletop exercise on reducing high-consequence biological threats was conducted. While monkeypox was discussed at the 2021 iteration of the conference, following the Covid pandemic this is no surprise.
The main talking points of the conference usually align with leading world issues at the time. For example, the 2013 conference was focused on the European debt crisis while the 2015 conference looked at the conflict in Ukraine the previous year.
Experts took part in a simulation, in which a pandemic had been sparked by an “unusual strain” of monkeypox.
While the use of monkeypox in the exercise is a cooincidence, there a few comparisons to be drawn between the scenario played out in Munich and the current outbreak.
Later in the exercise, participants were told the pandemic had been caused by the deliberate release of a modified, vaccine-resistant virus by a terrorist group who had stolen samples from a biolab. The WHO says it currently has no evidence the monkeypox virus in circulation now is any different to that involved in previous outbreaks.
The virus was also released in a non-native country in the scenario, whereas the current group of cases are linked to a traveller who arrived in the UK from Nigeria, where the monkeypox is endemic.