What spreads faster than COVID-19? Misinformation about COVID-19.
Rather than being transmitted from aerosol droplets, misinformation travels quickly from social media, to group chats, to Zoom meetings, right to the pulpit from which the President of the United States delivers his daily address.
Let’s look at some popular misunderstandings and myths tearing it up over the last couple of weeks.
Myth #1 - The COVID-19 virus was created in the United States of America, by Bill Gates
The story that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has long been the creator of coronavirus is front and centre this week. There are over 16 000 posts of Facebook and 5 million views of YouTube videos linking Gates to the creation of the virus, reported the New York Times. This complex conspiracy theory connects dots between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the WHO, to the Netflix series Pandemic, and Bill Gates’ 2015 Ted Talk on preparing for the next pandemic. It’s almost as if he saw it coming...
Why it’s not true and what else to consider
Jason Shepherd, an Associate Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Utah (he also has a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Medicine from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine) says that, “the clearest picture so far is that SARS-COV-2 [COVID-19] originated from bats and maybe an intermediate host.”
The World Health Organization is a little more cautious about this origin for COVID-19 specifically, although they do say that “Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in animals. Occasionally, people get infected with these viruses which may then spread to other people. For example, SARS-CoV was associated with civet cats and MERS-CoV is transmitted by dromedary camels. Possible animal sources of COVID-19 have not yet been confirmed.”
Swine flu, avian flu, SARS - viruses have made the animal to human leap before. Some say maybe it’s time we revisit our dependence on eating animals before jumping to a more complex and sinister theory.
Myth #2 - It doesn’t hurt to take some hydroxychloroquine, just to be safe
Don’t believe the hype
Maryam Keshtkar-Jahromi, an assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says that to begin with “the clinical support is very, very minimal.”
There is also concern about some of the negative side effects of taking this drug for its unintended use, like “dampening the immune response to the virus” and cardiac toxicity.”
At best, what is known so far is that taking the drug does nothing or you have a number of non-fatal side effects associated with the drug.
At worst, you suffer fatal heart complications or you take a lethal non-medical version of it. Remember, there is no proof that this drug works in the way that we want it to. In fact, people who are already on this drug to treat conditions it’s meant for, like Lupus and arthritis, are still contracting COVID-19. And, the French study that first propped up this theory has been proven to be statistically insignificant.
In Canada, the race to prescribe the drug by doctors has our health officials pausing with concern and patients who rely on this drug for existing conditions are scrambling to fill prescriptions as shortages become a national trend.
A vaccine for COVID-19 will come. But evidence to date says this isn’t it.
Here’s a tip when reading about hydroxychloroquine cures: avoid anecdotal data of a treatment or drug and know that there are no clinical trials that have been peer reviewed, published and proven to work.
Myth #3 - Taking vitamins will boost your immune system and fight off COVID-19
Making sure we get enough vitamins from a healthy and balanced diet keeps us healthy, there’s no question about that. But taking extra vitamin supplements to ward off a new virus is still an unsubstantiated claim, even as it picks up traction.
Hold up on loading up on that extra vitamin C
Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, says that while there are trials for immune boosting vitamin C delivered intravenously to COVID-19 patients underway in China, there isn’t any evidence to support that taking triple or quadruple the amounts at home has any effect in warding off the virus, in fact he says, “there is zero evidence for that.”
As my sister, a registered nurse practitioner, would say, that is some expensive pee, because your body gets rid of anything it doesn’t use.
Experts interviewed by the Harvard School of Public Health remind us that “At this time, megadose supplements (many times the recommended dietary allowance, or RDA) do not appear justified, and these can sometimes be harmful.”
So eat a healthy balanced meal as often as you can with lots of colorful vegetables and lean proteins, and if you’re worried that your vitamin intake is falling short, then take a daily multivitamin supplement. Just as you would have before COVID-19.
The fight against misinformation
It isn’t a new phenomenon that we look for answers well before they’re available. We can look to recent history about claims that HIV was created in a lab to remind us about where our minds can go in times of great duress.
If you want to learn more about the fight against misinformation, you can check out Infotagion, an international, independent fact-checking service that’s made up of experts from the World Health Organization and other official government advice, including Canada’s own NDP MP Charlie Angus and Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.
Always remember, the only way to prevent infection is to take preventative steps. Stay home. Keep six feet apart from others when you’re running errands. Wash your hands with soap and water often.
To see more round ups on myths and mistruths, read this great article from the CBC’s Emily Chung.
Jo Snyder is a seasoned communications professional with expertise on the social determinants of health and health equity. Over her career she's worked with think tanks, non-profits and big tech to deliver comms of all kinds.
This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada.