Op-Ed: Myth-busting: The worst of the coronavirus falsehoods

Posted Mar 13, 2020 by Tim Sandle
The global preoccupation with the coronavirus pandemic is, unfortunately, leading to a plethora of fake news stories geared around attempts at self-protection and cures. Some are due to ignorance, others more malicious. We look at a few of these.
One poster shared online told the nurses: 'You guys are truly heroes to me'
One poster shared online told the nurses: 'You guys are truly heroes to me'
It is an unfortunate side of the last decade’s growth in social media that it is much easier to spread inaccurate facts and content, often purporting to be ‘news’. There has also been a tendency for the role of experts to be side-lined (anti-expert rhetoric has been espoused by 'populist' leaning politicians, as an example); coupled with a rise in mistrust of governments in some circles. These social tendencies are also helping to feed misinformation about the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and the COVID-19 disease.
A microscopic view of the MERS coronavirus  which is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible co...
A microscopic view of the MERS coronavirus, which is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the SARS virus that erupted in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people
, British Health Protection Agency/AFP/File
This includes things like coronavirus not being as serious as influenza, or flu being more infectious (the reproduction number, which measures the infectivity rate of a virus, for SARS-CoV-2 stands at 2.2, meaning a single infected person will infect about 2.2 others. In contrast, the typical rates for flu viruses is 1.3).
READ MORE: Coronavirus Covid-19 spread ‘underestimated’
In terms of the worst of the coronavirus myths, Digital Journal's science editor-at-large debunks the biggest myths doing the rounds on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Food and nutrition
Does eating garlic help to protect against coronavirus? No it doesn’t. While garlic has some antimicrobial properties, which may be effective against certain bacteria in certain circumstances, there is no evidence of garlic exerting any antiviral properties. This extends to all manner of herbs. One nonsensical claim relates to basil, either being added to water or inhaled (which reminds one of medieval practices during times of plague of sniffing bunches of flowers).
Garlic was an important ingredient in Bard s eyesalve.
Garlic was an important ingredient in Bard's eyesalve.
Felipe Gabaldón (CC BY 2.0)
One unsupported fact about coronavirus is that taking vitamin C provides protection. While there is some evidence (although not supported by all scientists) that the antioxidant may confer some protection against the virus that causes the common cold, there is no evidence that vitamin C intake provides any protection against the coronavirus. A similar myth has been reported in relation to sesame oil – it’s great for cooking, but not much else.
A further piece of incorrect information relates to drinking water every 5 or 15 minutes, either to keep the throat moist or with the expectation that ‘warm’ water will kill the virus, or even to flush the virus into the stomach. None of these measures will make any difference (although it is important to keep hydrated if the virus is contracted).
The classic whisky tasting glass - the Glencairn. The Glencairn Whisky Glass is a revolutionary whis...
The classic whisky tasting glass - the Glencairn. The Glencairn Whisky Glass is a revolutionary whisky glass that really lets one savor the taste and complexity of fine whisky.
Related to liquids is the idea that mouthwash will kill the virus. Mouthwashes are not formulated to kill coronaviruses (the aim is to act against plaque forming bacteria), and anyway the coronavirus is principally an infection of the lungs.
Antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria or inhibit bacterial growth. They do not work against any virus, so asking a medical practitioner for antibiotics is pointless and the risk is that if there is an increased consumption of antibiotics this will only serve to fuel the rise in antimicrobial resistant bacteria.
Personal habits
To address facemasks first; facemasks generally don’t work. Facemasks are designed to protect someone who may have an infection from breathing over someone who does not (which is why surgeons wear them during operations).
Wearing a facemask to avoid contracting the disease doesn’t add up. The virus can infect someone via the eyes and viral particles can penetrate most facemasks. Furthermore, facemasks decrease in efficiency overtime (most are only designed to be effective for four hours) and they are useless if they become wet (wearing a facemask in the rain would be the most pointless activity of all).
Chinese officials have told reporters that the deadly new virus is less powerful than SARS -- though...
Chinese officials have told reporters that the deadly new virus is less powerful than SARS -- though it is becoming more contagious
With gloves, the wearing of gloves does not suddenly make the wearer invincible. It’s just as easy to pass the virus from surface to surface, or from surface to another person, as it is with bare hands.
Among the most bizarre statements online is that shaving off facial hair provides a degree of protection against picking up the virus. Given that the virus enters via mouth and eyes it seems odd that anyone who think that shaving a beard off would confer additional protection.
A similar unsupported claim is that using hot air hand dryers kills the virus. There’s no evidence of this, although handwashing is very effective using hot water and soap. After handwashing, it is important to thoroughly dry hands.
Linked to these practices is the idea of rinsing one’s nose with saline. This is again pointless, tricky to undertake, and quite unpleasant.
Dangerous practices
Among the more dangerous practices being mooted are buying ultraviolet (UV) lamps in the attempt to decontaminate hands or other parts of skin. The application of UV light is dangerous to the eyes, it can also damage or dry out skin, and excessive applications are carcinogenic.
Presenter Rachel Blount shows how ultraviolet light can be used to effectively screen surfaces for c...
Presenter Rachel Blount shows how ultraviolet light can be used to effectively screen surfaces for contamination.
A further inappropriate idea is with spraying your body with alcohol or a more noxious substance like chlorine. This is likely to harm the risk and pose a health incident should the chemical burn the skin or be ingested. It is also somewhat pointless, should the virus have entered the body.
Downright lies
One of the most concerning falsehoods relates to vaccines, with some unethical people claiming that there is a vaccine, or that vaccines intended for other diseases will work, or that a betacoronavirus vaccine has been invented. This latter point is most dangerous of all, where people may be injected with a wholly unsafe, unapproved and untested cocktail of chemicals (such as a recent incident that was exposed in Nigeria where fake vaccines were been administered for money).
Learning lessons
What lessons can be drawn from this? It would seem that even in a supposedly more modern age and with a more tech-savvy global population there is recourse to regress to the superstitions of old. It is best to continue to follow the advice from reputable public health services and the World Health Organization (WHO), including regular hand washing and following current guidance when it comes to social contact.
To summarize the WHO best practice advice is:
Cover your mouth and nose while sneezing, with a tissue or your elbow;
Put the tissue straight into a closed bin;
Wash your hands regularly with soap and water or, if unavailable, a sanitiser;
Keep your distance from people who are coughing and sneezing (at least one metre).
And to make one last, important point: There are no specific medicines or vaccines for the new virus, and antibiotics do not work. The best thing to do is to minimize the spread, noting the WHO advice.