A much-discussed video of a lecture given by prominent Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst, in which he details his experiences as the country’s flu commissioner in 2009, has found itself at the heart of a conspiracy theory.
Excerpts of the video shared online – making it seem as if Van Ranst is explaining how to use a pandemic for personal gain – have sparked accusations that he is supposedly manipulating the public. For some time now, parts of the video taken out of context, showing Van Ranst giving a lecture at the Chatham House think tank in January 2019, have been circulating on social media.
On Youtube, a video was posted – titled ‘How to sell a pandemic’ – showing longer parts of Van Ranst’s speech. On the first slide of the presentation shown in the video, however, a title was added to say “how to sell a pandemic/vaccine.”
In the last months of 2020, several Flemish newspapers also published articles about Van Ranst’s 2019 lecture, commenting on how the video corresponds to how he managed communication in the event of a new health crisis.
Mid-December, former president of the Flemish extreme-right Vlaams Belang party, Filip Dewinter, posted a compilation video with excerpts from Van Ranst’s conference in London.
Van Ranst, however, replied to the tweet with a link to the complete video, adding that Dewinter’s tweeted showed “a misleading compilation.”
What actually happened?
On 22 January 2019, Van Ranst took part in a conference of the “Centre on Global Health Security” at Chatham House in partnership with the European Scientific Group on Influenza (ESWI).
The conference was held “to mark the 100th anniversary of the influenza pandemic and to discuss future challenges,” Chatham House told RTBF. “It was a full-day event with guest speakers, including Marc Van Ranst, who spoke about communication in the event of a pandemic.”
In his speech, which lasted just over 23 minutes and can be watched in full here, Van Ranst explained how he managed crisis communication during the outbreak of the swine flu in 2009.
Back then, the authorities were very concerned about the swine flu – the H1N1 virus – and they took great precautions, including the mass purchase of vaccines. However, the announced epidemic proved to be much less severe than initially feared.
In front of an audience of experts, Van Ranst explained how he made sure he was the reference point for various media during that period, using the slogan “one voice, one message.”
“You have to be omnipresent, the first day or days,” he said. “In order to attract the attention of the media, you make an agreement with them: you will tell them everything, and if they call you, you pick up the phone.”
He explained that, by doing so, there will be maximum coverage, and the media will not look for alternative voices. “If you do that, it will be much easier to convey the message.”