When it comes to fighting the new coronavirus threat, the truth is one of the few things more crucial than a gallon of hand sanitizer. But these days, both can be hard to find if you don't know where to look.
"Humans are wired to respond to emotional triggers and share misinformation if it reinforces existing beliefs and prejudices."
While it's only been around for a few months, COVID-19 has already produced an ever-expanding universe of conspiracy theories about its origins, its spread, and the danger it poses. Meanwhile, fraudulent cures and myths about treatments threaten to upend public health efforts to contain the epidemic.
But ordinary citizens aren't helpless. Research offers insight into why we're susceptible to misinformation, and armies of fact-checkers can tell us what's real and what isn't. Meanwhile, experts are offering tips about how we can effectively promote facts whether we're chatting with a stranger at the post office or challenging a cousin on Facebook.
Here a four-part strategy to help you fight back against the Coronavirus Misinformation Industrial Complex:
Understand How Bogus Beliefs Work
That crank on the Internet may be your neighbor. Or maybe even you.
According to a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, nearly half of American surveyed said they believed in at least one grand medical conspiracy theory. Twenty percent agreed, for example, that cell phones cause cancer but officials won't do anything because of corporate pressure, and 37 percent believed an elaborate conspiracy theory about the suppression of natural cancer cures. "Although it is common to disparage adherents of conspiracy theories as a delusional fringe of paranoid cranks, our data suggest that medical conspiracy theories are widely known, broadly endorsed, and highly predictive of many common health behaviors," the study authors write.
In an interview with leapsmag, study lead author Eric Oliver said we're drawn to "conspiracy theories that correspond with our intuitions."
"In the case of medicine, I think there are three big factors: Fears of Big Pharma -- a large percentage of Americans have a distorted sense of what pharmaceutical companies are capable of -- fears of government, and fears of contagion," said Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
Why does it matter if people believe in conspiracy theories about coronavirus? As Oliver's study notes, conspiracy theorists are less likely to rely on traditional medicine, get flu shots, or go to annual check-ups. They could be especially susceptible to disease and inappropriate treatment.
Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami who studies conspiracies, elaborated on how this works. "You could have people who think coronavirus is fake and say, 'I'm not going to wash my hand or take preventive action. This is the media making something up, or this is just a plot for the pharmaceutical companies to sell a vaccine.' If you have a lot of people acting that way, that increases the ability of the virus to spread."
Get the Facts from the Experts
How can you avoid being a misinformation source? Educate yourself to make sure you're not spouting fake facts yourself with the instant ease that the Internet allows. "Humans are wired to respond to emotional triggers and share misinformation if it reinforces existing beliefs and prejudices," writes misinformation scholar Claire Wardle in a 2019 Scientific American commentary. That means you too.
For coronavirus facts, experts recommend looking to the websites of government agencies (such as the CDC, World Health Organization and National Institutes of Health) and top-tier medical organizations (Mayo Clinic, Infectious Disease Society of America).
Respected mainstream news outlets such as The New York Times and National Public Radio offer extensive original reporting on the coronavirus threat. While some news outlets still require users to pay to get full access to stories, others have dropped their paywalls and made coronavirus content free to all. These include the Seattle Times, Bloomberg News and the medical news site Stat.
Locally, look to your region's public health department, news outlets, and medical organizations such as hospitals and health plans.
The Poynter Institute, a journalism watchdog outfit, offers a helpful guide to evaluating what you read about coronavirus. And a paid service called NewsGuard offers a browser plug-in that provides a "trust rating" for popular news sites. "Our goal is to teach news literacy–and we hope all websites will earn green ratings and be generally reliable to consumers," the NewsGuard site says.
"As we combat misinformation, we also need to be mindful of the fact that we're dealing with a lot of uncertainty."
Remember, however, that scientists and physicians are learning more about the coronavirus each day. Assumptions about the virus will change as more information comes in, and there are still many questions about crucial topics like its fatality rate and the ways the virus spreads. You should expect that reliable sources – and experts – may provide conflicting information.
