in Journalism, News

Finding Accurate Coronavirus Information

Conflicting reports, inaccurate data, partisan media, misinformation campaigns, and more–where do we turn to be informed on the SARS-CoV-2 crisis? Even respected organizations have shaken the public’s confidence.

It’s true that things are constantly changing. Finding information in a time of uncertainty means waiting for the dust to settle. But the dust isn’t settling in some areas, and questions still exist. Many facts should be clear from prior research. Yet 6+ months after COVID-19 was discovered, basics escape us. We don’t even know if six feet is enough for social distancing

To be fair, virology is a new science. The first detailed images of viruses came with the invention of electron microscopes in 1931. But considering microbiology’s importance to the survival of humanity, one would think we’d know more. Instead, a lot of things are mysteries.

Here’s what we know (and don’t know) on masks, ventilators, hydroxychloroquine, and more.

BACKGROUND

The origin of the virus is the first mystery. China’s first confirmed case was traced back to November 2019. By late January 2020, infections were found in at least 10 countries. Examining wastewater in Italy found evidence of COVID-19 dating back to December 2019. And “A study in May by French scientists found that a man was infected with COVID-19 as early as Dec. 27, nearly a month before France confirmed its first cases.”

According to Livescience, “[the] first known outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 in humans occurred in Wuhan and initially was traced to a wet seafood market (which sold live fish and other animals), though some of the earliest cases have no link to that market….” Evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein said in an interview that the virus has characteristics unlikely to be found in nature. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the virus was created or modified in a lab. It probably wasn’t. It’s still a possibility that may never get ruled out, considering Wuhan does have a BSL-4 viral laboratory. A number of complaints emerged in 2018, including lack of training and insufficient safety/management at the lab. And in 2015, the lab published a joint study after combining a bat-borne coronavirus with “the backbone of a SARS virus.” But again, this may be a coincidence, and most scientists don’t believe COVID-19 was engineered.

Global research could have begun in 2019, if not for the Chinese government. An Associated Press investigation found “Despite [WHO] plaudits, China in fact sat on releasing the genetic map… government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on Jan. 11. Even then, China stalled for at least two weeks more on providing WHO with detailed data on patients and cases….” And before that, “On Jan. 3, the [Chinese] National Health Commission issued a confidential notice ordering labs with the virus to either destroy their samples or send them to designated institutes for safekeeping…. For nearly two weeks, Wuhan reported no new infections, as officials censored doctors who warned of suspicious cases.”

The American government says China is responsible for the current pandemic

The Chinese government says the United States started it.

We may never know the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

 

DEATH TOLL & SPREAD

Johns Hopkins University has a popular statistic tracker, but it relies on reported numbers, which are slightly unreliable. As of June 26th there are 9.3 million known infections and 478,000+ deaths.

In the United States, there isn’t a federal standard for determining infection rates. The BBC reported: “New York City’s death count has spiked to more than 10,000 after it reported 3,778 people who likely had COVID-19, but died without being tested…. Municipalities in Connecticut, Ohio and Delaware have begun to [record] cases where the infection is assumed but not confirmed with a test… while officials in California and Seattle only count virus deaths if proven with a positive test.” 

Many people can get infected without displaying symptoms (presymptomatic or asymptomatic). “In four U.S. state prisons, nearly 3,300 inmates test positive for coronavirus — 96% without symptoms.” (Reuters) “Estimates of the proportion of true asymptomatic cases – those who are infected and never develop symptoms – range from 18% to over 80%.” (TC)

China’s death toll is often criticized, since even revised numbers may be inaccurate. China still doesn’t have an accurate count for the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, where as many as 10,000 people may have died. China’s official death toll is listed as 241 and they regularly scrub references to Tiananmen Square from Chinese-controlled internet. And as of June 2020, they’re now dealing with a new coronavirus outbreak.

Some countries have limited or no testing capabilities.

“A genetic analysis of COVID-19 patients suggests that blood type might influence whether someone develops severe disease. Scientists who compared the genes of thousands of patients in Europe found that those who had Type A blood were more likely to have severe disease while those with Type O were less likely. Wednesday’s report in the New England Journal of Medicine doesn’t prove a blood type connection, but it does confirm a previous report from China of such a link.” (CBS)

So do we know how many people have/had COVID-19? No, not really.

 

MASKS

The World Health Organization (WHO) initially discouraged widespread usage of masks. Most authority figures uncritically followed that advice.

