Justice Department Says Intentional Coronavirus Spreaders Will Be Treated as Terrorists

Those who intentionally spread the novel coronavirus can be charged with terrorism, according to a memo from the U.S. Justice Department.

In the memo to law enforcement agencies and U.S. attorneys this week, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said authorities may encounter criminal activity related to the coronavirus pandemic ranging from "malicious hoaxes to threats targeting specific individual or the general public."

Because the coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a 'biological agent,' the "purposeful exposure and infection of others with COVID-19" could implicate the country's terrorism-related statutes, Rosen said in the memo. "Threats or attempts to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated," Rosen wrote.

Rosen's memo also highlighted other reported fraudulent and criminal activity related to the pandemic and outlined the steps the federal government is willing to take to punish those exploiting the crisis.

Coronavirus sign
A sign encouraging social distancing is seen on a grocery store as the New York City attempts to slow down the spread of coronavirus through social distancing on March 27, 2020. John Lamparski/Getty Images

"As you know, we have seen an unfortunate array of criminal activity related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Capitalizing on this crisis to reap illicit profits or otherwise preying on Americans is reprehensible and will not be tolerated," Rosen wrote.

The reported schemes included robocalls making fraudulent offers to sell respirator masks with no intent of delivery; fake coronavirus-related apps and websites that install malware and sales of fake test kits, cures and "immunity" pills.

The memo added that there have also been reports of patients leaving hospitals and physicians' offices being robbed and threats of violence against mayors and other public officials.

"We must do the best we can to protect Americans' rights and safety in this novel and troubling time," Rosen added.

It comes after Attorney General William Barr told federal prosecutors to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of fraudsters taking advantage of the pandemic.

Last week, the Justice Department said it had taken action in federal court against a website that was offered a fraudulent coronavirus vaccine.

The department said in a news release that the operators of "coronavirusmedicalkit.com" were engaging in a wire fraud scheme "seeking to profit from the confusion and widespread fear surrounding COVID-19." U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman issued a temporary restraining order requiring the registrar of the fraudulent website to immediately take action to block public access to it.

"The Department of Justice will not tolerate criminal exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain," Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Department of Justice's Civil Division said. "We will use every resource at the government's disposal to act quickly to shut down these most despicable of scammers, whether they are defrauding consumers, committing identity theft, or delivering malware."

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.