Podcast: Addressing rumors, conspiracy theories related to coronavirus

A new episode of our podcast, “Show Me the Science,” has been posted. At present, these podcasts are highlighting research and patient care on the Washington University Medical Campus as our scientists and clinicians confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

It seems almost every day brings a new finding about COVID-19, but still, relatively little is understood about the novel coronavirus, the disease it causes or how best to prevent and treat it. Scientific research takes time, but the lack of sound research hasn’t stopped some from filling in the gaps with their own theories about the origins of the virus, potential treatments, vaccines, the usefulness of masks and other matters. In this episode, we discuss some of the strange theories filling social media feeds and even climbing best-seller lists. David Wang, PhD, a professor of molecular microbiology, and of pathology and immunology, discusses the origins of the new coronavirus, as well as what can be learned from past outbreaks. In addition, Michael S. Kinch, PhD, associate vice chancellor and director of the Center for Research Innovation in Biotechnology and the Center for Drug Discovery, discusses fears, particularly fears and rumors often linked to vaccines. Also a professor of radiation oncology and of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, he authored the book “Between Hope and Fear,” about the history of vaccines in medicine.

The podcast, “Show Me the Science,” is produced by the Office of Medical Public Affairs at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Full transcript

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Jim Dryden (host): Hello and welcome to “Show Me the Science,” a podcast about the research, teaching, and patient care, as well as the student, staff, and faculty at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, the Show-Me State. My name is Jim Dryden, and I’m your host this week. We’ve been focusing these podcasts on the COVID-19 pandemic and Washington University’s response, trying to bring you as much information as we can. Unfortunately, much still is unknown about this new coronavirus and the illness it causes. That, however, has not stopped some from trying to fill in the gaps. On social media, unfounded rumors and conspiracies abound about the origins of the virus, the use of masks, vaccines, and other issues. For example, some claim the virus is a bioweapon that was created in a lab in Wuhan, China. But Washington University’s David Wang who studies viruses says that’s extremely unlikely.

David Wang, PhD: Its sequence is different from any virus that we’ve ever seen, so it’s very difficult to imagine that anyone could have engineered it or manufactured it. And there are so many viruses that are very similar to it in nature in bats, that the most logical and simplest conclusion is that it came from nature.

Dryden: Other rumors make the unfounded claim that wearing a mask can make you sick, that vaccines we’ve received earlier in our lifetimes make us more vulnerable to infection with this new virus, even that when a COVID-19 vaccine finally arrives, it may be used as a way to track people and invade their privacy. Washington University’s Michael Kinch has written a book about the history of vaccines in the U.S. It’s called “Between Hope and Fear.”

Michael Kinch, PhD: In looking at the history of medicine, there has always been an irrational fear of vaccination. There was an anti-vax community before there was the first vaccine.

Dryden: This week, speaking with both Kinch and Wang, we’re comparing the rumors and conspiracy theories to the reality that the coronavirus has caused about 100,000 deaths in about three months in the United States. David Wang says this new coronavirus is different from other deadly viruses that have arisen in recent years.

Wang: It’s really because it’s a respiratory virus, and so it can be spread through droplets and particles in the air, and you don’t have to have direct contact. Everyone knows about Ebola virus, but Ebola virus is actually very difficult to transmit. You have to actually come into very close contact with fluids from an infected patient. So if you’re able to keep physically distant from the Ebola patient, then you won’t get infected. For Zika virus, which was in the news a couple years ago, that was transmitted primarily, almost exclusively by mosquitoes. And so it was very difficult for, again, humans to transmit to other humans. The first SARS was very similar to this one. It was less readily transmitted, and so then it was easier to contain by quarantine and isolation of people who were infected and their contacts.

Dryden: We know it’s caused hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide in only a few months. There are some people who have suggested that something that deadly must have been created on purpose.

Wang: There’s no data to support the idea. It appears, by all accounts, to be a natural virus that emerged, and we’ve been dealing with natural viruses that emerged for the past many decades. It is, in fact, not very lethal compared to viruses like Ebola, which kill somewhere between 50 and 90% of the people who are infected by it. More specifically, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a totally new virus. Its sequence is different from any virus that we’ve ever seen, so it’s very difficult to imagine that anyone could have engineered it or manufactured it. And there are so many viruses that are very similar to it in nature, in bats that the most logical and simplest conclusion is that it came from nature. There is absolutely no evidence that any parts of it have been manipulated by humans, as far as we can tell.