In February, the US Surgeon General said “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk! The best way to protect yourself and your community is with everyday preventive actions, like staying home when you are sick and washing hands with soap and water, to help slow the spread of respiratory illness. Get your #FluShot- fewer flu patients = more resources for #COVID19”

Since then, most organizations changed their advice. Supposedly this was in response to new studies on viral transmission, but that’s a nonsense explanation. A lie, even. It was obvious in the preceding months how the novel coronavirus was airborne, and several countries emphasized mask-wearing from the beginning.

The FDA website has a breakdown of the types of masks and recommendations. “The CDC recommends that members of the public use simple cloth face coverings when in a public setting to slow the spread of the virus, since this will help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.” They wanted to reserve better masks for healthcare workers, and those types of masks can be misused by the average person. But that doesn’t negate the fact health officials deliberately misled the American public. On June 15th, Business Insider ran an article with the headline “Fauci said US government held off promoting face masks because it knew shortages were so bad that even doctors couldn’t get enough.”

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says “There is limited guidance and clinical research to inform on the use of reusable cloth face masks for protection against respiratory viruses. Available evidence shows that they are less protective than surgical masks and may even increase the risk of infection due to moisture, liquid diffusion and retention of the virus. Penetration of particles through cloth is reported to be high.” One of the reference studies said “The lack of research on facemasks and respirators is reflected in varied and sometimes conflicting policies and guidelines.”

“After Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston began requiring that nearly everyone in the hospital wear masks, new coronavirus infections diagnosed in its staffers dropped by half — or more…. It dropped still further to about six new infections a day once patients had to wear masks, too.” (WBUR)

Some healthcare professionals remain skeptical of widespread mask usage. Protection varies by type of mask and needs to be worn properly; masks may encourage risky behavior or increased transmission; and disposable masks could pose an environmental hazard.

So are masks necessary for everyone? We don’t know.

 

VENTILATORS

New York State was aggressive in its demands for ventilators, but according to some reports it hasn’t helped. “Nearly all the patients hospitalized for the coronavirus in New York City had underlying health conditions…. Data from 2,634 patients who either died or were discharged from the hospital showed that 12% were on ventilators and that 88% of those on ventilators died.”

“As health officials around the world push to get more ventilators to treat coronavirus patients, some doctors are moving away from using the breathing machines when they can. The reason: Some hospitals have reported unusually high death rates for coronavirus patients on ventilators, and some doctors worry that the machines could be harming certain patients.” (NBC)

So how many ventilators does the USA need? We don’t know.

 

HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE

President Donald Trump mentioned this drug as a potential treatment or preventative for COVID-19. The New York Times and CNN (among others) repeatedly called it a useless or dangerous option. Fact-checking organizations aren’t positive either. Several media outlets ran a viral story claiming a man died after taking Hydroxychloroquine. However, the headlines were misleading. A couple ingested a fish tank additive with a similar name

The European Medicines Agency said “Clinical data are still very limited and inconclusive, and the beneficial effects of these medicines in COVID-19 have not been demonstrated.” A study analyzing VA records for 368 men found no benefits. Hydroxychloroquine may need to be used in conjunction with other treatments to be effective; some people recommend zinc or azithromycin as potential options.

A survey of 6,200 physicians in 30 countries found “The three most commonly prescribed treatments amongst COVID-19 treaters are 56% analgesics, 41% Azithromycin, and 33% Hydroxychloroquine… Hydroxychloroquine was overall chosen as the most effective therapy amongst COVID-19 treaters from a list of 15 options (37% of COVID-19 treaters).” The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said “amongst healthcare workers involved in COVID-19 care, those on HCQ prophylaxis were less likely to develop SARS-CoV-2 infection, compared to those who were not on it.”

On June 3rd, The Guardian published an article about a small company named Surgisphere. The company provided flawed/false data for important hydroxychloroquine studies. The Guardian found Surgisphere’s employees largely had no scientific background, the chief executive was named in multiple medical malpractice suits, and more. When confronted, the company refused to release their data or methodology. As a result, the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet issued retractions. On June 15th, the FDA pulled emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine. They didn’t cite the specific study/studies which led to this decision. Personally I wonder if they used the now-debunked Surgisphere data.

So is Hydroxychloroquine a good treatment or preventative? Maybe not, but we don’t know for sure.

