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Fact check: Post claims COVID-19 is another flu strain, misattributed to Cornell professor

McKenzie Sadeghi, USA TODAY
·7 min read
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The claim: A professor at Cornell University said 'COVID 19 does not exist'

In attempts to push claims that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax, some social media users are sharing a lengthy statement that purports to be written by a professor at Cornell University.

A viral post claims Robert Oswald, a professor at Cornell University with a purported Ph.D. in virology and immunology and clinical lab scientist, tested 1,500 "supposed" COVID-19 samples in Southern California and found "not a single case of Covid" after testing them through a scanning electron microscope; only Influenza A and Influenza B were found in the samples.

The post then goes on to claim that Oswald said that the virus "is just another flu strain like every year" and that COVID-19 "does not exist and is fictitious." It adds that Cornell is allegedly suing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for fraud because it would not provide the university with a viable COVID-19 sample.

Searches show that the content in the statement has circulated on Facebook before being falsely attributed to Oswald.

The first version of the claim appears to be on Dec. 7, when a user shared the statement to Facebook and wrote that he "pulled it from the comments at a website" and did not attribute the information to Oswald. The user likely found the statement in the comment section of blog site wadeburleson.org. In a message to USA TODAY, the user said his post is just "speculation" and "freedom of thought."

The post gained some of its virality in a Dec. 28 post by the Facebook page Kirk's Law Corner, which cites naturalnews.com as its source. That is a conspiracy and pseudoscience website that routinely publishes false information, according to Media Bias/Fact Check.

Another viral version of the claim shared on Dec. 28 includes a screenshot of Oswald's faculty page.

USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook page and users for comment.

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Oswald did not write statement

Oswald works at the department of molecular medicine at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine and does not have a "PhD in virology," as claimed in posts. He has a doctorate in biochemistry, according to his faculty page, where he has also issued a statement debunking the information circulating online that is attributed to him.

"COVID-19 is real. Any Facebook post that suggests otherwise is a hoax and is not true," Oswald's wrote. "Wear a mask, practice social distancing, and get the vaccine when it becomes available."

Oswald told USA TODAY via email that the entire post is false and that he had nothing to do with it.

He also noted to Snopes that his credentials are misstated in the post and he is "horrified by the contents."

"It lists the author as a virologist and immunologist living in southern California–neither of these descriptions fit me. Also, it mentions Cornell and a supposed lawsuit against the CDC," Oswald told Snopes. "Cornell has been at the forefront of COVID research and testing, committing huge resources into maintaining the spread of the virus. To attempt to link Cornell to the contents of this letter is disappointing to say the least."

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COVID-19 is not a flu strain

Not only is the statement misattributed, but claims that COVID-19 is a hoax or "just another flu strain" are false and have been debunked by USA TODAY.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been isolated by researchers, USA TODAY has reported. And the novel coronavirus has affected more people globally in cases and deaths than the average flu season, USA TODAY reported.

COVID-19 is caused by a new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, while the flu is caused by influenza A and B viruses. The coronavirus is more contagious and spreads more quickly than the flu, causes a loss of taste or smell and symptoms generally appear two to 14 days after exposure, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Further, the hospitalization rate in the U.S. for the 2019-2020 flu season was 69 hospitalizations per 100,000 people, and for COVID-19, the rate is about 313 hospitalizatons per 100,000 people as of Dec. 19, according to the CDC.

Lisa Lockerd Maragakis, a senior director of infection prevention and associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, writes that doctors are still working to estimate the mortality rate of the coronavirus, but it is thought to be possibly 10 times more than most flu strains.

Virologists also note that more people are susceptible to COVID-19 because there is little preexisting immunity to SARS-CoV-2, while a portion of the population has some immunity to influenza, which limits yearly flu cases.

"First, little preexisting immunity to SARS-CoV-2 means that virtually everyone is susceptible to infection," Andrew Stanley Pekosz, a professor of Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, explained in October. "Second, we don’t have good treatments or vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 like we have for influenza. Third, COVID-19 causes more severe disease than influenza overall."

Pekosz also noted that COVID-19 survivors report more long-term effects than influenza survivors, that include lingering symptoms such as weakness, shortness of breath, and some cases of kidney and heart problems.

The CDC estimates that between Oct. 1, 2019, and April 4, 2020, the flu resulted in 39 million to 56 million illnesses and 24,000 to 62,000 deaths in the U.S. By comparison, there have been about 19.5 million reported COVID-19 cases since Jan. 21 and about 340,000 deaths in the U.S. from the virus, according to the CDC.

The CDC notes that flu activity is "unusually low" at the time but could increase in the months ahead.

There are also no reports or evidence that Cornell University is suing the CDC for fraud. Oswald told USA TODAY that he has never heard of such a lawsuit and that the post is a "total fabrication from start to end."

USA TODAY reached out to Cornell University for further comment.

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Our rating: False

The claim that Cornell University professor Robert Oswald authored a statement that COVID-19 does not exist is FALSE on many counts, based on our research. Oswald did not write the statement attributed to him, and claims that the coronavirus is just another flu strain and that SARS-CoV-2 has not been isolated have been debunked.

Our fact-check sources:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Post falsely claims COVID-19 is another flu strain