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

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

by Coffee Table Science

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

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

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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