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The advent of the internet, web browsers, and cheap content servers have made it possible for anyone to publish their ideas. In many ways, this is a beautiful thing, but it has a darker side. Someone with little expertise can present inaccurate, misleading, and dangerous ideas in compelling ways that may sway some individuals. This blind leading the blind can lead to tragic results. It's gotten so bad I wrote a whole chapter about the problem and how you can combat it. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception and is fertile ground for numerous conspiracies. In this section, I will debunk the ones that I have come across. If you have found others, let me know, and I will add them to the list.
The assertion that the Chinese released this virus from a lab has appeared in numerous publications that I refuse to list here and has been talked about by unscrupulous politicians and talk show radio hosts. Proponents of this theory suggest the virus was created in gain-of-function research to help understand SARS-CoV-2, and it happened to be released into the environment accidentally. Their proof of this theory is that there is a biosafety level 4 laboratory present in Wuhan China, and the lab had housed some coronaviruses. (BSL-4 laboratories work with the some of the most dangerous pathogens) That's the proof. As you can probably surmise, being in the vicinity of an outbreak doesn't mean you caused it.
So what evidence is there that this is a naturally occurring virus? There is plenty. First, the sequence of SARS-CoV-2 is known. If you compare it to other known coronavirus sequences, you find it has very high homology to coronaviruses found in bats. You can also trace its lineage through bats, into intermediary hosts, and then to humans. Second, an examination of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 shows that its adaptation to the ACE2 receptor in humans occurred by a different method than those previously predicted. In other words, scientists would not have known that this change in the spike protein would result in more efficient binding. If they didn't know the consequences of this change, how could they engineer the virus? Third, an engineered virus would have telltale artificial sequences that were leftover by genetic manipulations. These do not exist in SARS-CoV-2. It looks like any other natural coronavirus.
After being presented with this evidence, conspiracy theorists just moved on to a different claim. While the virus is naturally occurring, the scientists in the Wuhan laboratory isolated the virus and then accidentally released it into the general population. This idea also doesn't hold up very well. If they had isolated a natural virus that was capable of spreading human-to-human (i.e SARS-CoV-2), then it already was in the population, and it being in the laboratory would have made no difference. If it were an animal virus, isolated from a bat, it would not easily spread in humans. If it does, then we are back to my first point. There is no evidence that the Wuhan laboratory had copies of the virus before the outbreak started.
Finally, what difference does this argument make? Does it stop even one infection? Will it bring back anyone who has died? These blame games are just attempting to distract people from the urgent problems we need to address.
Due to the lack of testing and the inexperience of health professionals dealing with the pandemic, it is highly likely that the number of COVID-19 deaths is inaccurate. Some argue deaths are being incorrectly attributed to COVID-19, while others claim the current situation is leading to an undercount. To answer this question, the CDC did a study of excess mortality in New York City. At present (May 2020), NYC is the epicenter of the epidemic having thousands of active cases. The NYC health department previously developed an electronic vital statistics reporting system that provides a rapid and nearly complete count of all deaths in the city. Using this database, researchers were able to compare the all-cause mortality in NYC in previous years with mortality in the current year. By subtracting a baseline expected death rate, it is possible to calculate the number of excess deaths in 2020. From March 11–May 2, 2020, a total of 32,107 deaths were reported in NYC, which is 24,172 deaths above the expected baseline. Subtracting all reported COVID-19 deaths during this period leaves 5,293 excess deaths. Most of these are probably due to COVID-19, but not all. Some may be from patients who fear to or could not seek medical attention due to the epidemic, but were not infected with the virus (for example, someone having a heart attack). The large number of excess deaths is compelling evidence that health departments are underestimating the death rate from the epidemic by up to 22%.
There have been numerous news stories discussing the possibility that someone can be infected with SARS-CoV-2 more than once, suggesting that humans do not develop immunity to the virus. It is true that some people who were infected, then tested negative for the virus, and later were found to later test positive again. Some people worried this meant that they had been reinfected. Recent research by Chandrashekar et al. in monkeys has definitively demonstrated that vaccination or natural infection by SARS-CoV-2 provides immunity to reinfection. Monkeys are not humans, so it is possible, but unlikely the results would be different in humans. Also, the South Korea CDC reports that humans who tested positive a second time did not pass the infection on to others.
