Can you tell coronavirus facts from myths? Match your wits against an epidemiologist

About 10 percent of Americans believe that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19. Almost a third think the virus can be spread via boxes or packages shipped to the United States from foreign countries.

Myths abound about the new coronavirus not only here but in countries all around the world, according to the results of a new survey from Ipsos. From May 28-31, Ipsos pollsters asked 15,872 adults worldwide to answer a set of true-false questions about COVID-19.

In addition to the U.S., respondents came from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea and the United Kingdom. Their ages ranged from 18 to 74 in Canada and the United States and 16 to 74 in the other countries.

“This feels a little like the polls you see in teen magazines: How do you know your girlfriend loves you?” said infectious disease epidemiologist Murray Cohen. “But I’d like to use this, if you’ll permit me, to provide some teachable moments.”

Actually, that’s precisely why The Bee called up Cohen to discuss the survey results. Now retired, he worked for decades at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at the World Health Organization and as a certified industrial hygienist advising hospitals on how to prevent the spread of infections in their buildings.

Below you’ll find the questions that Ipsos asked and the answers that Cohen provides. See how you stack up against the epidemiologist.

1. COVID-19 can be spread by boxes and packages sent from other countries where it is present.

True? or Not true?

2. COVID-19 can live up to three days on surfaces.

True? or Not true?

3. Children cannot get COVID-19.

True? or Not true?

4. There is a cure for COVID-19 called hydroxychloroquine.

True? or Not true?

5. If a test for antibodies shows you’ve already been exposed to COVID-19, you cannot get the virus.

True? or Not true?

6. Exposure to the sun or to temperature prevents COVID-19.

True? or Not true?

7. Eating garlic protects against infection of COVID-19.

True? or Not true?

8. Pets can transmit COVID-19 to humans.

True? or Not true?

9. 5G mobile technology spreads COVID-19.

True? or Not true?

1. As many U.S. citizens said this was true as those who said it was false.

Cohen: The virus won’t survive for long enough on cardboard to survive a trip from China, he said, but what people really want to know is how they could be exposed.

There are recent studies showing that it’s possible but unlikely that the virus will survive the trip from a surface to your hand and then to your nose, eyes or mouth.

Still, wash your hands with soap and water after unpacking the box and touching other surfaces. It’s a really effective means to cut down on transmission of germs, he said, and he’d like to see all people do it more often.

2. Roughly 60 percent of U.S. citizens said this was true.

Cohen: Most studies say the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, can survive anywhere from a few hours to three days. It dries out faster on porous surfaces such as cardboard than it does on metal and plastic.

“But all of these tests are done in laboratory conditions: perfect temperature, perfect humidity, conditions where they are trying to make it live as long as possible,” he said. As an epidemiologist, though, he said he doesn’t “look at something and say, ‘I wonder how long the virus could stay alive on that if it was there.’ Instead, if I think of it, it might be: ‘Let me be sure I wash my hands before I touch my face or eat anything after touching that product.’”

3. Almost 10 percent of Americans said this was true.

Cohen: This is no more true than the myth that African Americans can’t get COVID-19.

“Every single one of the 8.something billion human beings on earth, whatever their age, can get this virus, and in fact, they either will get this virus and live or they will get this virus and die or they won’t get the virus. Those are the only choices for everybody,” he said.

While many children and young people show no symptoms of the disease, they can still be infected with it. In California, no one below age 17 has died, but 9,136 of them have tested positive for the illness.

4. Seventy percent of U.S. citizens said this is not true.

Cohen: No, it’s not, period.

“It’s actually a very, very good drug for what it does,” he added, after a pregnant pause. “It’s registered by the World Health Organization as one of the essential drugs needed in every spot in the world.”

It has specific uses, and those do not include coronavirus or any other viral infection, Cohen said.

“It’s also not a benign drug,” he said. “It’s used to treat (plasmodium) falciparum malaria, which is probably the most robust parasite on earth,” he said. “If it ain’t good for falciparum, it sure … ain’t good for me.”

5. About 15 percent of Americans said this is true.

Cohen: “I had a whole breakfast meeting with some guys who want me to do a podcast on it,” he said. “I said, ‘Guys, I’m retired. Just let me have a bagel.’”

Here’s what government agencies and the universities that follow their lead will tell you:

The antibody tests are not only imperfect, but they’re really potentially highly flawed, highly inaccurate.

If you test positive for antibodies, there’s no underlying proof that makes you immune to COVID-19, from ever getting it again.

If you test positive and if in fact it was an accurate test, there’s no underlying proof of how long that immunity will last, and therefore you should not do things such as going around without a mask or going back to work without social distancing.

Here’s what Cohen would say after doing a deep dive into worldwide studies:

Back in December or January, researchers infected nonhuman primates with COVID-19, using them as an animal model for the human respiratory system. The animals recovered and then were re-exposed to COVID-19 in aerosol fashion, and they did not get re-infected.

“In those experiments, immunity was conferred,” he said. “But they’re monkeys.”

Although there have been reports of people being diagnosed twice with the new coronavirus, he said, when scientists attempted to culture and grow the virus from samples taken from those patients, they found the samples weren’t viable.

What this has told researchers, Cohen said, is that those patient still had viral fragments, viral garbage, cellular garbage in their throats and noses. It’s not surprising those fragments haven’t completely cleared out of the body, he said, and it’s not surprising that the tests used to diagnose COVID-19 infections would pick them up.

The so-called PCR test, short for polymerase chain reaction, is not testing for a natural, viable virus but for RNA fragments of a virus.

“We haven’t proven that you have immunity and we haven’t proven how long you’ll be immune, but we have in fact shown that you were infected and you developed antibodies, and now you’re well,” Cohen said. “So that tells me that if … you can’t be re-infected, go for it because we already know that you have a viable immune response that beat it off …. It’s good enough, though it’s not perfect.”

6. Roughly 20 percent of Americans said this was true.

Cohen: All through the winter of January, February, March in the Northern Hemisphere, it was summer in the Southern Hemisphere — Australia and New Zealand, and Brazil — and they were getting explosions of virus at the same time.

That doesn’t happen with a seasonal virus like influenza, he said.

Now, ultraviolet light has been shown to be a highly effective virucide, and some companies are even making products that use that technology, he said, but it’s a difficult technology to use effectively.

7. Ten percent of U.S. citizens said true; 70 percent, not true.

Cohen: It might make it a lot easier to socially distance. (But it’s not true.)

8. About a quarter of Americans said this is true.

Cohen: There’s not a single case anywhere in the world of that happening. Cohen said. A couple of breeds of dog and one breed of cat have tested positive when their owners were positive, he said, but they weren’t able to infect anybody else from that.

9. A little more than 70 percent of U.S. citizens said this was false.

Cohen: So, you can call up the virus? That is about as viable as being able to shoot the virus with an M-16.

It’s difficult to always know the right answers to questions about emerging diseases, Cohen said, because new research can change the understanding of it.

“Science is a moving target,” he said. “It’s not static, and we keep learning more and more, and we need to change the recommendations and the messaging as we learn. I don’t know that people necessarily grasp that kind of evolutionary, robust nature of the scientific enterprise.”

Anytime Cohen gives an interview, he said, he provides the best information he has found and hopes that the people who hear it act upon it.

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