Fake news, fake apps, fake treatments and fake tests in the time of Coronavirus


COVID-19 Fake News
The year is 2020. The pandemic is COVID-19. Countries are grappling with a virus that is believed to have found its way from a bat, through pangolin trade, into the human body and in a matter of months, spread from patient zero to over 25,00,000 confirmed cases world over. No standardized treatment is available, vaccines are months away from development, personal protective equipment is scarce, testing kits are faulty but that’s not where we are concentrating our energies on. We are spreading unverified news through social media apps, blaming religious communities for spreading the virus intently and forcing governments to spend more time devising strategies to contain fake news than the virus.



Across Europe and in Britain, people have correlated the roll-out of 5G mobile phone technology to the spread of Coronavirus and set about putting 5G towers on fire.  The spread of these theories has been so rapid and viral that the World Health Organization had to spend resources to create infographics about how wrong these are and include them on their Myth Busters Page.



When one would think that technology would be an aide in this time of unprecedented crises, “brilliant minds” have spent developing apps that people can download and be alerted if there is a Coronavirus case in their vicinity. Except that one you give these apps permissions to microphone, camera, contacts, GPS location and what not, they simply lock your lockscreen and demand $100 in BitCoin to unlock your phone. Techies in South Korea and Singapore made apps that democratized contact tracing, while the Indian version of contact tracing app actually seeks more information than it needs.



After the fake news and apps, come the fake treatments or preventive cures. Closer home, garlic, hot water and combinations thereof, have been certified by WhatsApp groups to prevent Coronavirus infections. When country leaders engage in speculative treatments, demand on the dark web springs up, unprescribed medication intake increases and even affects supply to ailing patients who really need them. 



Worse still is the sale of vaccines in the dark market that are blatantly targeting the gullible, the uniformed and monetizing the fear in these people. But can you really blame the lay person for trying to get his hands on the first batch of vaccines so that he can protect himself and his family. Newspapers and journalism websites have been screaming about potential vaccines almost every single day, if not every other hour.


 

With no clear timelines for availability of the vaccine, a lay person is likely to presume that a vaccine available on the web is the legit one and fall for the trap in these stressful times. While the US FDA has warned companies to desist sale of any such products, back home, the Minister of State for AYUSH ministry is keen on testing preventive treatments that have been envisioned by a school teacher.  To be honest this should not come as big surprise in our country, where an authorities’ approved religious congregation was spun off as an act of war to feed the viewers of prime time news.



But it is not only news channels that are spinning stories into money making machines. Laboratories of decent reputations are also spinning off research publications in the hope that they can engage the gullible public and make some money during this crisis.



A paper published recently compared some variants in the ACE gene and predicted (in-silico) that these variants were likely to play a role in a Coronavirus infection. Since, this publication was based on computational modelling and no real patients were actually tested in the study, it is impossible to tell whether these findings are true in the real world. Authors of the publication also state that the aim of the publication is to find potential drugs for Coronavirus, since variants in the gene might affect efficacy of the drugs, when administered. This is a common phenomenon when it comes to drug metabolism in the body and pharmacogenetics is the field that studies this interplay of variants in genes and drug metabolism to determine if a drug should be administered to a patient or not. These are long term studies conducted over hundreds of patients, if not thousands, and usually at multiple sites, before arriving at a final conclusion.

The gene mentioned in this paper, the ACE gene is a commonly tested gene in many wellness genetics tests, that usually provide information about your metabolism and pharmacogenetics. Wellness genetics companies in India are already claiming that their tests can determine if you are at risk for contracting Coronavirus infections.






Here is another claiming personalized diet recommendations to fight off Coronavirus.


 
Reporters in the media also picked up these stories, just like they have done with the vaccines and spread the word about home based kits being available for COVID-19 in India. Declarations given by the Centre about such tests not being approved have not found the same acceptance by reporters and have been reported by smaller outlets, with much smaller audiences.



The fight in this pandemic is not limited to the virus alone but also against our ignorance, our lack of scientific temper and our dependence on TV to tell us right from wrong. The fight is going to be long and it is time we verified everything that is coming our way and not just take it at face value. 


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