The world is facing "a dangerous epidemic of misinformation" about COVID-19 — and the only vaccine is to reestablish public trust, the head of the United Nations said Tuesday.

"Around the world, people are scared. They want to know what to do and where to turn for advice," said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

The distortion and willful ignorance of scientific facts is a "poison that is putting even more lives at risk" during the most challenging crisis since World War II, Guterres said.

With COVID-19 now responsible for more than 120,000 deaths and nearly 2 million cases worldwide, the U.N. is creating a special communications project to combat misinformation about the virus, the secretary general said.

"This is a time for science and solidarity," Guterres said in a video message about his plan. "Yet the global 'misinfo-demic' is spreading."

"Harmful health advice and snake-oil solutions are proliferating," the U.N. leader said. "Wild conspiracy theories are infecting the Internet. Hatred is going viral, stigmatizing and vilifying people and groups."

Guterres called the spread of bad and self-serving information a secondary disease; to some, it might seem more like an underlying condition of today's media landscape. To solve the problem, he said, "The vaccine is trust."

"First, trust in science," Guterres said, adding, "I salute the journalists and others fact-checking the mountain of misleading stories and social media posts."

The U.N. head called on social media companies to do more to root out harmful and bogus claims about COVID-19. He also said people must be able to put their trust in institutions that are "grounded in responsive, responsible, evidence-based governance and leadership."

And people must trust and respect each other even during a time of crisis, Guterres said, calling for governments to preserve human rights.

"Together, let's reject the lies and nonsense out there," he said.

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