A digital device company is developing gel sensors that would monitor the wearer’s health and could potentially help to detect future outbreaks of disease. But conspiracy theorists are falsely claiming that the sensors are actually COVID-19-detecting microchips that will be used to track people’s movements.
A California company called Profusa is using federal grant money to develop sensors that would monitor the wearer’s health if they choose to use it.
Dr. Matt Hepburn, a Department of Defense infectious disease physician, mentioned the project in a “60 Minutes” episode reporting on various government projects aimed at ending the COVID-19 pandemic and preventing future outbreaks.
The show was careful to make clear that the device is “not some dreaded government microchip to track your every move, but a tissue-like gel engineered to continuously test your blood.” But, still, the segment has become fodder for conspiracy theorists and misinformation profiteers who claim that it’s evidence of government plans to track people with microchips.
One of the first such examples of this claim came from Ben Swann, a purveyor of dubious claims and conspiracy theories whom we’ve written about before.
“For almost a year, we have heard from so many so-called conspiracy theorists how the COVID vaccine is going to contain a microchip because the government wants to track you,” Swann said in a video shared on his private platform and on YouTube. “Of course we’ve heard that that’s all crazy. And yet, on Sunday, a new report from ’60 Minutes’ includes an interview with a scientist from the Pentagon who says that there is now a COVID microchip.”
Swann made the same claim in a segment on the Russia-based, government-funded TV network RT, formerly Russia Today, which describes him as the network’s “investigative journalist.”
Although Swann’s claim came shortly after the “60 Minutes” segment aired in April, similar versions continue to be repeated on social media.
For example, Ben Irawan, an Australian pastor who sought political office in 2019 on the Australian Conservatives line, posted a clip of the “60 Minutes” segment on his Facebook page and directed viewers to his Telegram account, which he says he created “due to censorship.” He posted the same clip on Telegram with a message that referenced the biblical “mark of the beast,” which has become a common means of discrediting COVID-19 vaccines to religious audiences who incorrectly believe the vaccines contain a microchip.
But, in reality, the sensor Hepburn mentioned isn’t a microchip, it isn’t related to the vaccine, and it isn’t even commercially available in the U.S.
Here’s what it is: A small gel sensor inserted under the skin that can monitor body chemistry when paired with a separate device.
It was developed by Profusa with the help of a $7.5 million Department of Defense grant in 2016, but is still in clinical trials in the U.S.
In a phone interview, Hepburn described the sensor as having a “squishy, rubbery texture.” It doesn’t have metal or electronic components, he said, and it would have no way of tracking or communicating a person’s location.
The sensor can detect only one thing at a time, Hepburn said — like glucose, for example, which would be useful for diabetics who typically have to prick their fingers to monitor their blood sugar levels.
The changes that it detects can be read only by a specifically designed device held up to the skin, Hepburn said. That device would then communicate the information to an app installed on the user’s phone. The device itself doesn’t have the capability to track a person’s location, he said, but smartphones are often equipped with apps that track their users’ locations. As with existing apps that track location, though, it’s the user’s choice to agree to those terms and use the app.
It’s also important to note that the sensor can’t detect pathogens, Hepburn said, so it couldn’t detect COVID-19. But it could potentially sense chemical changes in the body that indicate viral, bacterial, or fungal infection early on. So, the sensor may be able to be used as an early signal for severe infections.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is funding two clinical studies to see if the sensor could be used in this way to detect disease following a bio-terror event, Jared Adams, a DARPA spokesman, told us in an email. DARPA is an agency within the Department of Defense that supports research and development of new technologies that could bolster national security. In the past, DARPA invested in Moderna’s mRNA vaccine technology.
Similar to Hepburn, Adams explained that the sensor “is inert, does not have any electrical components, and is of similar material to a contact lens or corneal implant.”
He also said, “For these reasons, there is no such thing as a ‘biochip’ the government could use to track people.”
Currently, one version of the Profusa system has been approved for use in the European Union. That system monitors tissue oxygen levels. It is still in the clinical trial phase in the U.S.
So, it’s wrong to claim this sensor is actually a microchip that will be installed by the government to track people’s movements. As we said, the sensor inserted below the skin doesn’t have the ability to track movement and, if it does get approved for use in the U.S., it would be anyone’s choice to use it.
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.
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