Public health experts and most mainstream media outlets have spent much of the last week or two assuring people that monkeypox is not the new COVID-19.
Sure, the global outbreak of a couple hundred cases of a disease usually confined to clusters in Africa is odd and not yet well understood, and after two years of COVID, news of a virus potentially doing something new inevitably has people on edge. But unlike the novel coronavirus, several experts on the disease told The Daily Beast, monkeypox is a known entity. It doesn’t spread all that easily between humans, nor, to experts’ current understanding, asymptomatically. So few see any cause for widespread concern—and no actual experts or officials of any note appear to be calling for COVID-style control measures.
As Grant McFadden, a poxvirus expert at Arizona State University, put it, “For a virologist, this transmission is worth study, and it’ll probably teach us a few new things about monkeypox. But for the average person, on a worry meter from 0 to 10, it’s probably below a 1.”
But over in the bizarro world of pandemic truthers and far-right conspiracy theorists, many folks have been spreading a drastically different message: Monkeypox is clearly “Covid 2.0.” Naturally, this crowd baselessly believes, global elites will soon enact a new wave of supposedly inane and harmful mass lockdowns, vaccinations, and more.
“Soon: Just 2 weeks to flatten the monkeypox curve,” a member of a conspiratorial Reddit group with over 1.7 million users posted last week. “Msm [mainstream media] will push monkeypox lockdowns within the next month……….here we go again,” reads another post from Monday.
Or, as one recent article in a popular truther publication put it, “We might be in for an epic summer of scare-mongering, panic-buying & bucket loads of cringe…”
The contrast between experts’ measured accounts of the realities of this strange—yet likely manageable—outbreak and the conspiracists’ frenzied predictions about a pandemic repeat is striking. But according to several experts on anti-vaxxers, pandemic truthers, and conspiracy theorists The Daily Beast spoke to for this article, it’s hardly surprising. After all, these communities have spent years now arguing that the pandemic is the centerpiece of a grand (if vague) sinister plot, and finding ways to shoehorn anything and everything they find suspicious or distasteful into those narratives.
“…within hours of reports on Biden’s statements on the outbreak, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out, “How long till the WHO and CDC lock us down again for the coming #Monkeypoxalypse?””
As Michael Barkun, an expert on conspiracy thinking at Syracuse University, put it, “People who see the world through this lens would never accept that monkeypox is a separate disease. For them, it necessarily has to be part of a larger picture that includes COVID.”
Pandemic truthers started jumping on every story about a new or unusual disease last year, tagging them all as a potential new chapter in the so-called pandemic madness that had supposedly grappied the world.
Twice in 2021, figures in this space actually latched onto isolated cases of monkeypox detected in America, among people who’d recently traveled to Africa.
“Monkeypox plandemic coming soon?” a truther Telegram channel with over 95,000 followers wrote last July, linking to a mainstream story about a man who traveled from Lagos to Dallas and then wound up in the hospital with the disease.
A few days later, the channel noted that the FDA had just, as of 2019, approved a vaccine for use in protection against monkeypox, suggesting that this was potentially suspicious, given the obscurity of the disease in America. Over the last few weeks, truthers have revived this point, and cited other recent developments in monkeypox research and vaccine procurement deals as major red flags.
It’s worth noting that, no, recent monkeypox product developments and purchases are actually not odd. As David Evans, a University of Alberta poxvirus researcher, explained to The Daily Beast, experts have long known that smallpox vaccines are about 85 percent effective against monkeypox, too. (Both are members of the same family of viruses.) Large-scale smallpox vaccination stopped after humanity eradicated the disease in the wild. However, vials still exist in a few labs; some workers at these facilities still need regular precautionary vaccinations. And public health and security experts have long feared that an accident, terror attack, or something else could re-release the disease. So limited smallpox vaccine production never stopped.
