Part of the atmosphere surrounding a mistaken report: Indian nationals who were airlifted from coronavirus-hit Wuhan in China's Hubei province pose for photographs with the medical staff inside a quarantine facility set by up ITBP, in New Delhi. Photo: Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) / Anadolu Agency

It started with a  blog published on the libertarian website Zero Hedge that hinted at a conspiracy theory around the novel coronavirus being a bio-weapon of sorts. Based on a report in the Indian newspaper The Hindu, it claimed that the Indian government was investigating the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

But the fact was that the key source of the Zero Hedge blog was a report with an erroneous headline that quickly made an incorrect story go viral. As social media picked it up and users started sharing it, the newspaper and Indian scientists were scrambling to stop misinformation careening through social media.

“The Indian government has ordered an inquiry into a study conducted in the Northeastern state of Nagaland (close to China) by researchers from the US, China and India on bats and humans carrying antibodies to deadly viruses like Ebola, officials confirmed to The Hindu,” Zero Hedge claimed.

But none of this was true.

Disinformation overload

Like most rumors, it started innocuously. Since 2008, the Bangalore-based National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS) has been researching viruses found in bats in the Northeastern border state of Nagaland. Since 2012, senior scientist and researcher Uma Ramakrishna has been visiting Nagaland to travel with a particular Naga tribe that hunts bats every year in October.

Zero Hedge also emphasized that the state is close to China. But the fact is that Nagaland is a remote Indian state on the border with Myanmar. Even an Indian resident needs an Inner Line permit to visit, a measure to preserve the indigenous culture of the state.

“Uma has been to Nagaland since 2012 as part of a study on antibodies in the bat population,” Mukund Thattai, a biologist who is the spokesperson for NCBS, told Asia Times. “A particular tribe in Nagaland hunts the bats,” and members come into regular contact with humans not of their tribe. So the researchers needed to know what kind of viruses inhabited the bats before they jumped to humans.

In 2017 Duke-NUS Medical School, which is a partnership between Duke University in North Carolina and the National University of Singapore, collaborated with NCBS on the project, Thattai said.

“Earlier we were only looking at the Lyssa virus. The samples collected would be sent to NIMHANS [the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences] in Bangalore, which has the facilities to carry out key tests,” he said. However, he noted, “if you only focus on one virus, then there are a host of viruses that we will not be able to tackle when they jump to humans.”

Three days ago The Hindu reported that the Indian Council for Medial Research (ICMR) was conducting an investigation into the study. The initial headline of the story prominently (but mistakenly) declared that this was connected to the coronavirus.

A few hours later Zero Hedge picked up and ran the story as an investigation by researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology who had come in “secretly”to smuggle samples of viruses out of India. The assertion that some of the funding came from the US Department of Defense added to the conspiracy theory.

But the only role that the Wuhan institute had was to supply cross reactive protein fragments – small bits that will detect presence of antibodies in a bat that will produce serums. “The hope is that the serums will have antibodies,” Thatti said. Duke-NUS “has a broad panel of viral scientists to study bats in Cambodia and Singapore.”

Duke-NUS already had an existing understanding with the Wuhan institute for the supply of protein fragments. “When a contributor gives the samples and it is not part of a published study, then it is common courtesy to invite them as co-authors and sign off on the study. But that doesn’t mean they were part of the actual study,” Thattai said.

As for the US Department of Defense funding, this was a grant to the Duke-NUS to track viruses found in bats that could lead to deadly viral infections.

Indian government investigation

Sources in India’s federal ministry of health and family welfare confirmed to Asia Times that a five-member team from ICMR was investigating whether NCBS had followed all the procedures for carrying out the research in Nagaland. “Since foreigners are involved there is a strict protocol and we are looking if any procedures, visa regimes or sample collection protocols were violated or missed,” a health official told Asia Times.

NCBS officials also confirmed that as a part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, they are subject to strict controls from India’s Department of Atomic Energy. “We can’t have any collaboration with any foreign entity without their clearance and no visas can be issued unless the federal ministry of home affairs clears it,” another NCBS official confirmed to Asia Times.

Privately officials said that there are a maze of protocols that govern such procedures, so a few steps could have been “overlooked.” But no one from Wuhan ever came and no samples were ever transferred to them. Importantly, the research had nothing to do with the coronavirus.

The Hindu, which was the source of the global conspiracy theory fueled by Zero Hedge, changed the headline and scrubbed the online version of the story of any reference to coronavirus or any erroneous assumption that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had sent its personnel to India.

The Hindu isn’t saying anything in response to questions. Asia Times spoke with several people there and none of them knew how this happened. Some believe the reporter was excited and that set the atmosphere for the desk editor to hype the story – starting the headlinewith Coronovirus and then throwing in a reference to Wuhan.

All that can be said is that, at a time when global tempers are high and nerves on edge, a wrong headline led to dissemination of a global conspiracy theory that China had weaponized a mutated virus.

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