Absurd claims that Covid-19 test kits predated pandemic

South Asia Check / September 18, 2020

A collage of social media posts claiming that Covid-19 test kits were being exported by countries long before the pandemic.

By Deepak Adhikari

Over the past several days, social media users have shared screenshots and text from the World Bank website along with claims that Covid-19 test kits had been exported to several countries in 2017 and 2018, long before Covid-19.

Bharat Dahal, a former Maoist leader with over 40,000 followers on Facebook, posted the following status on September 12, 2020:

“Here’s the proof of mafia business activity taking place in Nepal in the name of Covid-19. The MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) and Coronavirus terror are no different. Now look at the faces of the doctors and the leaders. Look closely at this World Bank website. It says, Covid-19 testing kits were exported from Nepal to Canada, India, Singapore and Thailand two years ago. Whereas, the World Health Organization (WHO) made a false show of naming the virus Covid-19 only six months ago.”

His Facebook post has received 130 comments and 274 shares. 542 people have liked it. On September 12, he published another post in Nepali: “A mafia plan to destroy the world by propagating the coronavirus terror until 2025.” The Nepali text was accompanied by a screenshot of a World Bank document with this text: “World Bank Lists Covid-19 program ending in March 2025.”

Dahal repeated the claims in an interview with a YouTube channel named Himal Online TV. The interview has been viewed more than 38,000 times until September 18. (Earlier also, South Asia Check has debunked false claims made by the interviewees in the channel here and here.) On September 7, 2020, Arjun Khadka, who has 14,000 followers on Facebook, also posted similar claims on his Facebook wall.

Fact check

Info Wars, a US-based website run by Alex Jones, a far-right radio show host and conspiracy theorist, also published the claims on September 7, 2020. These claims have been spread by conspiracy theorists who view the coronavirus as a hoax. They have been widely shared through the social media.

South Asia Check examined the claims and found that the details were first published on the World Bank’s World Integrated Trade Solutions (WITS), database maintained by the World Bank in collaboration with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the World Trade Organization, among others. The database contains details of products exported by countries.

As the false claims made rounds on social media and websites that promote conspiracy theories, the World Bank, on September 8, 2020, released a press statement clarifying the issue. The World Bank said the products were relabeled in technical terms early this year. “Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, many health products—which have been tracked in the WITS database for years—were labeled in technical terms. For example, products used for medical testing were tracked in the database under labels such as “Reagent; diagnostic or laboratory reagents […] When test kits for Covid-19 were developed in January, they were classified by Customs officials using these legacy classifications,” the statement said.

In March 2020, given the rising importance of these products in diagnosing and treating Covid-19, the WHO and World Customs Organization issued a list of key Covid-19 products to make it easier to track them, according to the World Bank statement. At the time, these products were assigned less technical Covid-19 related labels such as Covid-19 test kits, which caused the misinterpretation.

Following the widespread misinformation, the World Bank corrected the labelling of Covid-19 test kits. The WITS website now defines them as medical test kits.

Dahal also claimed Covid-19 test kits were exported from Nepal. But a thorough search of the database gave no such results.

AFP, a global news agency and PolitiFact, a US-based fact-checking website, have also fact-checked these misleading claims. Based on these findings, we have concluded that the claims made by Dahal and Khadka are absurd.

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