 

WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION

Youtube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced that videos which go against the WHO’s information/guidelines may be deleted. The problem is that the WHO shared bad advice which increased the spread of coronavirus (including waiting until April 4th to say wearing masks is good). This led to President Trump calling for a halt to WHO funding, with some people noting the USA already overpaid WHO by nearly $3 billion over the past decade. Funding was already in need of review given that “inherent structural problems at the WHO do make the organization vulnerable to misinformation and political influence.“ Their handling of Taiwan has also drawn scrutiny. Including an incident where the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, made the bizarre claim Taiwan began a campaign of personal attacks on him.

Trump claimed “China has total control over the World Health Organization” and pointed out how the U.S. contributes more than 10 times as much money. China pledged an additional $50 million for the WHO so far. Various global officials have criticized the apparent close ties between the WHO and Chinese government. The WHO says it’s “close to every nation.”

So can we trust the World Health Organization? We don’t know.

 

VACCINES & SOLUTIONS TO THE VIRUS

At least 100 vaccines are “in various stages of development.”

“University of Louisville researchers have developed a technology that is believed to block the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 from infecting human cells. The technology is based on a piece of synthetic DNA…. Early tests show that this aptamer may stop viruses, including novel coronavirus, from ‘hijacking’ nucleolin to replicate inside the body.” (UofL)

“A coronavirus vaccine being developed by Oxford University will enter human trials as early as this Thursday, according to the U.K.’s health secretary.” (Marketwatch)

“The Seattle volunteers who got shots in the first trial of a possible coronavirus vaccine are now getting the second shot…. The volunteers are taking part in the first investigational vaccine study to fight coronavirus. The study launched on March 16.” (USA Today)

“U.S. researchers have opened another safety test of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine, this one using a skin-deep shot instead of the usual deeper jab…. Inovio’s study is set to test two doses of its vaccine, code-named INO-4800, in 40 healthy volunteers at the Kansas City research lab and the University of Pennsylvania.” (NBC)

“It’s possible that none of the antibody treatments Regeneron or any of the other companies develop will be effective. Or they may produce unexpected side effects that limit their use. But many who are watching the research closely think at least one of these treatments will be successful.” (Bloomberg)

However, it’s not all good news, since internet trolls began a conspiracy theory Bill Gates is using vaccine trials to microchip/sterilize/kill a portion of the global population. Or more. The anti-vaccine movement has also grown in strength over the past few years, which brings doubt into potential herd immunity numbers.

So how’s the research going into a cure? We don’t know (it’s too early to tell).

 

RECENT NEWS & PROTESTS

Discussion of COVID-19 in the media and scientific community quieted when protests began over the death of George Floyd. After his death on May 25th, demonstrations began in Minneapolis “before quickly spreading nationwide and in over 60 countries internationally in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Over 2,000 cities and towns in the United States have seen demonstrations over his death as of June 13, and protests continued into a third week after Floyd’s death in many cities.” 

At least 1,200 medical professionals endorsed the protests, with an open letter saying “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19… as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.”

A computational biologist released a “highly speculative” analysis saying protests would likely lead to a 3-6% increase in infections.

After three full weeks of protests, the media returned to its coronavirus messages. But in some cases, placing the blame solely on states re-opening. It’s not clear if this is true. It does seem unlikely though–protests and riots don’t usually have social distancing.

USA Today ran a headline saying ‘Coronavirus surges aren’t linked to George Floyd,

policing, Black Lives Matter protests’. “No single cause seems to explain why some places have seen spikes and others haven’t…. If large crowds continue to gather at church, the beach and bars without wearing masks and without social distancing, experts said it’s only a matter of time before an infected person triggers a new outbreak.”

Sacramento County health services director Peter Beilenson “says if COVID-19 was spreading rapidly at the demonstrations for racial justice that started in late May, health workers would be seeing lots of cases by now.”

Al-Jazeera looked at public numbers for confirmed cases and said “With such large crowds, by now, you could possibly expect to see an increase in the number of registered coronavirus infections – but that has not been the case so far.”

NYC mayor Bill de Blasio ordered contract tracers to not ask about protest attendance. This may skew the numbers. “Cuomo and de Blasio find themselves walking a tightrope, warning protesters to be aware that COVID-19 remains a very real threat to life and strongly advising all who attend demonstrations to get tested. But they are also steering clear of dissuading anyone from participating in demonstrations.”

Is the world about to experience a large spike in coronavirus-related cases? Well, the data suggests yes. But as mentioned above, the data can be unreliable or difficult to parse, so we won’t know certain details.