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Dispelling Misinformation About Monkeypox

On May 7, 2022, an unidentified individual in the United Kingdom was diagnosed with the monkeypox virus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Monkeypox is a rare disease that is caused by infection with monkeypox virus.” The monkeypox virus is a cousin of the smallpox virus.

Health officials in the U.K. said that the unidentified person traveled to Nigeria, where hundreds of monkeypox cases have occurred since April 2019.

From May 7, 2022, to the time of writing this brief, 92 other cases of monkeypox have been confirmed globally. On May 22, 2022, President Joe Biden said of monkeypox, “They haven’t told me the level of exposure yet, but it is something that everybody should be concerned about.”

For this brief, we conducted further research into monkeypox, its recent spread outside of the African continent, and identified misinformation narratives about the disease.

Background

Monkeypox was first identified in laboratory primates in 1958. However, the disease is also found in a variety of rodents. The first human case of monkeypox was diagnosed in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. From 1970 to 1979, 47 other disease cases were reported in West and Central Africa. A 1980 Abstract from the Bulletin of the World Health Organization claims that monkeypox mostly infected children with a fatality rate of 17%. However, health officials currently report that monkeypox has a fatality rate anywhere from 3-6% in severe cases.

In 2003, there was a multistate outbreak of monkeypox, impacting Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Ohio. Per the CDC, the source of the outbreak was pet prairie dogs. The prairie dogs had come from animal distributors in Texas and Illinois. Open-source research suggests that none of the 2003 cases resulted in fatalities.

In 2021, health officials documented two cases of the monkeypox virus from U.S. citizens in Texas and Maryland. Both U.S. citizens had traveled to Nigeria before contracting the virus.

The Cleveland Clinic describes monkeypox as “a rare disease similar to smallpox caused by the monkeypox virus. It’s found mostly in areas of Africa but has been seen in other areas of the world. Monkeypox causes flu-like symptoms such as fever and chills, and a rash develops within a few days. There’s no proven treatment for monkeypox, but it usually goes away on its own.”

Where Has It Spread  

There are confirmed cases of monkeypox in the U.S., Australia, Switzerland, the U.K., Austria, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Israel, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Greece, and Germany. Currently, there are no recorded fatalities. Many people diagnosed with the virus are either hospitalized or isolated.

Thus far, Belgium has implemented mandatory quarantines for monkeypox patients. Those who contract monkeypox in Belgium are required to quarantine for 21 days. Additionally, U.K. health officials require a 21-day quarantine for high-risk monkeypox cases.

In an interview with CNBC, former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said of the spread of the virus outside of Africa. “Now that there’s been community spread, it may be hard to fully snub this out. I don’t think it’s going to become a major epidemic because this is a virus that’s difficult to spread.”

There are two confirmed cases of monkeypox in the U.S., one in New York state and the other in Massachusetts. In addition, there is a suspected monkeypox case in Florida and a second in New York state.

NBC News reported that monkeypox might have spread from raves in Europe. “In an interview with The Associated Press, Dr. David Heymann, who formerly headed WHO’s emergencies department, said the leading theory to explain the spread of the disease was sexual transmission among gay and bisexual men at two raves held in Spain and Belgium. Monkeypox has not previously triggered widespread outbreaks beyond Africa, where it is endemic in animals.”

Misinformation about Monkeypox

As of the writing of this brief, there are 8,950 tweets an hour about monkeypox. Many of those tweets include misinformation narratives about the virus.

Some tweets claim that tech tycoon Bill Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci are behind monkeypox.

Other tweets suggest that a 2021 tabletop exercise focused on monkeypox from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a non-profit organization aimed at preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction and stopping other catastrophic attacks, means it was a planned outbreak.

While the NTI did partner with the Munich Security Conference to simulate what would happen if a monkeypox terrorist attack occurred, such exercises from NIT are quite common.

In 2022, the NTI and Munich Security Conference created a scenario with a fictional bioweapons attack. The NTI wrote of the scenario, “The exercise scenario involved a localized bioweapons attack against cattle in the fictional country of Andoriban with a genetically engineered strain of the Akhmeta virus. While the attack was intended to cause targeted economic damage, the virus quickly spills over into humans and continues to spread, rapidly evolving into a global pandemic.”

In 2020, the NTI partnered with the Munich Security Conference for a tabletop exercise regarding a “human-engineered” pathogen and an accidental release of the pathogen from a bio laboratory.

In 2019, the NTI partnered with Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security and the Center for Global Development to determine how coordinated Command and Control might be used in a rapidly spreading biological event.

The NTI theory is also spreading on the Russian social media website VK.

Analysts note that tabletop exercises, where simulated outbreaks occur, frequently happen in the field of epidemiology and biological threat research. The following screenshots are from tabletop exercises about Ebola, SARS, and smallpox.

We did not identify any disinformation from hostile actors like the People’s Republic of China or the Russian Federation.

OUR ASSESSMENT

Our research suggests that very soon, there will likely be more confirmed monkeypox cases in the U.S. and globally. The more documented cases of the virus, the higher the likelihood of mandatory quarantines like in Belgium or other government policies to mitigate the spread of the disease. Any stricter measures will likely be followed by significant resistance, with in-person protests as we have seen with COVID-19 mandates.

While there is no official monkeypox vaccine, the smallpox vaccine is 85% effective against the virus. Should the virus become a pandemic in the U.S., the government and pharmaceutical companies would work together for a vaccine supply against the disease, offering doses to the population, likely similar to the vaccine rollout with COVID-19.

If monkeypox spreads to countries like China or Russia, they could spread disinformation about the U.S and Europe being responsible for the virus, as was done with COVID-19. Further, as China continues to deal with coronavirus outbreaks, a large spread of monkeypox cases could potentially result in more lockdowns inside the country and supply chain disruptions.

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