This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Iran’s military has unveiled a new machine it claims can detect the coronavirus in a few seconds, from a distance of 330 feet. It says it does this without the need to draw blood or get close enough to the potentially infected patient. The device appears to be the newest iteration of a long-running scam. Over the past few years, people have sold similar devices across the Middle East, claiming they can do everything from sniff out bombs, foil fuel smugglers, and detect AIDs.
As first reported by The Drive, Iran’s Major General Hossein Salami, leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), revealed the scam detector during a live press conference in Tehran on April 15. "This is an amazing scientific technique that has been tested across various hospitals," Salami said. "The technology could set the basis for the detection of all kinds of viruses."
Users wielded the device by placing one hand in a cymbal-like metallic disc and the other on a plastic gun grip with an extending metal wand. Salami claimed the device’s metal disc, which was conspicuously not connected to a power source, generates a magnetic field. Then the metal probe reads the field and points towards the Covid-19 virus.
Iran’s new coronavirus detector looks a lot like a series of scam devices that hucksters have peddled across the Middle East in the last ten years. Shayan Sardarizadeh, a BBC reporter covering disinformation, noticed Iran’s press conference and pointed out the long strange history of the device on Twitter.
It’s an old scam but a profitable one—sell vulnerable people a stick and claim it can find the thing the mark is looking for. The detected item can be anything and scammers have sold these devices to people across the world claiming they’ll find bombs, mines, smuggled fuel, and AIDs.
The devices are updated dowsing rods—hunks of plastic with a loosely extended metal antenna. As a user moves, the antenna swivels, making the user believe the device is working.
British citizen James McCormick sold the device under the name ADE-651 and claimed it could detect bombs. He made more than $60 million selling 7,000 of the bogus devices in countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Niger, and Thailand. After a truck bomb in Iraq went through a checkpoint armed with the ADE-651 and detonated, killing the Iraqi soldiers stationed there, the British courts sentenced him to 10 years in jail. He was selling the detectors for $40,00 a piece.
According to Sardarizadeh, the “inventor” of the Iranian Covid-19 detector sold a similar device he claimed could detect smuggled fuel just a few years ago. Now, the man is appearing on Iranian television in scrubs claiming it can tell who is infected without doing an actual test.
The con is especially bad because Iran is one of the countries hardest hit by the disease. As of the latest update from its health minister, 4,777 Iranians have died and 76,389 cases are confirmed. Political and religious leaders have died. Despite the widespread infection rate, the United States has refused to lift sanctions on Iran and its Supreme Leader has rejected American aid.