Dryden: Is there a way that you can explain why you think that?

Wang: I guess people have wanted to use viruses as bioweapons for a long time. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union had biological warfare programs. And in those cases, though, they always utilized highly deadly viruses that we knew about. If you were going to engineer a brand-new virus, that’s extraordinarily difficult. But if you were going to do it, you might try to take pieces from the viruses that you knew were very deadly, and there’s no evidence that any parts of any known highly pathogenic viruses have been incorporated into the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence.

Dryden: This gets compared to the Spanish flu of the World War I era. That, obviously, is a different kind of virus. There have also been other viruses that were relatively widespread and feared like polio, like smallpox. Is there a comparison between this and any of those?

Wang: In history, the most similar comparison is to the Spanish flu from 1918. That’s because it’s also a respiratory virus that transmits quite readily. It kills a significant fraction but not at the extraordinarily high levels of something like Ebola, which again, is something like greater than 50% of the people. So I think that there are a lot of analogies to the 1918 flu, although it’s a very different kind of virus. Our ability to treat and to hopefully develop therapeutics or prevention strategies are far superior now, and so that’s one advantage that we have. I think there is hope that we could have effective drugs that could be developed.

Dryden: The weather’s warming up. I know, again, a different kind of virus, but flu season tends to go away when the weather tends to get warm. Is there any thought that this virus might behave the same way, or is it possible that it will get worse again even with the warm weather?

Wang: I think it’s unlikely that the warm weather is going to help the situation in a significant way. That’s because when you look at other parts of the world, the virus is expanding tremendously in places like Saudi Arabia. Brazil is a hot spot right now, and Brazil’s on the equator. A lot of people can be infected with the virus and transmit the virus even though they don’t have symptoms.

Dryden: Is social distancing still the key as we move into the summer?

Wang: Public health people have done a good job of emphasizing that you have to do this social distancing and be six feet away from people. But I guess I’m concerned now with all this reopening that you have six-feet spacing and people can be sitting in the restaurant, but now you’re there for hours on end and you’re six feet away. This is not the magic bullet because it’s respiratory. Being six feet away from someone who was infected for two hours or three hours is not good. I fear that people have latched onto the six-feet thing as if it’s a magic thing. And if this was Ebola virus, it would be wonderful. You will not get Ebola virus if you’re six feet away, but this is a respiratory virus. And so I fear that — I don’t know, the people who want to open gyms, they’re saying, “Well, we’ll be social distanced. We’ll be six feet away.” So you’ll have people six feet away who are breathing heavily, huffing and puffing, and you’re both on the treadmill for an hour. Everybody’s exhaling forcefully and, yes, you are six feet away, but that’s worthless.

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Kinch: I’m Michael Kinch. I’m an associate vice chancellor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Dryden: Kinch directs Washington University’s Center for Research Innovation and Biotechnology and Center of Drug Development. He has studied and written about vaccines throughout our nation’s history. And he says he believes part of the issue with this new coronavirus is that so much still is unknown, and so many people looking to learn more have been willing to accept bad information.

Kinch: Well, I think, obviously, it comes from fear, and I’m not a psychologist. I’m a biologist, but at the end of the day, to put things into perspective, this is an extremely dangerous virus. It is very easily communicated to others, and so we need to be very nervous about this.

Dryden: It seems as if there are a lot of people that don’t think masks protect you or don’t think masks protect others. The question is why do we wear masks?

Kinch: Well, we wear masks, probably if you look at the biology behind it, to prevent a virus that we might have from being transmitted to others. You’re doing service to your neighbor by wearing a mask. So instead of viewing it as something that is harmful to you and it’s inconvenient and everything else that goes with wearing a mask, the reality is that that mask is actually you preventing, hopefully, your spreading the disease to someone else.

Dryden: We wipe down our groceries when we get home, maybe we let the mail sit for a day before we open it, things like that. Are those worthwhile?

