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Fake news about Covid-19 are as dangerous as the coronavirus itself

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”, said the World Health Organization (WHO) Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in February. What was he referring to? Covid-19 is surrounded by fake news about conspiracies, rumors and alternative therapies

We all heard that drinking hot water prevents the infection and that ibuprofen is bad to heal the disease. Well, none of that information is true because there is no scientific evidence proving it. 

I present now an example to show how fake news originate. The ibuprofen debate raised when in a letter published on “The Lancet Respiratory Medicine”, it was speculated that the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, could increase the risk of coronavirus infection. This because NSAIDs increase ACE2 levels, which is the anchor on the cell surface used by the virus to enter the cells. The letter was purely speculative, but the French government, followed by others, started a warning campaign against the use of ibuprofen. I don’t feel like blaming it, because there was no mean purpose, but these fake news can be harmful. The risk is that among thousands of rumors, true news could be missed, with catastrophic consequences.

Instead, other fake news are purposely fraudulent. Joan Donovan, from Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, revealed that there is plenty of scammers hiding behind the 120.000 domains related to Covid-19 and coronavirus. These websites use clickbait words such as “masks”, “loan”, “unemployment”, “trial”, “vaccine” and “cure” to deceive people. In mid March, tech companies Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube released the joined statement that you can read below:

joint statement

Even though the statement is vague and doesn’t really imply that something will change, they had to take action because otherwise their usual “doing nothing” to fight fake news would become too evident and irritating. 

An example of worldwide fake news is represented by hydroxychloroquine as miraculous drug for Covid-19. It has been tested and showed some positive effects on patients, like other treatments. Anyway it gained popularity thanks to misleading information. A phoney adviser to Stanford University’s School of Medicine in California (Stanford denied such collaboration) released a Google doc in which it was stated that “hydroxychloroquine has 100% cure rate” on the basis of a small study in France. The document became popular after being shared on Twitter by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk. The news was welcomed with enthusiasm by President Donald Trump, alarming pharmacists and researchers: in fact, chloroquine can provide serious side effects, as it was confirmed by people treated with such drug.

Rumors and fake news about alternative treatments are as dangerous as the virus itself, and it forced the WHO to open a page of Mythbusters, to debunk all Covid-19-related fake news: 5G doesn’t cause the disease because the virus cannot travel through radio waves or mobile networks; exposing to the sun or temperatures higher than 25°C doesn’t prevent coronavirus infection, and so on.  

How to avoid fake news about Covid-19?

First of all, check the source of the information, such as the domain of the website. The WHO webpage is full of validated information about Covid-19. Research articles are sometimes inaccessible to people without proper background. To help with that, scientists like me select the main ones and present them in a more understandable way. It is really important, when you read articles from a blog or other unofficial sources, that there are references, to indicate from where the original information is taken.

I take the occasion to mention that you can contact me directly through this blog, if you have any question, curiosity or doubt about anything related to science and health. I’m happy to answer to you. 

Because of the Covid-19, the scientific community gained popularity, and few scientists took advantage from it. Even if not from the field, they made commentaries or basic research that could destabilize research done by real experts. “I’m not a virologist or epidemiologist but…” is not a sentence you want to hear from a scientist talking about Covid-19. Trust virologists that talk about viral infections, epidemiologists that explain the spreading of the pandemic, and so on. You don’t call an architect to fix your roof, right? Trust only valid sources. 

When you read news about 100% efficient cures, be careful. Most likely it’s scam. First, verify that true scientific evidence has been provided together with it: if a cure has been proven valid, for sure you can find information about successful clinical trials. 

Another advice is to prevent spreading of fake news by not interacting with them. Social networks propagate news that receive a lot of engagement, therefore if you already know that an article is misleading, do not open it.

The pandemic is a catastrophe and our possibility to control it is limited. Instead, we can successfully fight the related infodemic: social networks should do their best to prevent the spreading of fake news and we can contribute by being aware and avoiding to share them. 

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