During the COVID-19 pandemic, you will read a lot of news articles, see videos on facebook and hundreds of WhatsApp forwards that all say miraculous things about COVID.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, you will read a lot of news articles, see videos on facebook and hundreds of WhatsApp forwards that all say miraculous things about COVID. That salt gargles washes down the bacteria, that citrus fruits have a high pH and neutralise coronavirus (hint, theyre acidic with pH 3–4) or that avocado has a pH of 18 and is the miracle cure (the pH goes from 1–14, trying to eat anything that alkali would destroy your stomach, and COVID would be the last of your worries).
This is really frustrating for lots of doctors and health professionals. Why? Because it gives people a false sense of security. It makes them use these unproven whatsapp remedies to “cure themselves” when they have no effect or may even be harmful. In Iran over 130 people have died trying to use methanol, a highly toxic liquid, to cure themselves, because they wanted to believe there was an easy cure.
Why do people believe such stories. Its because scientists are slow at coming up with a cure. And people are scared. They want to feel safe, they want a cure now. They don’t know why it takes so long to find a cure for COVID. Below I am going to try and briefly explain the amount of effort that goes into scientifically proving or disproving a fact, and why scientists don’t immediately say “taking this drug will protect you from COVID”.
If you scroll down the page you can read about the stringent world of research. After reading this, ask yourself: this new remedy, suggestion, cure, protection, miracle that I’ve read on Facebook, WhatsApp, News etc. Would it stand up to this rigorous process?
WHAT SHOULD I DO?
If you’ve made it through that explanation, congratulations and thank you for reading. Now comes the hard part. What should I do? How do I stop myself from falling for these articles.
- Always be sceptical. If something is too good to be true, it probably is. Just because a forward has “From Doctor XYZ, From Hospital abc, From Journal of virology etc” does not mean it is true. Anyone can type those words.
- Do not share information that may not be true. Look it up first, see if it is reported by someone trustworthy. Share reputable information, not rumours
- Use trusted sources for information. Personally, BBC News and WHO websites are perfect sources for reliable, trustworthy information that has been fact checked many times. You can also find myth busting articles on there explaining why certain “facts” are not what they seem
- Stick to public health guidelines. If doctors tell you to stay indoors and wash your hands, please follow that advice. We do not want you to get infected and end up in hospital.
DOES X CAUSE Y?
Lets first start off with understanding research. Research is not easy. You cannot simply look at something and state it is the truth. It must be tested thoroughly. If you look at ice cream sales, they usually rise at the same time as accidental drowning deaths. Does this mean one causes the other? Of course not. In the summer people buy more ice cream and go swimming on the beach. This is why ice cream sales and drowning incidents increase at the same time. But simply looking at numbers might suggest something different. A rise in sales, a rise in drownings, why doesn’t one cause the other.
Now this example sounds ridiculous because common sense tells us summer is causing both to rise. But what about in medicine? Are stomach ulcers caused by bacteria, not stress? Does aspirin protect you against colon cancer? Do blood pressure tablets increase your risk of getting COVID? These are all valid questions, and numbers might show one story. But you cannot base the treatment of millions of people on stories and anecdotes. There needs to be proof.
For this reason studies have to be designed to show that one event definitively causes the other event, and it is not down to random chance. They need to remove as many variables as possible so we are only testing one event. If I want to show that blood pressure tablets can increase my risk of getting COVID, I need to account for age, gender, family history of hypertension, occupation, all the medications a patient takes, other medical diseases and so on.
This makes clinical research a long, arduous and expensive process requiring thousands of participants, and usually ends with dull results. And that’s before we even get into the murky realm of statistics. Incorrectly applied statistics can bend a result and show you what you want to see. It is used all the time in news and politics, but has no place in the world of science.
If I design a study and it shows interesting results, I will want to publish it to show other scientists my data. After all, it may be the next cure for cancer, or help us understand a pandemic that is devastating the world. But publishing is not that easy. I may think I have designed a perfect study, but ultimately every study has flaws.
Some are more serious than others, and some nullify the study itself. I may also have designed the study so that I end up finding a result where there isn’t one, maybe to earn my 5 minutes of fame or because I was sponsored by a company to create this result.
This is why studies are peer-reviewed. When they are submitted for publication other scientists and researchers will thoroughly examine the theory, methodology, statistics, funding and more to find all the flaws. They will see if the study can be reproduced, whether it was a fluke result, whether the researcher accounted for everything to show without a doubt that x caused y. Most scientific journals have a very high threshold, and if flaws are found the paper is rejected until the flaws are rectified.
Dr Rajan Choudhary, UK, Chief Product Officer, Second Medic Inc
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