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The Deadly Role of Misinformation in the COVID and AIDS Pandemics

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Infodemics can affect economies, politics, national security and public health. The COVID-19 infodemic became such a problem that the Royal Society and the British Academy released an October 2020 report highlighting its significant impact on vaccine deployment, passing legislation to prosecute those who spread misinformation.

Like a researcher studying HIV and going through the AIDS pandemic, I felt a sense of déjà vu as misinformation about COVID-19 spread. In the 40 years since the emergence of AIDS, society has learned to deal with the disease more effectively diagnostics, treatments, and preventive strategiestransforming AIDS from a deadly condition to a chronic illness.

However, there are striking parallels between the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics showing the serious consequences that disinformation can have for both patients and society as a whole.

Denying the existence of a virus or a pandemic

There are people who deny the existence of COVID-19. There are abundant claims on social media that the virus that causes COVID-19 is never isolated, or is insufficiently characterized. Others don’t dispute the existence of COVID-19, but ignore the serious consequences of infection.

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

Similarly, some denied the role of the HIV virus in AIDS infection. AIDS denier Peter Duesberg was one of those who spread this misinformation refuted by the scientific community at large. But his erroneous claim 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 resulted in the deaths of more than 330,000 people from HIV/AIDS between 2000 and 2005.

Mbeki’s decision was deemed so damaging that scientists and doctors around the world Declaration of Durban, reiterating that HIV does indeed cause AIDS and urging Mbeki to reconsider his decision. While the government did roll back the ban after strong international political pressure, the damage was done.

Feature Claims Profit

Profit from function experiments include manipulating a pathogen to understand what contributes to its ability to cause disease. At the same time, such experiments can open up new possibilities for pathogens, such as making viruses more transmissible or more dangerous to humans. Conspiracy theorists have claims made that the COVID-19 virus resulted from modifications to a bat version of the virus that allowed it 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 additional adaptation. The mutations that increased the transmissibility of COVID-19 occurred after it started circulating in humans, resulting in even more infectious variants.

HIV also saw conspiracy theories claim it was made in a genocide lab. But research has shown that HIV also evolved naturally from an animal. African non-human primates are natural hosts for a huge group of viruses collectively called: monkey immunodeficiency viruses (SIV). Despite their high rates of SIV infections in the wild, these primate hosts usually experience no symptoms or develop AIDS. Throughout the evolutionary history of SIV, jump to a new host species involved naturally occurring genetic changes over thousands of years.

Miracle Cures

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

While researchers searched for possible COVID-19 treatments, others offered their own unproven drugs. Multiple treatments for COVID-19, including ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, were tested and abandoned. But not before huge amounts of time, effort and money were spent disproving claims that these were supposed miracle cures. Likewise for HIVfrustration and anxiety at a persistent lack of available treatments amid mounting deaths led to fraudulent treatments, with price tags of tens of thousands of dollars.

While delaying treatment and changing guidelines are a natural process of learning about a new disease as it unfolds, they can open the door to misinformation and distrust in doctors even when caring for infected patients.

Preventing Misinfodemics

The next pandemic is not a question of if, but when and where it will happen. Just as important as coming up with ways to detect emerging viruses is developing strategies to deal with the false infodemics that follow. The recent monkey pox outbreak has already seen a similar spread of misinformation and misinformation about its source and distribution.

as an 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 in a lie. In those cases, presenting the facts may not be enough and can sometimes even lead one to double down on a false belief. But focusing on urgent scientific and medical needs and ruling out addressing misinformation quickly could derail pandemic control. Strategies that account for misinformation can help other pandemic containment measures be more successful.

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

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