Fact Check
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Falsified image spreads confusion about COVID-19 swab tests in Malaysia

February 23, 2021


Malaysia will replace nasal swabs with anal swabs for COVID-19 tests.


This is false. Malaysia will not be replacing nasal swabs with anal swabs to test for COVID-19.


An image of health workers putting a swab sample into a vial has gone viral in Malaysia. It was doctored by adding an outdated masthead of news website Berita Harian Online, and a false headline claiming that anal swabs will replace nasal swabs.

Well-known Malaysian comedian Zizan Razak shared the image on Facebook, mistakenly attributing Berita Harian as well. The news outlet refuted the claims but the content has already been widely shared. While some commentators debunked or made light of it, many others believe it is true. Health experts are concerned this may cause people to be unwilling to be tested for COVID-19.

The doctored Berita Harian Online image shared by Malaysian artiste Zizan Razak on his Facebook page

In investigating the doctored image, our fact-checkers traced the timeline of how the falsehood unfolded.

23-24 Jan, 2021

Mainstream media in China (CCTV/Weibo) published stories confirming China’s use of anal swabs to detect COVID-19. In these reports, medical experts discussed the efficacy of the anal swab method compared to the existing nasal swab test. They remained divided over the issue. (Global Times) 1

26 Jan, 2021

Photojournalist Chamila Karunarathne shot the image that was later used in the falsified post. The photograph actually shows health workers putting a COVID-19 swab sample into a vial in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It was made publicly available in stock image libraries.

On the same day, New York Post carried the story of China using anal swab tests and used the stock image. The same picture was later lifted to create the misleading post in Malaysia.

27-28 Jan, 2021

By this time, the story of COVID-19 anal swab tests in China was being widely reported in Malaysia’s mainstream news. [Kosmo, Edgeprop.my, mStar, Sinar Harian, Oriental Daily]

This was also when the doctored image claiming that anal swabs will replace nasal swabs began circulating widely across various social media platforms.

Viral Twitter post that garnered more than 8,000 interactions

The image saw a viral spike when popular Malaysian artiste Zizan Razak shared it on his official Facebook page, which has more than 4 million followers. It has attracted more than 30,000 interactions.

A screenshot of Zizan Razak’s viral Facebook post

28-29 Jan, 2021

Soon after the post went viral, Berita Harian Online took notice of the misleading image using its name and released the following statement:

“The following screenshot is the work of irresponsible actors who are abusing the BH Online logo and using it to spread disinformation”

Mycheck fact-checkers debunked the post as well.

Making sense of the DISINFORMATION

This is a clear case of disinformation – where content is intentionally manipulated to mislead. There is no obvious motivation and we can only conclude that this was an act of mischief to see how viral the online reaction could turn out.

As with most viral content, the post carries elements of truth. COVID-19 anal swabs tests were indeed being rolled out, but in China. The stock image was also the same one used in New York Post to report about the tests in China.

To achieve virality, the falsified post rode on the timing of global news reports about the anal swab tests, heightened uncertainty caused by the pandemic and discomfort that the general public may have about anal swabs.

The use of humour as a response triggered resonance and widespread sharing. In this case, celebrity comedian Zizan Razak shared the doctored image with a message saying that artistes who usually record and post their swab tests on social media would now think twice.

In all likelihood, Zizan did not mean to mislead. Disinformation actors often rely on people with large social media followings to share falsified content out of goodwill – or for fun – to their networks. Being a public figure with a verified Facebook account, Zizan’s attribution of Berita Harian as the source further perpetuated the falsehood.

While the post has since been debunked, it has gathered far more online traction than the fact-checks debunking it. The resulting uncertainty comes at a cost – news organisations, doctors and health authorities have to dedicate time and resources to reassure the public about what began as a non-issue.


The Ministry of Health of Malaysia has since shared a short video explainer on why anal swabs are not necessary. 

In the video, family medicine specialist, Dr Suhazeli Abdullah explains that even though anal swabs can be used to detect COVID-19, the coronavirus is spread via the upper respiratory system, making nasal swabs a more effective way to test for it.

In an interview with The Sun Daily, virologist Prof. Dr Sandy Loh from University of Nottingham Malaysia added that the anal procedure could be counterproductive.

“The anal swab method is controversial as it may promote discomfort and shame. The swab would have to be carried out privately, making it time-consuming”

1 Chinese research on anal swab tests has been ongoing since March 2020, when the Chinese Center for Disease Control published guidelines on how to conduct them.


Xiamen University Malaysia: Siew Tong En, Liu Zihan, Sean Elijah Tan, & Dr Jeyasushma A/P Veeriah

University of Nottingham Malaysia: Nur Ain Nabila, Muhammad Farhan Shahmi Abdullah, Joshua Ng, Noor Alia Abrar Bestari Abrar, Tan Zhi Ying, & Gayathry Venkiteswaran

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia: Nurul Ain, Seri Haidah, Nur Raihan, Yazlin Yahaya, & Dr Sabariah Mohamed Salleh

Universiti Putra Malaysia: Nur Farah Ain Raduan, Nur Atiqah Abdul Hamid, Zaty Zulaikha Zulfatah, Tee Sze Rong, Nur Suhailah Nik Khamsani, & Dr Rosya Izyanie

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