Have you heard of these modern medical conspiracy theories?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published August 6, 2021

Key Takeaways

You're probably familiar with various conspiracy theories floating around in the ether—narratives about events or situations that purport secret and sinister plans. Although they've likely been around since the beginning of time, scientists are only now studying this phenomenon in earnest. One thing is certain, however: Conspiracy theories can do a lot of harm.

This form of misinformation arises for various reasons. “Although it offers no coherent, unified view to explain why people believe in conspiracy theories, the emerging field of cognitive science has offered some guidance in the attempt to understand how these ideas are transmitted, and why they stick,” wrote the authors of a review published in Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy. “Pattern recognition, powerlessness, and anxiety-induced illusions of control are some of the most important mechanisms underlying the prevalence of conspiracy theories.”

Here’s a look at four different types of medical conspiracy theories that have gripped the public consciousness.


Recently, various stakeholders from around the world have been taking the coronavirus lab-leak hypothesis more seriously. Although most scientists hypothesize that COVID-19 has a natural origin and was transmitted from animals to humans, the Wuhan Institute of Virology has a long history of researching coronaviruses, which amped up concerns that China was responsible for the virus via controversial “gain-of-function (GOF)” studies. Even the term sparks debate, and various definitions exist, but the NIH defines GOF as: “a type of research that modifies a biological agent so that it confers new or enhanced activity to that agent. Some scientists use the term broadly to refer to any such modification. However, not all research described as GOF entails the same level of risk.”

A New York Times article calls GOF research “a muddy category at best,” and revisits a heated Senate hearing in which Senator Rand Paul, a physician himself, famously characterized GOF research as “juicing up naturally occurring animal viruses to infect humans,” suggesting the NIH had funded GOF research on coronaviruses in China. This prompted a retort from President Biden's chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci: “Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect ... the NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute.”

According to a review published in Nature, the lab-leak hypothesis is being investigated at the highest levels of government both in the United States and abroad. “On 26 May, US President Joe Biden tasked the US Intelligence Community to join efforts to find SARS-CoV-2’s origins, whatever they might be, and report back in 90 days. Australia, the European Union, and Japan have also called for a robust investigation into SARS-CoV-2’s origins in China. The WHO has yet to reveal the next phase of its investigation. But China has asked that the probe examine other countries. Such reticence, and the fact that China has withheld information in the past, has fuelled suspicions of a ‘lab leak,’” wrote the authors.

Although the lab-leak hypothesis may sound like a conspiracy theory, unlike most conspiracy theories it is being heavily weighed by important stakeholders. Nevertheless, there have been various conspiracy theories regarding the origins of viruses. For instance, AIDS was assumed to be an invention of the US government to kill off Black populations. Moreover, some believe that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, but rather the disease is caused by retroviral medications. This latter conspiracy theory has been spread by various politicians in sub-Saharan Africa, causing loads of damage, according to the authors of the aforementioned review in Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy.

Ebola has also been a subject of conspiracy theories, according to the review. The conspiracy theorist Leonard Horowitz has actively put forth that Ebola was created by the US government. Consequently, some of his acolytes have gone off on a tangent and have advised against childhood vaccination altogether.


Conspiracy theories about vaccination have been popular ever since Edward Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccine in the early 19th century. But, these falsehoods didn’t stop the deployment of the vaccine.

“Despite errors, many controversies, and chicanery, the use of vaccination spread rapidly in England, and by the year 1800, it had also reached most European countries,” according to the author of an article published in the Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings.

Because the public did not understand how vaccines worked, vaccines were ripe for speculation. Rumors spread that the smallpox vaccine would cause people to grow horns or die. In the 1980s, Dr. John Wilson claimed that the DPT vaccine resulted in convulsions and cerebral damage. And, most insidiously, in 1998 Andrew Wakefield published a paper linking autism to the MMR vaccine, which was widely debunked, but not without much subsequent damage. To this day, highly contagious measles outbreaks occur in affluent pockets of Western society secondary to scared parents not vaccinating their kids. Anti-vaxxers hold the controversial belief that pharmaceutical companies know that vaccines are unsafe but keep supplying them for profit.

Outside of the United States, vaccine conspiracy theories are even more widely held and damaging. Rates of polio, for instance, remain steady in Pakistan, where people believe the vaccine was developed by the CIA to make Muslim men sterile.


Many conspiracy theories revolve around cancer, according to the authors of the review published in Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy.

“The trope that big pharmaceutical companies have the cure for cancer or other deadly diseases, yet do not release it (either to make profits or simply as population control), is also persistent in conspiracy theories. Likewise, some alternative therapies for cancer have been proposed, and despite their lack of evidence in their support, many conspiracy theorists claim that they are effective, but the scientific establishment conspires against it,” they wrote.

Disconcertingly, various conspiracy theorists have promoted the use of Laetrile, which is synthetic amygdalin found in fruit pits, as a cure for different types of cancers. These theorists have recommended Laetrile in lieu of conventional, evidence-based therapies.


Viewers of the FX series Snowfall are well aware of the proposition that the US government targeted African American populations in the 1980s with crack cocaine. The federal government then used profits from the sale of crack to fund paramilitary groups in Nicaragua, the theory goes.

Another conspiracy theory is that marijuana is a safe drug and it was banned in the United States due to efforts of the paper industry because hemp was perceived as a competitor.

What can be done?

Physicians can take certain steps to combat the damage done by conspiracy theories. It’s imperative, for instance, that doctors allow their patients to make their own decisions after informed consent, thus retaining autonomy. 

“In this manner, patients will feel that they do have the power to decide over their own bodies, and thus, will not easily come to believe the conspiracy theories that are more common amongst persons who do not have the privilege to decide on their own,” wrote the authors of the Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy review.  

Physicians can also take a more active role in politics and policy, they added, and ally with politicians to make sure that marginalized populations receive adequate healthcare. Although physicians joining forces with politicians may seem like a recipe for conspiracists, this alliance allows for patients who are prone to believing conspiracy theories to become less powerless. And, researchers say, powerlessness feeds into the public’s tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.

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