But old smallpox treatments had what Evans called “nasty” side effects; they killed one in a million recipients. So researchers also never stopped developing new and potentially safer smallpox treatments and cures, which governments routinely purchase to maintain strategic stockpiles. Researchers also noticed a steady increase in the frequency and spread of monkeypox outbreaks starting several years ago, a phenomenon likely partially explained by the slow fade-out of smallpox vaccine immunity in the general population. So the niche world of poxvirus experts has had its eye on monkeypox for years, and folks developing a treatment or vaccine against smallpox have started explicitly angling their products towards that disease, as well.
Of course, this context never seems to find its way into truther- and conspiracy-theorist posts about this pox.
Truther posts about monkeypox cases in 2021 never took off. (Although a few folks now point to them as supposed proof that the mainstream media was, as one Telegram channel recently put it, “seeding the monkeypox narrative last year.”) Observers monitoring this space suspect that’s due to the fact that these well-isolated cases never turned into a larger story they could latch onto. Meanwhile, there were still plenty of novel COVID developments for them to fixate on.
In recent weeks, however, “the public has tried to unmask and get back to engaging in normal activities,” noted Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on misinformation and conspiracy theories at the University of Pennsylvania who monitors pandemic-skeptical chatter online. It’s unclear if this return to a sense of normalcy will last in the face of an apparent surge of cases, and the ever-present threat of a new strain ripping across the nation. But as COVID slowly fades out of the headlines for now, while conspiracy theorists’ darkest prophecies of a dystopian future remain unfulfilled, some have seemingly started to scramble to identify a new pandemic that they can paint as the next phase in, or a second attempt at advancing, a sinister elite master plan.
The truther sphere has a penchant for jumping on any issue that sparks a critical mass of state, media, or popular attention, Matthew Motta, an Oklahoma State University expert on conspiracy thinking, pointed out. So by the time President Joe Biden addressed monkeypox last weekend, flagging it as a cause for concern, the story was so big it was probably inevitably going to get sucked into wild COVID narratives.
Sure enough, within hours of reports on Biden’s statements on the outbreak, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out, “How long till the WHO and CDC lock us down again for the coming #Monkeypoxalypse?”
But Jamieson suggested that the portrayal of monkeypox as “Covid 2.0” has spread particularly quickly and gained notable traction within pandemic conspiracy circles because it lines up with many elements of COVID-19 they’ve fixated on over the last two years. It’s a disease that jumped from animals to humans—and then acted weird. Some nations are talking about isolating affected people and vaccinating those at risk of transmissions. Which, to be clear, are tried-and-true containment tactics; America employed them to contain a major monkeypox outbreak that hit the Midwest in 2003. And they don’t come anywhere near the sorts of measures instituted to control COVID-19.
Conspiracy theorists even zeroed in on reports about a simulation, run by the Nuclear Threat Initiative in March 2021 for health and security experts, modeling a strange outbreak of monkeypox spreading across the globe starting in mid-May 2022.
To many truthers, this last link seemed like a direct repetition of Event 201, a simulation of a novel coronavirus outbreak run in late 2019 that conspiracy theorists paint as a smoking gun showing that elites knew about or planned COVID-19 before it broke out. “The timeline for the (((pandemic))) in the pdf literally matches” the current monkeypox outbreak, one of many truther Telegram channels that shared stories about the 2021 exercise wrote in a post last weekend. (Those parentheses are a well known anti-Semitic dog whistle, meant to subtly yet clearly imply Jewish involvement or leadership in some sort of vague monkeypox-related plot.)
In truth, the NTI’s exercise was one of many biosecurity games held every year.
Jaime Yassif, one of the individuals at NTI involved in the scenario, told The Daily Beast that they picked an arbitrary near-future starting date for the scenario. And while many such exercises focus on smallpox, as it’s a classical concern in the field, NTI opted for monkeypox because they “wanted to present a novel scenario,” while still focusing on a known health concern.
