Sotto shows video on coronavirus conspiracy theory at Senate hearing

MANILA, Philippines – As the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak continued to stir public concern, Senate President Vicente Sotto III showed a conspiracy theory video that  claimed the coronavirus to be a form of "biowarfare" developed by the United States against China.

Sotto used his question time at a Senate hearing into the Philippine government's measures against the novel coronavirus to play the video that he said his office had received, saying it was among his and other senators' "concern."

"Mr Chair, I will not ask any questions. Instead I would like to focus on the concern, of my concern and some other members of the Senate and of course our people – of the unknown origin [of the novel coronavirus] as quoted by the WHO. Meron tayong kasabihan eh (We have a saying). If you want to defeat an enemy, know the enemy. Ano ba itong virus na ito (What is this virus all about)?" Sotto said on Tuesday, February 4.

Before playing the video, Sotto called the report "somehow very interesting, if not revealing" as he called on those present to pay close attention to it.

The video, which cited no official information or sources and was already debunked by experts, suggested Western countries "developed" the coronavirus as biowarfare against China in an effort to stop its rise as a global power. The theory has been debunked by experts.

'Craziest video.' After playing portions of the video, Sotto then asked Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr for his comments on the video. Sotto did not ask for the opinions of health officials such as Health Secretary Francisco Duque III or WHO country representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe who were at the hearing.

Locsin said it was an example of the "craziest video" he has ever seen and proceeded to debunk its contents and said it was illogical for the coronavirus to be created as a biowarfare weapon.

The DFA chief pointed out information presented in the video clashed with other supposed reports it showed, saying, "In this video, there are the suspects: China inflicting it on itself – 99% of infections are all Chinese so why would they do that?"  

Locsin added, "Again, [the claim is] this is a plan of the US and the West to destroy China by first destroying itself. This is really clever, so I don't know if you can believe this."

Responding to this, Sotto said though he and others in the Senate were "not prepared to take the content of the video hook line and sinker," and it was "best" officials were "aware" of what is being spread about the virus.

Dangerous fake news.  At the start of hearing, Senator Christopher "Bong" Go, chairman of the Senate committee on health and demography, cautioned the public against spreading fake news during the outbreak, saying fake news peddlers should be "quarantined." 

"'Yung mga panay dada naman diyan para makapagsalita, mga bashers sumasakay sa sitwasyon para sa pansariling interes, mga tao gusto lang magdulot ng panic ang mga nagpapakalat ng fake news, kayo ang dapat maquarantine para di makahawa," said Go.

(Those who want to just say something, bashers who are riding on the situation for their own self-interest, people who want to cause panic and spread fake news, you should be the ones quarantined.)

With the outbreak of the coronavirus, false news and misinformation have mushroomed online, prompting medical experts to warn that these were not only false but dangerous.

"Fake news in a health setting is dangerous. Fake news in an emergency public health situation is deadly so it's very, very important we only consume verified sources of news," said infectious disease expert Dr Edsel Salvana in an interview with ABS-CBN News. (LIST: Where to get official, reliable info on novel coronavirus)

In fact, the World Health Organization and medical experts previously explained what they know so far about the 2019 novel coronavirus: that it is from a family of coronaviruses that can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. (READ: FAQs: Ano-ano ang alam natin tungkol sa 2019 novel coronavirus?)

The new coronavirus was also believed to have originated in a market in Wuhan City, China, where wildlife was sold and sanitary conditions subpar.

In defense of China. While talking about the video showed by Sotto, Locsin praised and defended China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak even as China's top leadership itself had admitted "shortcomings and difficulties" in government response and handling of the outbreak.

Locsin believed China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak further cemented the country as a global power for effectively handling the disease.

"This disease is only proving the resilience and strength of China. In 10 days they have built a massive containment facility. That only shows that...this challenge will not weaken China but will strengthen it in the eyes of the world as a power that just cannot be defeated even by nature," he said.

As of Tuesday, the coronavirus has killed 426 people while infections surged to over 20,000 confirmed cases recorded worldwide. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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