Lecia Bushak
Mar 5, 2024

Debunking TikTok’s ‘mystery virus’ trend spreading misinformation

TikTokers describe symptoms like sore throat and cough — but claim they’re testing negative for flu, Covid and RSV. Experts say speculation about a 'mystery virus' could be misleading.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

It’s cold and flu season, so coming down with a respiratory illness isn’t exactly uncommon. 

However, TikTok is sparking rumours—and likely medical misinformation—about a so-called new “mystery virus” that hasn’t been identified.

The videos discussing the virus began circulating in February when one video posted by @thatgirlkanesha went viral—sparking others to chime in and claim they were experiencing the same symptoms.

“You mean to tell me that everyone in the U.S. is getting sick by some virus, but they don’t know where it’s called?” she said in the video. “When I say everybody, I’m including myself too. I just had this so-called virus last week. I was feeling very lightheaded, I felt like I had to vomit, I felt like I was going to pass out. All of these symptoms are not adding up to me.”

Viral claims snowball

The video blew up online—gaining more than 1.6 million likes and over 53,000 comments.

“Tested negative for everything but so sick,” one commenter commiserated. “Is anybody’s nose and throat hurting for days?” another commenter asked. “I was coughing so bad I could not sleep at night,” another added.

Within the following days, more and more people posted videos saying they’ve had the same symptoms. One TikToker, @laksmysanchez, received more than 83,000 likes on her video about the same illness.

“Can somebody explain to me how come we’re all sick with the same exact thing, but it’s not flu, it’s not a cold, it’s not COVID?” she said. “But we all have the same symptoms. We can’t breathe, massive sore throat. Some people are even getting pink eye as well.”

HCPs combat misinformation

The fear-mongering videos have led several experts to respond to the widespread rumors. 

Dr. Zachary Rubin, a pediatric allergist and clinical immunologist who holds a large following on TikTok, posted a reaction video explaining that one possibility is that the “mystery virus” could simply be COVID-19.

“It’s probably not much of a mystery, because… COVID-19 is still circulating at high levels throughout the U.S.,” he explained, pointing out that wastewater samples were still showing high levels of COVID as the virus has become more endemic in nature.

“A lot of people aren’t testing for [COVID], but even if you test for it with a home test, it doesn’t necessarily pick it up right away and ideally you need to have multiple negative tests in order to ensure you actually do not have COVID,” Rubin continued. “Or, you get a PCR test that is done in a doctor’s office because that’s much more sensitive at picking up the virus from your nose.”









Non Covid options

If it’s not Covid, it could also simply be a number of other respiratory viruses that aren’t unheard of. 

In another reaction video, Rubin pointed out that there are plenty of respiratory pathogens circulating outside of RSV, influenza and COVID-19 that people could test for when they experience an acute illness.

A more extensive panel test could pick up any number of other viruses, including different influenza subtypes, human parainfluenza virus (HPIV), human bocavirus, whooping cough, enterovirus and coronavirus 229E.

Other public health experts and healthcare professionals agreed that the so-called “mystery virus” was probably some type of cold or flu strain. However, they also expressed concerns about how easily misinformation is spread on the platform.

Health misinformation on TikTok has been a major issue since the platform gained popularity, with one study finding that 84% of mental health content there was misleading.

In mid-February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) posted an update about the 2023-2024 respiratory virus season, noting it was likely past its peak — but “far from over.”

General illnesses were declining after a late December uptick, the CDC stated, with COVID-19, flu and RSV hospitalizations dropping as well through January.

“However, respiratory disease activity remains elevated, and some flu activity indicators have increased again,” the CDC noted. “While the respiratory virus season is likely past its peak, it is definitely not over. There is still a lot of respiratory virus activity, so it’s not time to let our guard down.”

The CDC emphasized getting vaccinated as one way to prevent severe illness — as well as taking protective steps like testing, masking, washing hands and physical distancing when you are experiencing symptoms.


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