The bogus message entitled “What is the Corona/Covid-19 Really Teaching us?” is believed to have begun circulating via email and WhatsApp groups on Monday, and was also shared on social media.
The “open letter” claimed to show the Microsoft founder believes there is “a spiritual purpose behind everything that happens” – including the disease.
It describes the virus as “the great corrector … sent to remind us of the important lessons that we seem to have forgotten”.
A number of celebrities shared the post, including Naomi Campbell, and The Sun newspaper ran a story about it.
Once it became clear it was a spoof, The Sun removed the story and apologised for the incident.
A spokesperson for The Sun said: “In the heat of events yesterday, The Sun online mistakenly published a spoof story which was doing the rounds on email. The story has now been removed. Every day The Sun chooses not to publish hundreds of stories and we apologise for this error.
It is not yet clear who began circulating the false information online.
Some have distributed misleading health tips about the coronavirus, including a widely-shared post dubbed the “uncle with master’s degree” post because of one alleged source of the advice.
Rumours that NHS staff have been mugged for their ID badges for priority treatment in supermarkets have circulated on Twitter and WhatsApp groups in recent days, but the Metropolitan Police said it had received no reports of such muggings.
We are aware of claims of NHS staff being deliberately targeted by criminals in London. The MPS is not aware of any recent reports of this nature. If you have direct knowledge of such a crime, please report it and we will investigate.— Metropolitan Police (@metpoliceuk)March 23, 2020
Last week Twitter said tweets which promote fake treatments for the coronavirus or deny expert guidance will be marked as harmful and removed.
Facebook announced it was also trying to remove hoaxes and other falsehoods that could cause harm to public health, and is setting up a portal that aims to be a one-stop-shop for users to find news and resources about the virus.
Russian state media and news outlets supporting are waging a fake news campaign aimed at undermining public confidence in the ability of European health care systems to cope with the virus, according to a report by the EU’s Strategic Communications division.
Earlier this month the government set up a counter disinformation unit in Whitehall to work with social media firms to remove disinformation and conspiracy theories linked to the virus.
Mr Gates warned in a TED Talk five years ago that societies around the world were “not ready for the next epidemic.”
Widely shared again in recent days, the billionaire said: “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war – not missiles, but microbes.”
Representatives for Ms Campbell and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been contacted for comment.