Multiple reports went viral over Thursday and Friday claiming Chinese researchers had found a coronavirus called NeoCoV that was on the verge of causing a new high-fatality pandemic, turning what was hypotheses typical of scientific lab studies into sensationalist doomsday predictions.
The reports began snowballing following an initial story by Russian news agency Sputnik, which reported on a pre-print study, or yet to be peer-reviewed paper.
It spoke of two coronaviruses, NeoCoV and PDF-2180-CoV that researchers from China said were like the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) coronavirus.
Their lab studies showed that if NeoCoV picks up a certain mutation, it could use the same pathway to infect humans as the Sars-CoV-2 virus.
The focus of the study is based on a simple premise: If NeoCoV picks up a particular mutation, can it become a larger threat?
It is important to understand the nature of such studies. Virologists the world over explore multiple theories and test them using certain assumptions, engineered pathogens and modified cells made to represent a certain attribute or the other.
While these can identify insights for where to look for threats, it important to remember these are hypotheticals. And the fact that this paper is yet to be peer reviewed makes it even more tentative since the assumptions, methods and conclusions can only be tested for robustness by other scientists.
There are other factors to consider as well. NeoCoV is not a new coronavirus, and it – along with Mers – belongs to a distinctly different genera (a type of subclassification) of coronaviruses known as merbecovirus.
This is separate from sarbecoviruses, the type that Sars-CoV-2 and Sars-CoV are, and embecovirus, the type to which the other common cold coronaviruses HKU1 and OC43 belong. Recombination among these is not impossible, but they have been rarely been observed.
But one of the most key factors to remember is that the Chinese scientists themselves find that the NeoCoV does not infect human ACE2 at present, which means it cannot infect humans yet.
What they stress on instead are the "latent potential" of such viruses in the future and the important of surveillance and research on these viruses.
The nuance in the study and its main contention were missed out in news report headlines, some of which went to the extent of proclaiming "1 in 3 may die" in what can only be considered the combination of click-bait and ignorance.
For many, it may have been the headline alone to conclude a new pandemic was on the horizon.
A seminal study by Columbia University researchers showed in 2016 that 59% of the people who shared a story on social media never read it. Multiple studies have since corroborated this.