No, the new coronavirus did not originate in Pike County, Ohio

A surgical mask and an N95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Despite claims from a local health department, a lawsuit seeking to halt all COVID-19 health orders, and media reports, there is no reason to believe the new coronavirus that has killed nearly 1.1 million people worldwide originated in Pike County, Ohio.

Before the notion sprawled across information networks, it originated in a July 2 Facebook post from the Pike County Health Department.

COVID-19 Antibody Testing Results from 7/1/20Total Tested: 170Negative: 168Positive: 2Earliest Symptom Onset:…

Posted by Pike County General Health District on Thursday, July 2, 2020

The post, as of Wednesday evening, has neither been deleted nor corrected. It details the results of antibody testing in the county, and states that the earliest symptom onset date of people believed to have contracted COVID-19 was Nov. 12, 2019.

Symptoms of the first known COVID-19 cases in Ohio set in Jan. 2, 2020, in six people in Erie, Licking, Lucas, Mahoning, Summit and Warren counties, according to Ohio Department of Health antibody testing (which detects previous infections) data.

RT-PCR testing, the most reliable diagnostic test for the virus, first detected COVID-19 in the U.S. on Jan. 20, according to a case study from the New England Journal of Medicine.

The World Health Organization first detected the then-unknown disease emerging in December in Wuhan, China.  A May study from the CDC found the U.S. outbreak likely results from “the importation of a single lineage of virus from China in late January or early February.”

Antibody testing is relatively prone to false positives, according to the study. It is, however, useful in tracking the progress of the pandemic once it’s established in a community, given it can also catch asymptomatic infections.

In an email, Pike County Health Commissioner Matt Brewster walked back the Nov. 12 finding.

“Our positive antibody test was more than likely an asymptomatic case later on or a false positive — due to inaccurate results from areas of low prevalence,” he said.

Brewster said the department clarified the point in a comment on the post (there are 105 comments in total) that the results may be faulty.

What followed is a case study in the proliferation and political weaponization of bad information from what most would interpret to be a reliable source — a local health department.

The Facebook post was shared 476 times. Skeptics immediately seized it as evidence the coronavirus has been endemic in communities before WHO formally deemed COVID-19 to be a pandemic level outbreak.

“The virus was here for at least 4 months … yet, hospitals weren’t overwhelmed, and the sky wasn’t falling,” reads one post. “So, what changed? The government and mainstream media’s constant barrage of fear driven propaganda.”

In September, Thomas Renz filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Ohio, seeking to halt all public health orders as they relate to COVID-19 and for $75,000 in damages. The lawsuit, which contains a laundry list of other distortions and untruths (including that the pandemic death toll is closer to 20,000 than the Johns Hopkins University tally of 1.1 million) related to COVID-19, cites Brewster’s claim. It goes further to suggest Pike County is ground zero for the pandemic.

“Finally, we allege that this virus has been in Ohio since the beginning of 2020 and, with no actions taken, had nearly no impact over the winter months when it would have been strongest,” the lawsuit states.

Reports from various outlets picked up on the health department’s post, furthering its spread.

Research from the CDC suggests exposure to misinformation and unclear messages has been identified as a driver of behavior during an outbreak, underscoring the need for clear messaging on things like masks to slow the virus’ spread.

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