April 25, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for people all around the world and it has focused the energies of some individuals and groups on creating awareness for ideas that are plain crazy.
This week brought focus on Trump’s suggestion that using bleach internally to rid the body of COVID-19 was a possible solution. Of course he has distanced himself from this approach now, calling it sarcasm, however the Guardian newspaper has tracked down a more probable story. I have written before on the dangers of believing religious leaders over science and here is another case in point. A ‘Bishop’ of a ‘church’ has been promoting a ‘Miracle Mineral Solution’ to mitigate, treat, and prevent COVID-19 in humans. MMS is chlorine dioxide and there is no evidence that it aids in preventing, mitigating or treating COVID-19. As requested by Trump, the FDA has begun a quasi-experimental study to test its effectiveness. As a well understood chemical with vast numbers of products on the market using the chemical, it is pretty clear that the scientists already have a good idea of the outcome.
There are plenty of other myths though, some around treatment. Trump also touted hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine which has now been tested by the FDA for use in the treatment of COVID-19. The primary outcome for it’s use in this setting was death. Put in English, don’t use this drug for COVID-19.
Faced with a crisis of this nature, a lot of ideas are needed. In some cases, an insight may make a difference, and of course we are bombarded with stories about how a simple insight or a bit of luck changed everything. Einstein’s theory of relativity, Banting’s discovery of insulin, or Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bombs are just some of the stories cum myth based on insights and luck coming together to solve big problems.
There are a few other myths that need to be busted.
- The Virus was released from a lab – Some political leaders, primarily in the United States are attempting to blame China for the outbreak of the Virus. Experts from around the world have been searching since December for information about the virus, its origin and spread. While the evidence strongly suggests that the virus began in Wuhan China, there is no evidence that it started in a lab or was human made. This is another example of the quality of work in science, and our very comprehensive understanding of viruses and genetics in general. Don’t waste time thinking about this, there is no evidence to support this myth.
- China hid the virus – Okay, so this is partly true. China has a history of keeping its problems within the country. In December a cluster of cases was identified and the World Health Organization went on an emergency footing on January 1st and reported it to the world on January 4th. In context, it would seem perfectly reasonable to think that a ‘cluster of people with flu-like symptoms’ could be passed off as insignificant. There are groups in the USA today, some armed, after 200,000 have died suggesting it is not a big deal. It is a big deal. It is important to separate the issues. (a) Governments not sharing information; (b) The critical nature of this viral outbreak; and (c) whether economies should re-open. In the case of (a) China did a great job beginning in mid-January of informing the world about the virus, halting it’s spread internally and are now actively supporting countries around the world. The data coming from the country may not always meet everyone’s idea of open communication, but they don’t appear to be seeking to cause harm to anyone with their information sharing policies.
- It’s just another virus – In looking at the severity of COVID-19 it is very clear to those looking at infection and death rates that this pandemic is the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu in 1918-19. With a current ‘case fatality rate’ of about 7% in the world and 5% in the USA, it is a serious cause of death. It needs to be taken seriously no matter what strategies are used to prevent the spread or re-open economies.
- We should re-open the economy – One argument for allowing businesses to re-open is that the ‘cure’ (actually preventative measures is more accurate) is worse than the disease. This is a worthy argument, but currently there is no basis for that claim. The study of the spread of diseases is called epidemiology and this uses biology and math to understand the history of a disease and math to attempt a reasonable prediction for the future based on scientific findings. This future view allows politicians, medical personnel and others to predict best and worst case scenarios. Given the novelty of the virus, the number of places it has reached and many unknowns about how it spreads, survives and dies, these models are still changing a lot. Re-opening the economy will involve risks to health, just like leaving them closed involves financial and societal risks of a different nature. Getting the balance right will be difficult, and there is no best way. In fact there are a number of models being used around the world that show this variation in results, with China (complete lockdown and purportedly almost no new cases) vs. Sweden (limited lockdown and a relatively slow growth in cases).
- Warm temperatures will kill the virus – There is no evidence that warm temperatures kill the virus. For example Turkey and Spain are significantly warmer than Sweden, but their outbreaks are substantially worse. Within the US, Lousiana’s outbreak is worse than Ohio’s outbreak.
- God will protect you – I have written about this in the weeks past to the chagrin of my very, very religious family. Belief in God is perfectly fine. We live in a free society where you can be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or even a Jehovah’s Witness. But there is no evidence that faith in a higher power will control, manipulate or shield against viruses. Belief in deities has been around for thousands of years (and the deities and beliefs have changed a lot) and have helped society deal with unexplained aspects of our world. Science on the other hand has been narrowing the field of unexplained occurrences at massive speed, particularly in the past 100 years. The science surrounding viruses is now very, very good. So good in fact that we can dismiss ideas like chlorine dioxide out of hand. We know how it works. Beliefs nurture our soul, give us strength and may even help in recovery from illness by causing positive changes in the body, but beliefs don’t kill viruses. Praying may improve your immune system, but staying clear of the virus remains the best defense.
- Asians caused this – People with limited understanding of viruses are blaming others for causing or creating the virus. There is convincing evidence that this virus began in China, but there is no evidence that the Chinese created it. They just live in the country where it began. Please don’t attack individuals of any color, because of an evolutionary accident in China. At least 65% of US residents of Asian descent are from countries other than China.
This is a period of great change and uncertainty, and while we seek answers and solutions to problems, we should all work hard to avoid making decisions based on unfounded claims. When our fears overwhelm us, try to avoid doing harm to ourselves or others without considering other options.