In reality, these second positive tests probably have more to do with the extreme sensitivity of the test. The RT-PCR tests for SARS-CoV-2 don't detect the live virus. They signal the presence of the RNA of the virus. Because PCR exponentially amplifies its target sequence, it is exquisitely sensitive, being able to detect just a few copies of SARS-CoV-2 in a sample. What these retests are probably identifying is leftover garbage RNA from the virus that the immune system hasn't cleared out. There is no live virus. Reinfection may be possible. In these cases, a person's immune system would deal with the virus, they would not develop severe symptoms, and would not pass the virus on to someone else.
When an epidemic begins to spread in a community, an age-old practice is to separate sick individuals from the general population. During the plague outbreaks of the middle ages, you would be put into small rooms and locked in. The family would give you food and water as needed, but you would not be allowed out until you were recovered or dead. In the 18th century, practices were somewhat more humane. Camps or pest houses kept ill members of the community away from others. This type of quarantine was somewhat useful but created the problem of caring for sick individuals and was also used to discriminate against the poor and minorities.
In the modern battle against COVID-19, governments are using a mixture of self-quarantine at home, and dedicated hospitals to house individuals struggling with the disease. In places where the spread of SARS-CoV-2 has become out of control, or where adequate testing and contact-tracing were unavailable, states and nations issued stay-at-home blanket orders to try to decrease the spread of the virus.
As these stay-at-home orders have dragged on, there has been growing resistance to them. If someone's employment is deemed a non-essential service, they were unable to work. According to a report on Americans' economic well-being, about 40% of the US population would not be able to cover a $400 emergency. These stay-at-home orders puts these folks in an impossible situation. If these workers go to work, they risk their lives and their families, but if they cannot, they don't have enough money to survive. The response to this crisis by the Federal Government has been inadequate, leaving many of these people desperate and claiming that stay-at-home orders are an overreaction and an impingement on their freedoms. To help people abide by these rules, it is essential to know if stay-at-home regulations work.
One of the best ways to understand how a disease spreads through a community is to use software that can realistically model an epidemic's spread and then allow you to manipulate parameters and see what happens. Malia Jones, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has taken the time to create a game that a novice can use to understand these concepts. I encourage you to play with the model. I hope you realize after experimenting that it's likely that social distancing works. But are there any real-world examples?
The COVID-19 epidemic is not the first time that governments have used social distancing. During the last great global pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1917-1920, many municipalities closed schools, quarantined victims in their homes, and banned large gatherings to prevent the spread of the disease. Because cities reacted at different times and in different ways, it is possible to compare their responses and observe what appears to work best. A study in JAMA shows that if these interventions are started early enough and last long enough to bring case levels low enough, propagation of the virus stops. Philadelphia had its first case of influenza on September 17th, 1918, and campaigned against coughing, spitting, and sneezing in public. Inexplicably, ten days later, city officials hosted a parade that 200,000 people attended. Eight days after their death rate began to increase, and social distancing orders were put into place. However, it was too late, and the death rate ended up being 748 per 100,000, one of the worst in the country.
In contrast, two days after St. Louis experienced its first case of influenza, it implemented strong social distancing orders and kept them in place for six weeks. As a cautionary tale to current state governments, some cites relaxed social distancing before the case rate had decreased significantly, causing a second spike in cases and a reimplementation of social distancing for another five weeks. In the end, St. Louis had a death rate of 358 per 100,000, less than half of what Philadelphia experienced.
The message from these studies is clear, in the face of no drug treatments and no vaccine, social distancing is our best option to decrease the spread of COVID-19. If governments implement these measures soon enough and hold them long enough, social distancing slows the spread of disease and reduces the overall death rate. However, these measures do not solve the problem of the suffering of so many Americans who are now out of work. Our government needs to do a lot more to help these people.
Anthony Fauci and/or Bill Gate will profit from remdesivir
This rumor is so ridiculous I am not going to spend much time on it. Dr. Fauci is the director of the NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease) and is an infectious disease expert. He was appointed to the post in 1984 by Ronald Reagan and has served under both Republican and Democratic Administrations. Bill Gates is a co-founder of Microsoft, and part of his philanthropic efforts have been in vaccine development. For the current crisis, Mr. Gates' foundation, along with other groups and governments, started the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations in 2017. CEPI is helping to organize vaccine efforts and is helping manufacturing facilities to prepare to make whatever vaccine turns out to be effective.
Remdesivir is a drug developed by Gilead Sciences, initially as a potential treatment for Hepatitis C, and later was investigated as a treatment for the Ebloa virus. Recent testing against SARS-CoV-2 has shown it may be clinically useful. Neither Dr. Fauci or Mr. Gates have any investments in Gilead Sciences or any other known conflicts of interest.