Neither their timeline nor the details actually line up as well with the current monkeypox outbreak as conspiracists insist. Notably, the scenario outlines a bio-terror attack in a fictional nation using a genetically modified version of a different strain of monkeypox than the one circulating now. Although some conspiracy theorists insist the current outbreak involved genetic engineering, or a lab leak (and a few have even tried to link it back to the Wuhan lab implicated in COVID conspiracy theories), there is no evidence for these claims. In fact, the circulating virus looks like a standard strain of West African monkeypox, several experts who’ve reviewed its genome, recently sequenced from a sample collected from a patient, told The Daily Beast. The virus involved in this outbreak also isn’t spreading anywhere near as fast, nor causing as many or as severe of cases, as the fictive one outlined in the NTI exercise.
But as Webster University conspiracy-theory expert Daniel Hellinger noted, details rarely matter to conspiratorial communities. They’re just hunting for cherry-picked “evidence” they can use to confirm their narratives. In this case, they seem to feel it’s particularly easy to find threads from monkeypox to COVID; they’ve made a slew of other cases for apparent connections, which it’d take a monograph to unpack in detail. Suffice it to say each is more spurious than the last.
Beyond these supposed resonances, Jamierson pointed out that monkeypox has a few unique characteristics that may appeal to truthers: Notably, it involves a striking rash that they can use to stir up fear.
Its name also allows them to make memes featuring monkeys, animals Americans usually think of as silly, playing into the running truther notion that COVID plots are all obvious and absurd. The truther sphere is currently awash in weird memes, like an orangutan on a tricycle, labeled “Monkeypox,” chasing a screaming child labeled, “The 11 People Who Still Believe The Media.”
For all the consensus in truther world that monkeypox is “Covid 2.0,” no one seems to agree on what that label actually means, nor the implications of a new pandemic.
Notably, many truthers claim monkeypox is clearly a hoax or a minor issue blown out of proportion by global elites to sow chaos they can exploit. “As inflation soars and the cost of living crisis only gets worse, it’s probably handy for them to have a new ‘public health’ reason to ban protests and clampdown on civil unrest,” a major truther blog recently suggested.
However, others argue monkeypox is real and dangerous, and is being deployed in the wake of weaknesses created by COVID or the COVID vaccines to depopulate the globe. “They are progressing to stage 2 where they drop an ACTUALLY dangerous virus. Except [sic] 10x the death toll of COVID,” a poster in a large conspiratorial Reddit community recently argued.
Others still claim monkeypox is actually a side effect of the COVID vaccines being passed off as a new condition, making it a direct COVID sequel. “‘Monkeypox’ is just the new name given to shingles side effects caused by the covid injections,” a truther Telegram channel recently argued. (It’s not.) Or that monkeypox is a distinct condition, but people are only getting it now because vaccines weakened their immune systems. (They didn’t.) “If you never took the covid shot you have nothing to worry about,” a conspiratorial Telegram channel recently noted within a post speculating about potential dire effects of the supposedly imminent monkeypox pandemic.
It’s also unclear how long these discordant theories will maintain their prominence within truther spaces. As Jamieson noted, they gained rapid traction and are “now circulating… among people who have potentially substantial reach.” Alex Jones and Marjorie Taylor Greene have notably jumped on the monkeypox panic bandwagon. But truther attention is fickle, experts on the space agreed. Even a big story can fade quickly in these spheres, if it doesn’t gain the traction its proponents hoped for, or find the right fuel within mainstream reporting to sustain itself.
A few members of conspiratorial communities online have already started raising concerns about whether they’re putting too much focus on monkeypox—perhaps more than the mainstream media that their theories often accuse of overhyping the outbreak as part of a mission to foment fear. “If Monkeypox turns out to be nothing, will this sub collectively agree that we are the only place freaking out about it?” a poster in a major Reddit conspiracy group recently asked.
However, even if the current monkeypox is Covid 2.0 theories collapse as the outbreak fades and internecine squabbles over their details and validity expand, every expert The Daily Beast spoke to for this story suspects conspiracy theorists will just find something new to paint as the new pandemic. Because undergirding this conspiracy theory is one underlying, universal, unshakable belief. As a popular conspiratorial blog wrote on its Telegram channel in a post speculating about how monkeypox might unfold, “One thing is for sure, they aren’t done with us just yet.”
As ever, it’s unclear who “they” refers to.