The deadly role of misinformation in the COVID and AIDS pandemics

Infodemics can affect economies, politics, national security and public health. The COVID-19 infodemic has become such an issue that the Royal Society and British Academy released an October 2020 report noting its significant impact on vaccine deployment, endorsing legislation that prosecutes those who spread misinformation.

As a researcher who studies HIV and lived through the AIDS pandemic, I felt a sense of deja vu as misinformation about COVID-19 spread. In the 40 years since the emergence of AIDS, society has learned to cope with the disease through more effective diagnosis, treatment and prevention strategies, transforming AIDS from a deadly condition into a a chronic disease.

However, there are striking parallels between the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics that show the dire consequences that misinformation can have on patients and on society as a whole.

Denying the existence of a virus or pandemic

There are people who deny the existence of COVID-19. There are numerous claims on social media that the virus that causes COVID-19 has never been isolated, or is insufficiently characterized. Others do not dispute the existence of COVID-19, but ignore the serious consequences of infection.

In general, these groups also tend to deny the germ theory, claiming that infectious diseases are not caused by pathogens like viruses and bacteria. Instead, they promote the idea that pathogens do not cause disease, but rather are its consequence.

Similarly, some have denied the role of the HIV virus in AIDS infection. AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg was one of the people who spread this misinformation, which had been refuted by the wider scientific community. But his erroneous assertion still reached the then President of the Republic of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, who banned the use of life-saving antiretrovirals in public hospitals. This decision led to the death of more than 330,000 people from HIV/AIDS between 2000 and 2005.

Mbeki’s decision was seen as so damaging that scientists and doctors around the world signed the Durban Declaration, reiterating that HIV does indeed cause AIDS and urging Mbeki to reconsider his decision. Although the government reversed the ban after strong international political pressure, the damage was done.

Gain of functional claims

Gain-of-function experiments involve manipulating a pathogen to understand what contributes to its ability to cause disease. At the same time, such experiments can give pathogens new abilities, such as making viruses more transmissible or more dangerous to humans. Conspiracy theorists have claimed that the COVID-19 virus resulted from alterations to a bat version of the virus that gave it the ability to replicate in human cells.

But these claims ignore several key facts about the COVID-19 virus, including that all bat coronaviruses can infect humans without further adaptation. The mutations that increased the transmissibility of COVID-19 occurred after it began circulating in humans, resulting in even more infectious variants.

HIV has also seen conspiracy theories claiming it was created in a lab for genocide. But research has shown that HIV also naturally evolved from an animal. African non-human primates are the natural hosts of a large group of viruses collectively called simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV). Despite their high rates of SIV infection in the wild, these primate hosts generally do not show symptoms or progress to AIDS. Throughout the evolutionary history of SIV, the jump to a new host species has involved natural genetic changes over thousands of years.

miracle cures

During a public health crisis, researchers and health officials learn about a disease in real time. Although missteps are expected, these may be perceived by the public as hesitation, incompetence or failure.

As researchers searched for possible treatments for COVID-19, others came up with their own unproven drugs. Several treatments for COVID-19, including ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, have been tested and abandoned. But not before a lot of time, effort and money was spent disproving claims that they were so-called miracle cures. Similarly for HIV, frustration and anxiety over the continued lack of available treatments in the face of rising deaths has led to fraudulent treatments, with prices in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Although treatment delays and changing guidelines are a natural process of learning about a new disease as it evolves, they can open the door to misinformation and lead to distrust of doctors even as they treat infected patients.

Preventing disinfodemics

The next pandemic is not a question of if but when and where it will occur. Just as important as devising ways to detect emerging viruses, it is important to develop strategies to combat the mesinfodemics that will follow them. The recent outbreak of monkeypox has already seen a similar spread of misinformation and misinformation about its source and spread.

As author Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said, “A lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more enduring than truth.” Countering misinformation is difficult, because there are reasons other than ignorance why someone believes a lie. In these cases, presenting the facts may not be enough and can sometimes even cause someone to double down on a false belief. But focusing on urgent scientific and medical needs at the expense of a rapid response to misinformation can derail control of the pandemic. Strategies that take misinformation into account can help other pandemic response measures be more effective.

Cristian Apetrei is a professor of immunology, infectious diseases, and microbiology at the Pittsburgh University of Health Sciences.

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