VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte’s claim that COVID-19 is airborne needs context; wrong in saying China has highest death toll

Read this fact check in Filipino

President Rodrigo Duterte made two inaccurate claims about the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in his previous late night speeches: that the novel coronavirus is airborne, and that China has registered the highest death toll.

STATEMENT

In his nationwide address on April 9, Duterte said:

"Kasi ang COVID hindi 'yan nana, hindi 'yan sugat. hangin 'yan na -- nasa hangin (COVID is not just a wound with pus. It's air -- it's in the air)."

Source: RTVMalacanang, Kumusta Po Mahal Kong Kababayan? | PRRD’s Meeting with the IATF-EID and Talk to the Nation on COVID-19, April 9, 2020

The president made this same claim in previous speeches on April 3 and 6, as he called on Filipinos to stay home and avoid "converging" because the virus is "airborne."

In his April 3 address, Duterte also claimed that China -- ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak -- had the "highest death toll as of now.”

FACT

Duterte’s first claim needs context. Airborne transmission of COVID-19 “may be possible” but only in “specific circumstances” when procedures or support treatments that generate aerosols, such as intubating an infected patient, are performed, according to the latest scientific brief of the World Health Organization (WHO).

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The document, dated March 29, added that none of the more than 75,400 COVID-19 cases in China analyzed by WHO indicated airborne transmission.

However, WHO said it is “aware” of several studies that have evaluated the presence of the novel coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in air samples, but these have yet to be published in peer-reviewed journals. It added:

“Further studies are needed to determine whether it is possible to detect COVID-19 virus in air samples from patient rooms where no procedures or support treatments that generate aerosols are ongoing.”

Source: World Health Organization, Modes of transmission of virus causing COVID-19:implications for IPC precaution recommendations, March 29, 2020

In a primer dated April 7, the Department of Health (DOH) said, “according to evidence”:

“...napakabigat ng droplets upang makapaglakbay nang malayo sa hangin -- umaabot lamang ang mga ito nang isang metro at agad na bumabagsak sa mga rabaw [o] surfaces (droplets are too heavy to be able to travel far through the air -- they only make it one meter and immediately fall on surfaces).”

Source: Department of Health, Alamin ang lahat ng dapat malaman sa COVID-19, April 7, 2020

According to WHO, respiratory droplets and contact with infected surfaces remain the primary modes of transmission of the COVID-19 virus SARS-COV-2 in humans.

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As a precaution, the DOH recommended, among others, that people stay at home and practice physical distancing of at least one meter, or three feet, between persons, especially with those suspected or confirmed to have been infected by the disease.

Duterte was also wrong when he said China had the highest COVID-19 death toll as of April 3. Based on April 3 figures from WHO, Italy recorded the highest number of fatalities worldwide with 13,917 deaths out of 115,242 cases, while China had 3,331 out of 82,802.

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The Philippines currently has 4,932 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of April 13, with 315 deaths and 242 recoveries, since it recorded its first case in late January.

Upon the recommendation of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases, Duterte placed the entire Luzon under a 30-day community quarantine in mid-March, which was later extended until April 30, to quell the further spread of COVID-19 in the country. (See VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Understanding 'community quarantine' and 'social distancing' policies and VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Code Red Alert on COVID-19)


Sources

RTVMALACANANG, Kumusta Po Mahal Kong Kababayan? | PRRD’s Talk to the Nation on COVID-19 4/3/2020, April 3, 2020

RTVMALACANANG, Talk to the Nation on COVID-19 4/6/2020, April 6, 2020

Presidential Communications Operations Office, Kumusta Po Mahal Kong Kababayan? | PRRD’s Meeting with the IATF-EID and Talk to the Nation on COVID-19, April 9, 2020

World Health Organization, Modes of transmission of virus causing COVID-19:implications for IPC precaution recommendations, March 29, 2020

Department of Health, Alamin ang lahat ng dapat malaman sa COVID-19April 7, 2020

World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 74, April 3, 2020

World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Philippines, Accessed April 8, 2020

Department of Health, DOH COVID-19 CASE BULLETIN #025, April 8, 2020

Presidential Communications Operations Office, Gov't imposes community quarantine in Metro Manila to contain coronavirus, March 13, 2020

Presidential Communications Operations Office, Implement the law to fight coronavirus, President Duterte tells local officials, March 16, 2020

Presidential Communications Operations Office,, Office of the Presidential Spokesperson, April 7, 2020

Official Gazette, Republic Act 11469


(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)

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