Debunking disinformation

Below, our experts debunk some of the myths and misinformation floating around the web. See disinfo in the wild? Send it to our scientists on our Ask A Scientist page.

Myth: The COVID-19 outbreak is no worse than the seasonal flu and because of this, social distancing restrictions should be lifted.

Two doctors from Bakersfield, California have claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic is no worse than a typical outbreak of seasonal influenza and social distancing restrictions and economic closures should be ended immediately. However, researchers have found that the COVID-19 virus is more contagious and kills at higher rates than the flu. Almost one in five people with COVID-19 will be hospitalized for a severe infection, while only two out of 100 people will be hospitalized because of the flu. The seasonal flu kills about 0.1% of those who contract it. The fatality rate of COVID-19, on the other hand, is 10 to 40 times higher. Between 2010 and 2019, the flu killed between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans during each eight-month long season (October to May). In just over four months, or about half of a flu season, COVID-19 has killed over 100,000 people (as of May 28), or 785 people each day, in the U.S. alone. Social distancing reduces the likelihood of spreading the COVID-19 virus to others, slowing the rate of infections and decreasing the number of those who will get sick. It also allows hospitals to provide the highest quality care possible with their limited resources.

Bottom line: COVID-19 is much deadlier and more contagious than the flu, and while social distancing can be frustrating and stressful, it is proven to reduce the number of severe cases and deaths in our communities.

Myth: Colloidal silver can prevent or cure COVID-19.

Several popular figures, including Alex Jones of Infowars and televangelist Jim Bakker, have promoted colloidal silver as a substance that can quickly kill the COVID-19 virus. There is no evidence that this is true and ingesting this substance is harmful, not helpful.

Colloidal silver consists of tiny silver particles in a liquid and is often marketed as a dietary supplement that can boost the immune system and cure several diseases, including COVID-19. However, it builds up in the body’s tissues, eventually and irreversibly turning the skin, eyes, internal organs, and fingernails gray. In higher doses, colloidal silver can cause lasting kidney and neurological damage, including seizures. It can also interact with prescribed medications and render them less effective.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has even issued several orders to halt the sale of colloidal silver as a cure for COVID-19 because of sellers’ deceptive health claims.

Bottom line: There is no scientific evidence that colloidal silver can prevent or cure COVID-19. It is more likely to permanently damage one’s health and cause a number of diseases instead of cure them.

Myth: Warmer weather will slow down COVID-19.

A new study by Canadian researchers tracked COVID-19 rates around the world and looked at differences by climate. They found little or no association between epidemic growth and temperature. However, a strong link existed between reduced disease transmission and physical distancing measures, like school closures and limiting of large gatherings.

And according to an article from the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard, we cannot assume that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, will behave like the coronaviruses that cause the common cold or the flu. So far, COVID-19 has behaved in very unexpected ways compared with these other diseases. It’s also possible that the reason cold and flu “season” declines in warm weather is because schools are closed and people are outdoors more. Many viruses are spread by sharing an enclosed air space with people who are infected. In cooler climates, summer gets people outdoors, so they spend less time together in enclosed spaces. In hot climates, however, people might actually spend more time indoors together because they are seeking air conditioning.

Myth: Fruit can test positive for COVID-19 and thus, COVID-19 and tests to detect it are fake.

Certain posts on Twitter have claimed that fruit can test positive for COVID-19, suggesting that the tests (and COVID-19 itself) are fake. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States Food and Drug Administration, and the United States Department of Agriculture, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that transmission of COVID-19 can occur via the consumption of food products (including fruits and vegetables).

Person-to-person transmission, through droplets containing the virus, is still the main route of transmission for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It is possible to have coronavirus contamination of surfaces, such as the packaging in groceries, but because this virus does not seem to be viable on surfaces for longer than 12-24 hours, the risk of transmission through this route is very low. It is good practice to wash fruits and vegetables before consumption and refrigerate foods as quickly as possible, but once again, the chances of getting COVID-19 from food itself is low. After handling groceries, simply wash your hands with soap and water.

Neither COVID-19 nor SARS-CoV-2 is fake. SARS-CoV-2 has been isolated and cultured in cells, and electron micrographs (which are images) of SARS-CoV-2 have been identified. Figure 2 of this article includes electron micrographs of SARS-CoV-2. In addition, individuals who previously had COVID-19 have antibodies (which are produced by the immune system) against SARS-CoV-2 in their bloodstreams, which can be detected by laboratory testing.

Myth: Issuing "immunity passports" should be a key part of societal recovery from COVID-19.

The idea of “immunity passports” has gained popularity as communities begin to open up after quarantine. However, it would be exceedingly difficult to identify each person that is immune to the COVID-19 virus. A paper in Nature evaluates the problems with this idea.

Specifically, we do not yet know how long people who have had COVID-19 will be immune to re-infection. Until antibody tests are more accurate, it would be a mistake to rely on them to guide decisions about who is “safe” to work or travel. Rapid antibody tests are not perfect, and even highly accurate tests register false positives and negatives. Also, it is not feasible to test every American twice, the minimum number needed to certify immunity under proposed programs. There are 328 million people in the United States. We would need at least double that number of tests, and the cost alone would be prohibitive.

Current estimates show only a small portion of the population (2-3% worldwide) has been infected and recovered. If immunity/an immunity passport was required for people to return to work, that’s would significantly reduced workforce and not enough to boost the economy in a significant way. Based on confirmed U.S. cases, only 0.43% (less than half a percent) could be certified to return to work currently. Additionally, people who want an immunity passport might seek out infection just so they can travel and work – a dangerous practice.

There are privacy concerns with this approach as well, which could be in violation of HIPAA and HITECH laws. Marginalized groups could face more scrutiny. For example, in countries where certain racial or ethnic groups have higher rates of infection, there could be profiling. With a shortage of tests, access would likely not be equitable for those who want immunity passports. Immunity passports could also create a new group of “haves” and “have-nots,” reducing access to jobs and travel for the “have-nots.”