Tourists wearing protective masks in Paris (AFP / stringer)

World Health Organization refutes viral claims that holding your breath can test for COVID-19

Copyright AFP 2017-2020. All rights reserved.

Facebook posts shared thousands of times claim that holding your breath for more than 10 seconds is an effective test for the novel coronavirus, and that drinking water regularly can prevent the disease. The claims are false; the World Health Organization and other experts said there was no evidence to support these claims.

The claims have been shared more than 30,000 times on Facebook in more than a dozen countries, including India, Nigeria and the USA.

"Take a deep breath and hold your breath for more than 10 seconds," reads a post shared more than 24,000 times on a Cambodian Facebook page.

"If you can do this successfully without coughing ... it shows that you do not have fibrosis and generally indicate (sic) no infection".

The post also recommends drinking water every 15 minutes to "wash" the virus "into the stomach", where it will apparently be killed by hydrochloric acid.

A screenshot of a Facebook post sharing the false claims, taken on March 10, 2020

Many Facebook users commented on the post, expressing gratitude for the "relevant precautions" or sharing their own advice to avoid infection by the novel coronavirus.

The disease has killed more than 4,000 people around the world, mostly in China, since emerging late last year.

A screenshot of comments (with names pixelated) on a Facebook post, taken on March 10, 2020

Similar claims have been circulating in Spanish, Portuguese and Cambodia's official language Khmer.

Contacted by AFP, Karla Ronchini, infectologist at the Gaffrée e Guinle university hospital in Rio de Janeiro, said that holding one's breath is simply "not a method" to test for COVID-19.

"There is nothing people can do to know if they are infected, except have the test," she told AFP.

World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said there was "no evidence" to support the claims.

WHO recommendations for preventing COVID-19 include washing hands regularly, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze and staying at home if you feel unwell. 

Contacted by AFP, Fernando de la Hoz, an epidemiologist at the National University of Colombia in Bogota, said claims that successfully holding one's breath to show the absence of "fibrosis" and therefore of the novel coronavirus were incorrect.

"There is not enough time for the patient to develop fibrosis" in cases of COVID-19, he said. "It is a lung disease caused by chronic exposure, sometimes for years, to industrial pollutants."

AFP previously debunked claims that drinking water every 15 minutes can fend off the virus.

The WHO said on Twitter that while drinking water is important, it "does not prevent coronavirus infection".

Manuel Vargas, a virologist at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, said it was "not possible to wash away a virus" as it is found inside cells and is therefore impossible to reach.

"It is not yet known if the structure of the virus is able to resist stomach acid," he added.

AFP has published more than one hundred fact checks reporting on misinformation surrounding the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Translated and adapted by Charlotte Mason