"As we combat misinformation, we also need to be mindful of the fact that we're dealing with a lot of uncertainty," says Boston cardiologist and author Dr. Haider Warraich of Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Double-Check Suspicious Information
No, the coronavirus wasn't created in a Winnipeg laboratory. You can't kill it by drinking bleach or frolicking in snow. And, as the French Health Ministry helpfully advised on Twitter, "Non, La cocaïne NE protège PAS contre le #COVID19" – "No, cocaine does NOT prevent Covid-19."
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are all trying to remove fake or misleading coronavirus content, The New York Times reported, and "all said they were making efforts to point people back to reliable sources of medical information." Still, as the Times reports, bogus cures and conspiracy theories are rampant across social media and beyond.
Fortunately, there are many fact-checking resources. Turn to them for ammunition before you amplify – or challenge -- a coronavirus claim that seems suspicious.
Helpful myth-busting resources include:
** The International Fact-Checking Network, accessible via the social-media hashtags #CoronaVirusFacts and #DatosCoronaVirus.
Correct Others With Caution
On social media, anger and sarcasm make up a kind of common tongue. But sick burns won't force misinformed people see the light. Instead, try a gentler approach.
"The most important thing would be to first acknowledge their anxieties rather than first trying to rationalize away their misbeliefs," said the University of Chicago's Oliver. "People embrace misinformation and conspiracy theories because they are afraid and trying to make sense of the world. Their beliefs serve a strong emotional function and will be defended as such. Trying to rationalize with them or argue with them may be counterproductive if one can't first put them at some ease."
Turn yourself into a source of coronavirus facts and a bulwark against the fake, misleading, and fraudulent.
So what can you do? "There will never be a magic bullet," the University of Miami's Uscinski said, but one approach is to highlight reliable information from sources that the person trusts, such as news outlets (think MSNBC or Fox News) or politicians.
However, don't waste your time. "If you have people who are believing in the craziest thing, they're probably not going to offer a rational conversation," he said. And, he added, there's an alternative to correcting others: Turn yourself into a source of coronavirus facts and a bulwark against the fake, misleading, and fraudulent. "We can be preventive and inoculate people against these beliefs," he said, "by flooding the information environment with proper information as much as possible."
In late March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in the United States, David Fajgenbaum, a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, devised a 10-day challenge for his lab: they would sift through 1,000 recently published scientific papers documenting cases of the deadly virus from around the world, pluck out the names of any drugs used in an attempt to cure patients, and track the treatments and their outcomes in a database.
Before late 2019, no one had ever had to treat this exact disease before, which meant all treatments would be trial and error. Fajgenbaum, a pioneering researcher in the field of drug repurposing—which prioritizes finding novel uses for existing drugs, rather than arduously and expensively developing new ones for each new disease—knew that physicians around the world would be embarking on an experimental journey, the scale of which would be unprecedented. His intention was to briefly document the early days of this potentially illuminating free-for-all, as a sidebar to his primary field of research on a group of lymph node disorders called Castleman disease. But now, 11 months and 29,000 scientific papers later, he and his team of 22 are still going strong.
