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Patents being shared online are not related to new virus in China

January 24, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: The coronavirus outbreak spreading from China is nothing new, patents were created around it years ago.  

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The patents being shared online are not related to the new virus that has sickened hundreds of people in China and caused concern around the world. The virus, which causes coughing, fever, breathing difficulty and pneumonia, was being blamed on Friday for at least 25 deaths in China. 

THE FACTS: As the U.S. reported its first case of coronavirus Tuesday, social media users began spreading misinformation suggesting the U.S. government was aware of the virus for years, citing patents related to the virus as proof. Some posts said the virus was created in a lab.

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But the patents being shared are for previous viruses, one for avian infectious bronchitis virus, and another for SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome. SARS led to a global epidemic in 2003 that affected more than 8,000 people globally and killed more than 770. None of the deaths were in the U.S.

Confusion surrounding the patents appears to stem from use of the word coronavirus when describing in the current situation. Coronavirus is a broad name for a family of viruses that includes the common cold, but when found in bats, camels and other animals it has evolved into more severe illnesses, as was the case with the SARS epidemic.

Social media users sharing what they believe to be patents for the new virus, a member of the coronavirus family, are in fact sharing separate patents for avian infectious bronchitis virus and SARS. 

In 2015, The Pirbright Institute filed for the patent related to the avian infectious bronchitis virus, which infects poultry, according to Justia, a legal information database. The patent also covers porcine delta-coronavirus that infects pigs. Both are in the coronavirus family. 

In a statement to The Associated Press, Pirbright confirmed that the patent is not for the new virus and that the research institute in Surrey, England, does not currently work with human coronaviruses. The patent being shared online covers the development of a weakened form of the coronavirus that could be used as a vaccine to prevent respiratory diseases in birds and other animals, according to the institute. 

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Dr. Erica Bickerton, who is the head of coronavirus research at Pirbright, said the patent identifies the mutations of the avian virus in the hopes of making a vaccine. 

“The coronavirus is a family of viruses,” she said. “The virus identified as a coronavirus because very little else is known about it.” 

Some posts with the false claims were spread by anti-vaccination accounts on Facebook and Twitter, where they received hundreds of shares. 

Social media users are also sharing a link to the Google patent site which shows a coronavirus patent for SARS, not the new virus. 

A spokesman with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The Associated Press that the patent does not show the new coronavirus.  

“SARS was caused by a different coronavirus,” he said. “We are still in the process of learning a lot about this virus including exactly what may be the natural host of this virus”.

Airports around the globe are monitoring passengers for the virus. Cases have already been reported in Thailand, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. 

The first case in the U.S. was reported Tuesday in Washington state after a Snohomish County resident is in his 30s returned from traveling in China. He was later hospitalized. 

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536