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Biological Weapons And Other Lies About COVID-19

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Edsel Salvaña is stopping you from falling into a more contagious trap: fake news.
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COVID-19 is dominating the headlines. The world is on edge as this new virus works its way across different countries. As the death toll rises, anxiety increases. Parallel to the actual body count is a rising fear, fueled by misinformation and fake news, that health authorities have lost control and that we are all going to die. Even more pernicious are unfounded rumors that this was somehow a man-made virus gone wrong, and that governments are suppressing vital information. This article examines the need to know facts, and corrects common misconceptions based on what we actually know. It also tackles how to easily spot fake news on COVID-19 and how to help prevent it from spreading.

1| COVID-19 is the disease. The virus that causes it is called SARS-CoV-2

The virus was initially called the 2019 novel coronavirus, or nCoV for short. Since “novel” just means new, a formal name had to be assigned. The disease was named by WHO as COVID-19 which stands for “Corona Virus Disease.” The proposed name for the virus is SARS-CoV-2 since it is very similar to the original SARS-CoV, the causative agent of SARS.

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2| SARS-CoV-2 is predominantly spread by droplet transmission. Airborne transmission may occur but only in rare circumstances. No need to panic.

There has been much debate on the way SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted. Most respiratory viruses are transmitted by droplets that are generated when a sick person sneezes and someone inhales them. These droplets do not travel more than 3 to 6 feet, so you need close contact to be infected. Aside from inhalation, these droplets can contaminate surfaces which, if touched and introduced to the mouth, nose or eyes can transmit disease. On very specific occasions, SARS-CoV-2 can travel longer distances in the air or become airborne. This typically only happens in hospitals when doctors do procedures on sick patients like suctioning respiratory secretions. This is the reason doctors taking care of COVID-19 patients wear n95 masks which can filter out these tiny airborne particles containing virus.

3| If you are sick, wear a surgical mask. Always wash your hands. Avoid touching your nose, mouth or eyes with your fingers.

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Surgical masks can filter out the larger respiratory droplets that are generated when someone is sick with SARS-CoV2 or other respiratory viruses. Even if the viruses are filtered, they remain on the mask so wash your hands after handling the mask and disposing of it. Wash your hands frequently and don’t touch any mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth) because viruses can enter through these areas if you inadvertently touch a contaminated surface.

4| COVID-19 patients will typically start to exhibit symptoms after three to four days of being infected. Sick patients are much more likely to transmit virus than those who are not yet coughing or sneezing.

There have been reports that some SARS-CoV-2 patients may have transmitted the virus to other people even without developing symptoms They may also remain symptom-free up to 24 days after being infected. These reports are more the exception than the rule and are not yet fully proven. Asymptomatic transmission and long incubation periods CAN happen, but these are likely very rare events. We know that most patients will develop cough, colds and a fever within 3 to 4 days of infections. A coughing and sneezing patient is much more contagious than someone who is not. Even if virus has been (rarely) found in the nostrils of patients without symptoms, it is unlikely that this will come out of a person’s nose if he is not sneezing. Finally, the evidence of someone with no symptoms for 24 days is uncertain because it only happened in one patient and there was no test for the virus prior to that person getting diagnosed. For all we know that patient had a previous cold that overlapped with the COVID-19 event.

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5| Most COVID-19 patients will recover. A lot of patients will just have what looks like a bad cold. The current total mortality rate worldwide is under 2%. Outside Wuhan, the death rate is even lower.

Early in the epidemic, only the sickest patients were prioritized and got tested, but as authorities got better at testing, some of those with mild symptoms were tested and recovered. SARS and MERS-CoV were much deadlier diseases, with mortality rates of about 10% and 35% respectively. A lot of those who died were men, elderly, and had other chronic illnesses. Most healthy people should recover and will survive.

6| This virus was likely transmitted from bats. There is no convincing evidence that this was from snakes or pangolins, or that it is related to HIV. There is also no hard evidence this was a manmade virus.

Genetic sequencing shows that SARS-CoV-2 is most likely related to viruses found in bats. There have been some non-peer reviewed manuscripts pointing to other animals as the source, but these need to be confirmed and have been refuted for the most part. An early paper that linked it to HIV has been withdrawn. Conspiracy theories of a manmade virus were already debunked but are now resurfacing from “anonymous” sources without offering any solid evidence. It would be very unlikely that a man-made biological weapon would have the characteristics that SARS-CoV-2 has. COVID-19 has a relatively low mortality and is highly contagious and therefore difficult to weaponize.

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Misinterpreted and outright fake news on COVID-19 comes out every day. We say that the “median” incubation period of the virus is 3-4 days, but the “media” incubation of fake news is a few seconds. Even without consulting an expert, here are a few things that the general public can do to evaluate news items and posts on whether these are likely false:

a| News items with anonymous and unverifiable sources are likely fake.

News items with anonymous and unverifiable sources are likely fake. This is a hallmark of conspiracy theories where “a reputable informant” or a “person with inside knowledge” is cited as the source of an “earth-shattering revelation.” Some of these articles may also falsely cite a known authority, or make up a fake name but a little bit of investigation and the whole thing falls apart.

b| Look at the website source. If the article is from “ufoconspiracyexperts.com” or “aliensarereal.net,” it’s probably not reliable. Enough said.

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c| Sensational headlines and definitive claims are likely misinterpretations.

A recent article from a well-regarded news agency stating that “Wuhan woman with no symptoms infects five relatives…” sounded so definitive but looking at the source article reveals a lot of uncertainties in the study findings. “Coronavirus: new study finds incubation period of up to 24 days” sounds alarming until you do a deep dive into the source article where only one out of over 1,000 patients had a 24-day incubation period, and it wasn’t all that certain either. Most patients had an incubation period of 3 days which is pretty quick and faster than SARS. These caveats are a more subtle and it may help to run these by an expert before sharing.

d| Always check the date of the article.

Many people have been fooled by an old article. Some use an old piece to refute current events without seeing that it was old news. Some conspiracy theorists use old articles to show that authorities are not being honest, when those facts were not known at the time the piece was published.

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e|Check the author of the article.

Scientific journals always have a conflict of interest statement. News articles and Op-Eds, not so much. The author may have an ax to grind with the subject or has written falsely on the issue. Understand the differences between a news report with cited sources, and an opinion piece which isn’t subject to rigorous fact-checking by reputable publications.

f| Verify, verify, verify.

Before sharing, run a quick check with fact checking websites like snopes.com. These aren’t perfect but they can save you time and grief. A physician inadvertently shared a pseudoscientific article that she did not author, but subsequent shares attached her name to the article because she was an expert, eroding her credibility.

More newsreal and fakeis forthcoming. There is already talk that the increasing number of cases in more countries means that COVID-19 can turn into a worldwide pandemic. Whether this happens or not, knowing the facts about the virus can spell the difference between running around in circles in panic or properly preparing and minimizing your risk. We have survived H1N1, SARS and MERS before. We even survived the bubonic plague and the Spanish Flu. It isn’t the end of the world. But it will hopefully be the end of fake news.

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About The Author
Edsel Maurice Salvaña, M.D., DTM&H, FPCP, FIDSA
Edsel Maurice T. Salvana, MD, DTM&H, FPCP, FIDSA is an award-winning infectious diseases specialist and molecular biologist at the University of the Philippines and the Philippine General Hospital. He has written and spoken extensively about HIV in the Philippines, the Dengvaxia controversy, and the COVID-19 outbreak. As a Senior TED Fellow, he is constantly seeking ways to communicate complicated scientific concepts to a lay audience, and strongly believes that this is the best way to combat pseudoscience and fake news.
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