It has become abundantly clear that there is no benefit in getting sick with COVID-19. Avoiding becoming infected should be everyone’s goal. It is an infectious disease with unpredictable outcomes, ranging across the health spectrum from benign asymptomatic, to mild cold-like symptoms, to severe flu-like symptoms, to intubation in an intensive care unit (ICU) or death.
The most reliable way to prevent such outcomes is with vaccination. Yet, around one in five adults in the population remain vaccine resistant. Still, many of these people want to stay infection-free. However, if they become infected, some are willing to try unproven and, in some cases, dangerous methods to treat their disease.
What methods have been proposed to date?
During an April 2020 press briefing, former President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE suggested the possibility of injecting a disinfectant in the body to kill the virus. The maker of Lysol, a widely used disinfectant brand, quickly dismissed the approach as unsafe and dangerous, as their disinfectants are not for internal consumption. People quickly figured this out, without physicians or the product manufacturers publicly announcing their dangers. Sadly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported people misusing such products, creating unnecessary health risks to themselves.
Another method promoted by the former president was Hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to prevent and treat malaria, as well as treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted it emergency use authorization (which it subsequently revoked) for hospitalized patients. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a study to evaluate it, which showed no measurable clinical benefits. As such, medical facilities no longer offer Hydroxychloroquine to treat hospitalized COVID-19 cases.
Yet another product touted to combat COVID-19 is ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasitic infections in people and to deworm pets and livestock. To meet demand, organizations popped up to facilitate linking people with physicians who are willing to prescribe the drug and assist in getting prescriptions filled. People have even gone to the courts to get medical facilities to prescribe the drug for relatives hospitalized with COVID-19. The FDA recently issued a statement cautioning against using ivermectin off-label to treat or prevent COVID-19. The CDC also issued a health advisory warning against its use for COVID-19.
What are the lessons to be learned here?
First, desperate people will do desperate things. The disinfectant debacle was frightening because it was so dangerous. Hydroxychloroquine was tested and evaluated using appropriate scientific methods and dismissed as ineffective. Ivermectin is the most recent incarnation of such desperation, with no credible evidence reported to date supporting its effectiveness in treating COVID-19.
Those who are vaccinated do not need unproven remedies. At the same time, those unvaccinated are willing to expose themselves to personal health risks to avoid vaccination, even though ironically, they may view vaccination as a personal health risk.
Second, some will do anything to avoid vaccination. Unreliable posts on social media and the internet are believed, while advice from health care providers is discounted. Reports based on science and data from the CDC, the FDA and the NIH are summarily dismissed. Much of the misinformation reported relies on associations rather than causality, a frequently misunderstood concept in data analysis. Money is spent chasing unproven and dangerous remedies, while vaccines are available at no cost.
Third, we need effective treatments for COVID-19. Vaccines are critically important, yet as the virus becomes endemic, those who become infected may need treatments that will keep them out of hospitals and from dying. Breakthrough infection rates indicate that such events occur, albeit at a low rate. Effective treatments will add a critical layer of public health protection, giving people more confidence and health security.
The worst part of this situation is that more unproven and potentially dangerous remedies will surface in the future. At the same time, organizations will sprout to feed people’s fears and exploit widespread science naivety and gullibility. Regrettably, nothing can be done to stop this abuse.
Currently, the simple solution remains vaccination.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a Founder Professor of Computer Science and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public health policy.