On a Personal Mission<p>In the science and medical world, Fajgenbaum lives a dual existence: he is both researcher and subject, physician and patient. In July 2010, when he was a healthy and physically fit 25-year-old finishing medical school, he began living through what would become a recurring, unprovoked, and overzealous immune response that repeatedly almost killed him.</p><p>His lymph nodes were inflamed; his liver, kidneys, and bone marrow were faltering; and he was dead tired all the time. At first his doctors mistook his mysterious illness for lymphoma, but his inflamed lymph nodes were merely a red herring. A month after his initial hospitalization, pathologists at Mayo Clinic finally diagnosed him with idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease—a particularly ruthless form of a class of lymph node disorders that doesn't just attack one part of the body, but many, and has no known cause. It's a rare diagnosis within an already rare set of disorders. Only about 1,500 Americans a year receive the same diagnosis. </p><p>Without many options for treatment, Fajgenbaum underwent recurring rounds of chemotherapy. Each time, the treatment would offer temporary respite from Castleman symptoms, but bring the full spate of chemotherapy side effects. And it wasn't a sustainable treatment for the long haul. Regularly dousing a person's cells in unmitigated toxicity was about as elegant a solution to Fajgenbaum's disease as bulldozing a house in response to a toaster fire. The fire might go out (though not necessarily), but the house would be destroyed.</p><p>A swirl of exasperation and doggedness finally propelled Fajgenbaum to take on a crucial question himself: Among all of the already FDA-approved drugs on the market, was there something out there, labeled for another use, that could beat back Castleman disease and that he could tolerate long-term? After months of research, he discovered the answer: sirolimus, a drug normally prescribed to patients receiving a kidney transplant, could be used to suppress his overactive immune system with few known side effects to boot.</p><p>Fajgenbaum became hellbent on devoting his practice and research to making similar breakthroughs for others. He founded the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network, to coordinate the research of others studying this bewildering disease, and directs a laboratory consumed with studying cytokine storms—out-of-control immune responses characterized by the body's release of cytokines, proteins that the immune system secretes and uses to communicate with and direct other cells. </p><p>In the spring of 2020, when cytokine storms emerged as a hallmark of the most severe and deadly cases of COVID-19, Fajgenbaum's ears perked up. Although SARS-CoV-2 itself was novel, Fajgenbaum already had almost a decade of experience battling the most severe biological forces it brought. Only this time, he thought, it might actually be easier to pinpoint a treatment—unlike Castleman disease, which has no known cause, at least here a virus was clearly the instigator. </p>
Thinking Beyond COVID<p>The week of March 13, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Fajgenbaum found himself hoping that someone would make the same connection and apply the research to COVID. "Then like a minute later I was like, 'Why am I hoping that someone, somewhere, either follows our footsteps, or has a similar background to us? Maybe we just need to do it," he says. And the CORONA Project was born—first as a 10-day exercise, and later as the robust, interactive tool it now is. </p><p>All of the 400 treatments in the CORONA database are examples of repurposed drugs, or off-label uses: physicians are prescribing drugs to treat COVID that have been approved for a different disease. There are no bonafide COVID treatments, only inferences. The goal for people like Fajgenbaum and Stone is to identify potential treatments for further study and eventual official approval, so that physicians can treat the disease with a playbook in hand. When it works, drug repurposing opens up a way to move quickly: A range of treatments could be available to patients within just a few years of a totally new virus entering our reality compared with the 12 - 19 years new drug development takes.</p><p>"Companies for many decades have explored the use of their products for not just a single indication but often for many indications," says Stone. "'Supplemental approvals' are all essentially examples of drug repurposing, we just didn't call it that. The challenge, I think, is to explore those opportunities more comprehensively and systematically to really try to understand the full breadth of potential activity of any drug or molecule."</p>
The left column shows the path of a repurposed drug, and on the right is the path of a newly discovered and developed drug.
Cures Within Reach
A Confounding Virus<p>The FDA declined to comment on what drugs it was fast-tracking for trials, but Fajgenbaum says that based on the CORONA Project's data, which includes data from smaller trials that have already taken place, he feels there are three drugs that seem the most clearly and broadly promising for large-scale studies. Among them are <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30503-8/fulltext" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>dexamethasone</u></a>, which is a steroid with anti-inflammatory effects, and <a href="https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-drug-combination-treatment-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>baricitinib</u></a>, a rheumatoid arthritis drug, both of which have enabled the sickest COVID-19 patients to bounce back by suppressing their immune systems. The third most clearly promising drug is <a href="https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/full-dose-blood-thinners-decreased-need-life-support-improved-outcome-hospitalized-covid-19-patients" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>heparin</u></a>, a blood thinner, which a recent trial showed to be most helpful when administered at a full dose, more so than at a small, preventative dose. (On the flipside, Fajgenbaum says "it's a little sad" that in the database you can see hydroxychloroquine is still the most-prescribed drug being tried as a COVID treatment around the world, despite over the summer being <a href="https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2021801" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>debunked</u></a> widely as an effective treatment, and continuously since then.)