HomeOpinion & AnalysisAn informed assault on the COVID-19 infodemic

An informed assault on the COVID-19 infodemic

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It does not take a journalistic sage or a medical pundit to appreciate that the current COVID-19 pandemic is by all accounts historic.

By David T C Mukwekwezeke

Sadly, great notability has the inevitable penchant of attracting a deluge of opinions, conspiracies and a whole gamut of fiction which all tend to dilute the facts on a given topic.

This is what is called an infodemic, shorthand for “information epidemic”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) popularised this term in their 13th 2019-nCov Situation Report published on February 2, 2019 in which they defined an infodemic as, “an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.

They went on to advise all governments to be wary of this scourge and work closely with WHO technical risk communication and social media teams, also collectively and colloquially branded “the infodemic team”.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General, reiterated this caution a few days later during a media briefing on February 8 when he said: “At WHO, we’re not just battling the virus; we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response.”

He went on to quote the famous Guardian headline published on the same day: “Misinformation on the coronavirus might be the most contagious thing about it.”

These sentiments have since been vindicated and if anything, this infodemic seems to be aggravating with each passing day.

Some of the dangerous myths that have been propagated include the efficacy of lemons and other concoctions in treating the symptoms of COVID-19, the claim that those younger than 50 years and black people are safe from the virus and the latest and by far the most dangerous conspiracy theory is that of 5G and vaccines.

I endeavour to robustly refute these four myths in turn.

The first class of myths revolves around the treatment of COVID-19.

Various herbal remedies have been widely circulated as being effective such as lemons, turmeric, garlic, ginger, eucalyptus leaves and guava tree leaves.

There has been no scientific evidence that any of these therapies work.

Numerous already-known drugs have also been touted as therapeutic.

The two most famous of these have been chloroquine (or hydroxychloroquine) and Lopinavir/Ritonavir.

Chloroquine is an antimalarial drug with amebicidal action meaning it treats malaria but can also be used to treat an infectious disease called amebiasis.

It has also been approved for use in treating autoimmune diseases such as Rheumatoid Arthritis and Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (commonly called Lupus or SLE).

The reason why it offered so much hope was that laboratory studies revealed that it prevented SARS-COV-2 from entering cells in vitro (in petri dishes).

However, clinical trials into its efficacy in treating COVID-19 either on its own or in combination with a common antibiotic called Azithromycin are still in their infancy so consequently the evidence is also still weak.

Lopinavir/ritonavir is a fixed antiretroviral drug combination belonging to the Protease Inhibitor class which is currently reserved for second-line and third-line HIV treatment in Zimbabwe.

It goes by the brand names Kaletra or Aluvia.

The most notable study in academic literature published by a team led by Bin Cao in the New England Journal of Medicine on March 18 concluded that “in hospitalised adult patients with severe COVID-19, no benefit was observed with Lopinavir/ritonavir treatment beyond standard care”.

Various scientific investigations are being done all over the world to find an effective treatment for this novel disease and the largest of these is the “Solidarity” clinical trial being spearheaded by WHO as they compare four treatment options against standard therapies.

In short, all this means that so far there is no proven treatment for COVID-19.

The next class of fallacies is that of the demographic presentation of COVID-19.

The first myth is that the virus only infects the older generations.

This simplistic assertion is misleading.

The fact is that the virus can infect all ages but it tends to cause more severe disease in the older portions of the population.

A prime example is Italy where over 90% of all deaths were among those above the age of 50 years.

However, a much more reliable study into the demographic profile of COVID-19 was published on April 8 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

They confirmed that hospitalisation rates for COVID-19 increased with age.

The highest was among people above the age of 65 years with the rates ranging from 12.2% to 17.2% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases requiring admission into a hospital.

Interestingly, the figures also revealed that more men were hospitalised compared to women.

The second myth within this class (demographic presentation) is that of racial profiling of the coronavirus.

The current trend in the US, where the virus is now hitting the black population the hardest, effectively puts to bed the initial misguided claim that this virus does not infect black people.

Perhaps the most sobering figures are those of the US state of Louisiana where a shocking 70% of COVID-19 deaths were among African Americans despite them constituting only 33% of the state’s population.

It is important to note that the actual demographic profile of COVID-19 is fluid and will continue to change as the pandemic evolves.

These figures should not in any way proffer false comfort and complacency if one belongs to any of the population groups with more favourable statistics.

Prevention remains key for any age, gender or race.

The last class of myths I wish to rebuff is that of 5G (shorthand for Fifth Generation wireless technology) and vaccines.

This is by far the most toxic and most elaborate conspiracy theory we have encountered during this pandemic.

Its most prominent proponent is the former footballer and sports broadcaster turned conspiracy theorist, David Icke, whose YouTube interview with London Real on April 6 was so inflammatory that it pushed the Google-owned video-sharing site to institute a policy of banning all videos linking COVID-19 to 5G technology.

The ecclesiastic fraternity has also joined the fray in promoting this theory.

The basic analogy of this dangerous conspiracy theory is that 5G towers are emitting radiation which damages human cells causing them to produce genetic material which is being “interpreted as the novel coronavirus” when one is tested.

The malicious theory goes on to claim that this is a front for introducing a vaccine with “nanotechnology microchips”, which will be made compulsory and used to control the world population. Some religious groups go a step further and assert that this vaccine is the “mark of the beast” mentioned in the Bible.

These erroneous claims have led to the immolation of 5G towers in Britain, Northern Ireland and Brazil in protest.

It is important to note that there is no scientific evidence that 5G technology is harmful to the human body.

This was corroborated by the International Commission on Non-ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) in its latest report published last month following a seven-year study.

On the other hand, vaccines for COVID-19 are indeed being developed across the globe but the most promising ones do not incorporate nanotechnology but rather DNA and messenger RNA (mRNA).

On top of that, it is important to remember that vaccines are only used on humans after a thorough, transparent and verifiable process so the chances of anyone getting a vaccine whose ingredients are unknown are almost negligible.

In conclusion, there is only one way to refute any conspiracy theory and that is through hard evidence.

All these variations of the current infodemic will only serve to breed anxiety, fear and complacency in adhering to proven measures that will help defeat this pandemic.

What is undebatable is that the world will never be the same after this scourge.

It is indeed the dawn of a new era.

Whether that era is bright or dark will only be answered by the most consistent of scientific theories, time itself.
For now, let us wash our hands, cover our coughs, stay at home and take each day as it comes.

Dr David T C Mukwekwezeke is a medical doctor and human rights defender. He writes in his personal capacity.

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