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The Facts Behind COVID-19

By Ishleen Sudan

At this point in time, you likely fall into one of two categories of people. You are either sick and tired of hearing about the coronavirus pandemic and avoid any news about it like the plague (excuse the not-so-subtle pun), or you are religiously consuming every piece of information you can find. Whatever the case, there is little doubt that you have been exposed to some form of fake news over the past few weeks. It’s time to lay out the definitive facts about the coronavirus, and debunk some of those myths.

Claim: The coronavirus is a biological weapon used by the Chinese government to destabilize the global economy, thus increasing reliance on Chinese goods.

Let’s entertain this idea for just a second. If the Chinese government did mean to destabilize the global economy through the introduction of a pandemic, they would probably do the following:

  • Protect Chinese citizens from contracting the coronavirus.

  • Introduce the virus to human beings elsewhere, not in the wet markets of Wuhan, so as to avoid international scrutiny.

  • Create a vaccine beforehand so that they could profit off of the desperation of nations around the world.

  • Create a strain of the virus with a greater mortality rate.

None of these things are in line with reality. You should have your answer.

Claim: The coronavirus is a biological weapon used by the American government to destabilize the global economy, thus increasing reliance on American goods.

This is positively, without a shadow of a doubt, false.

Addressing similarly ridiculous claims:

  1. The Chinese government did not ask the World Health Organization to kill 20 000 patients infected by the coronavirus. This is a phoney article put forth by AB-TC, allegedly a news organization with a history of publishing faulty information.

  2. A book did not predict the coming coronavirus. Some believe that Dean Koontz, who authored The Eyes of Darkness, which was originally published in 1981, wrote a passage in his book that echoes the current coronavirus pandemic.

In the book, the virus is manmade and has a 100% mortality rate. The Eyes of Darkness is filled with countless other predictions that, fittingly, never saw the light of day.

Now to dive into some more serious claims that are relatively believable...

Claim: Drinking water can ensure that you do not contract the coronavirus.

The explanation here is simple. If viral particles have entered your throat, drinking water will wash them down into your stomach, where the low-pH, acidic environment will kill off the virus for good.

Unfortunately, there is very little truth to this. Infections often begin after we have been exposed to millions of viral particles, so a few going down the esophagus is unlikely to have much of an impact. In addition to this, there is no clear evidence that the progression of the coronavirus within the human body is hindered by the presence of acids. After the emergence of MERS from Saudi Arabia in 2012, researchers discovered that the pathogen, which is a relative of the one that leads to COVID-19, is considerably resistant to the acid that you can find in your stomach. Evidence from patients in China, who report symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea, shows that COVID-19 can infect the digestive tract.

Most importantly, the main route of transmission is actually from breathing in tiny droplets that contain thousands of viral particles, remnants of people coughing or sneezing in the air.

Claim: Gargling with a concoction of warm water and salt can help protect your throat against the coronavirus.

This practice is popular in some Asian countries, the most prominent examples being Japan and India. Research found that people who had gargled consistently over a period of 60 days were indeed less likely to report respiratory symptoms then those that had not. However, it is important to bear in mind that this study assessed infections of the upper respiratory tract, whereas COVID-19 is known to infect the lower respiratory tract. There is no concrete evidence that gargling helps protect against the coronavirus.

Although these seem to be relatively harmless pieces of advice, they detract from more important sanitary prevention methods when they grow in popularity. People should not be lulled into a false sense of security due to practices that have not yet been proven effective.

Claim: Anti-malarial drugs have been shown to be effective in fighting the coronavirus.

Little over a week ago, President Trump wrongfully claimed that a drug once used to treat malaria patients, chloroquine, had been approved for use in treating the coronavirus by the US Food and Drugs Administration. However, the FDA has stated outright that it has not approved any therapeutics or drugs to treat, prevent, or cure COVID-19. Chloroquine has been approved for what is known as compassionate use (administered to patients in order to potentially relieve symptoms). Clinical trials are still underway in China, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Spain, to assess whether chloroquine is effective.

Claim: The coronavirus dies in warm temperatures.

Some have claimed that outbreaks of COVID-19 will wane as temperatures rise, as has been observed with various other infectious diseases (most notably the flu, which arrives with colder winter months). This is because many of the larger outbreaks of the coronavirus have occurred in regions with cooler weather.

However, too little is known about the disease to assume that it will dwindle in warmer seasons. The virus that causes COVID-19, officially named SARS-CoV-2, is too new for there to be any firm data on the matter. Its close relative, the SARS virus, that spread in 2003, was very quickly contained. There is little information about how it was affected by seasonal changes.

It is true that the spread of COVID-19 around the world, thus far, seems to suggest that the virus has a preference for cool and dry conditions. Numerous research notes the correlation between temperate warm and cold climates with the quick emergence of COVID-19. Related coronaviruses are also seasonal.

This is because coronaviruses belong to a family of enveloped viruses, meaning they are covered by an oily coat known as a lipid bilayer. Research suggests that the lipid bilayer makes these viruses more susceptible to heat. In colder conditions, the oily coat hardens into a rubber-like state, providing greater protection for the viral particle. Most enveloped viruses show strong seasonality as a result of this.

What is crucial to note, however, is that the spread of a virus is reliant on more than just its capacity to survive in its environment. Seasonal changes also affect human behaviour, which can both hinder, or advance, the spread of a virus. For instance, measles cases in Europe have a tendency to coincide with school terms. They decrease during the holidays when children do not maintain daily contact with one another.

There is also debate on whether colder weather negatively or positively impacts human immune systems. There is stronger evidence that humidity has a considerable impact on our likelihood of catching respiratory disease. When the air is dry, it reduces the amount of mucus coating our lungs and airways. This sticky secretion forms a natural defence against harmful foreign particles, and in its absence, human beings are more vulnerable to viruses.

Despite all of this, the answer to whether warm weather can inhibit the infectious capacity of COVID-19 remains, unfortunately, inconclusive.

Claim: If I wear a mask, I cannot contract the coronavirus.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, many have rushed to buy different types of masks in the hopes that they will provide ample protection from the disease. Unfortunately, not all of these are effective against the virus. The vast majority of face masks and surgical masks protect the wearer from splashes and large particle droplets. However, they do not provide total protection from smaller germs and other contaminants, in part because of the loose fit of the masks, and because the filter is not designed for such a task. They also leave eyes exposed, which are other ports through which the viral particles can enter the human body. Face masks and most surgical masks are also to be used once and can be worn for up to eight hours. A more specialized type of mask, the N95 respirator, has proven mostly effective. It blocks out 95% of particles of a wide range of sizes (from 0.1 microns to the size of a watermelon), hence its name. However, the Center for Disease Control has discouraged the public from purchasing these masks, stating that the best preventative measures remain hand-washing and social distancing. There is a scarcity of N95 masks worldwide, and those actually infected by or directly exposed to the coronavirus need it before the rest of us.

Claim: The most effective practices are social distancing and washing hands.

The logic here is simple. Social distancing ensures that people who have been infected recognize their symptoms (which can take up to 2 weeks to be exhibited) and seek the necessary treatment. Washing hands eliminates most germs (thank you, Louis Pasteur) and other harmful particles. The coronavirus can survive on some surfaces for up to 72 hours, so it is crucial to wash your hands often and with soap. This claim is indeed true!

All in all, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed our tendency to believe simplistic and sensational truths. In times like these, it is important to stay sanitary, stay safe, and as always, stay informed!

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