Kinch: We tend to become most fearful of the things that we, again, don’t understand as much. The likelihood that the virus is going to be sitting on that pizza box is actually quite low. The bigger fear is that you might communicate that to someone else and cause harm to them. And so we just have to put things into perspective, and right now we’ve got, if anything, perhaps an irrational fear of COVID-19 by some people. And then we have another population of people, a minority of people, that figure, “Well, let fate be what it is. I’m not afraid of this virus. It’s overblown.” The danger of that is that it doesn’t take but a small minority to infect the majority, and that’s what it really comes down to: A small number of people can really cause a lot of harm.

Dryden: We have heard that one reason we’re so susceptible to this is because we’ve all been vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, that these vaccines have made us more vulnerable. What are your thoughts?

Kinch: In part of the book that I wrote, which is called “Between Hope and Fear,” in looking at the history of medicine, there has always been an irrational fear of vaccination. And I can actually say and defend the statement that there was an anti-vax community before there was the first vaccine. Part of this fear that we’ve been experiencing today – and there was a documentary, or a supposed documentary, and a book that is on the best-seller list right now that is helping to spread the most recent version of the conspiracy, which is that vaccines are doing some harm. None of the vaccines on the market today have that inherent risk that has been attributed by this supposed documentary and this book to causing COVID-19 or propagating COVID-19. COVID-19 is, unfortunately, an infection that happens normally about every decade or two, naturally coming out of nature about every 10 to 20 years.

Dryden: But this one is worse than SARS was, for instance. Not that it’s worse for the people that are infected because my understanding is that SARS was probably more lethal than this one, but it was contained more quickly than this one was.

Kinch: Yes. So again, that gets back to the fact that all of your listeners need to realize there are two factors that make a disease truly lethal. One is whether it will kill you when you get it, but the other is how easily you transmit it. And when you look at SARS, it was very similar to Ebola, where basically, the disease was so deadly – well, you could argue from an evolutionary standpoint SARS was too deadly. It killed people before they had the ability to communicate the disease to the next person.

Dryden: A moment ago we were talking about your expertise with vaccines and the history of vaccines. Now there’s a rush to make a new one. Is there danger in bringing out a vaccine too quick? And then the second part is because we’re rushing to try to get a vaccine out and because there are people who are suspicious of vaccines, does that add to the paranoia?

Kinch: From the discovery side, it’s really important that we get this right because we need to make sure not just that we can develop a vaccine that elicits antibodies. And the early results that have caused a lot of excitement about some of the early vaccines that are being tested are just that, they’re very early. We don’t know whether they are creating protective antibodies or nonprotective antibodies. We don’t know also whether they’re producing enough of those antibodies to be physiologically useful, and we don’t know how long they’re going to last.

Dryden: The second part of that was just about anti-vax thoughts feeding into the idea that we’re in a hurry to get this vaccine.

Kinch: There has always been an anti-vax movement, every vaccine that’s ever come out. And there’s always been a different angle on it. The current fear is associated, for example, with 5G towers and the rationale behind that, there is no rationale. There’s no objective evidence of anything. And I can tell you that infectious agents could not care less about this part of the electromagnetic spectrum, so there is nothing to it whatsoever.

Dryden: I’m imagining that from the point of view of science, the fact that we’re having these debates that are causing us at some times to move at cross-purposes as a society is probably to the benefit of the virus rather than to the benefit of us.

Kinch: It is important to have these kind of debates. The problem arises when those debates prevent us from being able to move forward. If or when a vaccine is developed, there will be a question about mandatory vaccination. And the urgency and importance of that comes back to what we started off with. The deadliness of this virus is a reflection of its ability to be easily transmitted and to kill with high efficiency. And even if a small population of people opposes being vaccinated, that could still end up endangering a vast number of people, and people will die as a consequence of that.


Dryden: Both Kinch and Wang say the only way to better understand the virus and COVID-19 illness is to do more studies. They say, unfortunately for those who want quick answers, some of those studies will take some time. But in the meantime, with so many unknowns, there are a few things that are virtually certain. No matter what you’ve seen on social media, masks do protect. Certainly, they provide some protection for others from you. Also, 5G phone towers have nothing to do with this virus, and the virus almost certainly was not built in a laboratory.

“Show Me the Science” is a production of the Office of Medical Public Affairs at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The goal of this project is to keep you informed and maybe teach you some things that will give you hope. Thanks for tuning in. I’m Jim Dryden. Stay safe.

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