</p><p>One of the confounding attributes of SARS-CoV-2 is its ability to cause such a huge spectrum of outcomes. It's unlikely a silver bullet treatment will emerge under that reality, so the database also helps surface drugs that seem most promising for a specific population. <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2773108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Fluvoxamine</u></a>, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder, showed promise in the recovery of outpatients—those who were sick, but not severely enough to be hospitalized. <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2772185" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Tocilizumab</u></a>, which was actually developed for Castleman disease, the disease Fajgenbaum is managing, was initially written off as a COVID treatment because it failed to benefit large portions of hospitalized patients, but now seems to be effective if used on intensive care unit patients within 24 hours of admission—these are some of the sickest patients with the highest risk of dying. </p><p>Other than fluvoxamine, most of the drugs labeled as promising do skew toward targeting hospitalized patients, more than outpatients. One reason, Fajgenbaum says, is that "if you're in a hospital it's very easy to give you a drug and to track you, and there are very objective measurements as to whether you die, you progress to a ventilator, etc." Tracking outpatients is far more difficult, especially when folks have been routinely asked to stay home, quarantine, and free up hospital resources if they're experiencing only mild symptoms. </p><p>But the other reason for the skew is because COVID is very unlike most other diseases in terms of the human immune response the virus triggers. For example, if oncology treatments show some benefit to people with the highest risk of dying, then they usually work extremely well if administered in the earlier stages of a cancer diagnosis. Across many diseases, this dialing backward is a standard approach to identifying promising treatments. With COVID, all of that reasoning has proven moot. </p><p>As we've seen over the last year, COVID cases often start as asymptomatic, and remain that way for days, indicating the body is mounting an incredibly weak immune response initially. Then, between days five and 14, as if trying to make up for lost time, the immune system overcompensates by launching a major inflammatory response, which in the sickest patient can lead to the type of cytokine storms that helped Fajgenbaum realize his years of Castleman research might be useful during this public health crisis. Because of this phased response, you can't apply the same treatment logic to all cases.</p><p>"In COVID, drugs that work late tend to not work if given early, and drugs that work early tend to not work if given late," says Fajgenbaum. "Generally this … is not a commonplace thing for a virus." </p>
Thursday, March 11th, 2021 at 12:30pm - 1:45pm EST
On the one-year anniversary of the global declaration of the pandemic, this virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines. Planned topics include the effect of the new circulating variants on the vaccines, what we know so far about transmission dynamics post-vaccination, how individuals can behave post-vaccination, the myths of "good" and "bad" vaccines as more alternatives come on board, and more. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
SPEAKERS:<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://leaps.org/media-library/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY3Mzc4NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjYwNjU4NX0.Tdrh5pze5P4XxgiJK3J4JFrsrijfabIzNJz-AATghDE/image.jpg?width=534&coordinates=365%2C3%2C299%2C559&height=462" id="87554" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b6c7311be7aec25807f9af19b683bf1d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="534" data-height="462" />
Dr. Paul Offit speaking at Communicating Vaccine Science.commons.wikimedia.org<p><strong><a href="https://www.research.chop.edu/people/paul-a-offit" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Paul Offit, M.D.</a>, is the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He is a co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine for infants, and he has lent his expertise to the advisory committees that review data on new vaccines for the CDC and FDA.</strong></p>
Dr. Monica Gandhi
UCSF Health<p><a href="https://profiles.ucsf.edu/monica.gandhi"></a><strong><a href="https://profiles.ucsf.edu/monica.gandhi" target="_blank">Dr. Monica Gandhi, M.D., MPH,</a> is Professor of Medicine and Associate Division Chief (Clinical Operations/ Education) of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at UCSF/ San Francisco General Hospital.</strong></p>
Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh, FACP, FIDSA
Yale Medicine<p><strong><a href="https://medicine.yale.edu/profile/onyema_ogbuagu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh</a>, is an infectious disease physician at Yale Medicine who treats COVID-19 patients and leads Yale's clinical studies around COVID-19. He ran Yale's trial of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.</strong></p>
Dr. Eric Topol
Dr. Topol's Twitter<p><strong><a href="https://www.scripps.edu/faculty/topol/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Eric Topol, M.D.</a>, is a cardiologist, scientist, professor of molecular medicine, and the director and founder of Scripps Research Translational Institute. He has led clinical trials in over 40 countries with over 200,000 patients and pioneered the development of many routinely used medications.</strong></p>