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We Shine Light on Misleading COVID-19 Information

Nicholas Noble | March 26, 2020

Spotting Misinformation and Fake News about COVID-19 Cures

Novel coronavirus (COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2) continues to ravage global health, and it’s certainly no joking matter. Medical facilities in first-world countries such as Italy and the U.S. have been operating at overcapacity, and at the cost of adequate treatment and essential resources.

In recent news, an older aged priest in Italy refused treatment with a lifesaving ventilator, stating that a younger life was more valuable than his own. At the loss of his own life, such heroic action tells us to be mindful of a compassionate side amongst this chaos.

But shouldn’t we also stay vigilant amongst the mass of mis-information, and those who wish to take advantage of the situation? 

The Search for a Cure against COVID-19

With heroism and healthcare workers on the frontlines risking their lives, it’s no surprise that researchers are working at wits’ end to test and develop potential measures to combat (or safely cure) the virus.

Global investigation has sacrificed no possible therapy in the race against coronavirus. There is no definitive cure currently, and we see even the most unsuspecting therapeutic agents as they’re driven to the frontlines of common hope. Does hopefulness make us gullible?

In news stories, in viral social media, even some of the most (otherwise) reputable outlets of information, we watch as what’s desirable to believe, quickly becomes mistaken as truth.

Currently, a new story described below is circulating that simply “drinking tea 3 times each day” is sufficient to cure and prevent coronavirus (COVID-19). How absurd! We review those claims are offer more reasonable expectations:

“TEA CURES COVID19?” - BULLS***

One piece of so-called ‘viral’ misinformation circulating right now is that tea has been discovered as a cure for coronavirus. Seriously?? NO!

You’ve likely seen Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese physician who was one of the original whistleblowers of the novel virus – later dying of it. The late physician was actually an ophthalmologist, with little to do with breakthrough antiviral research.

But that has not stopped the internet from taking its piece of the pie and circulating this absurd rumor

Fake news currently circulates the following misinformation:

“Dr. Li Wenliang had documented case files for research proposing an abundant cure, to significantly reduce the impact of the COVID-19. These files suggest the class of organic compounds, known as methylxanthines, to effectively ward off the disease.”

Most of us have never heard of these compounds. If this was true, wouldn’t the news be everywhere? This ‘viral’ news story purports further falsities:

“Methylxanthines, found most commonly in TEA, have stopped the novel coronavirus in its tracks. In the area of Wuhan, the epicentre of the global outbreak, nurses began serving TEA up to three (3) times daily to coronavirus patients. An area now reported clear of the disease.”

METHYLXANTHINES: TEA CURES CORONAVIRUS? THINK AGAIN

According to this rampant misinformation, methylxanthines are identified as a class of compounds, including: theobromine, theophylline, and caffeine. True they are – BUT these stories report a medical basis in which they “trigger a more effective immune response” against coronavirus. This is a complete lie.

In fact, it’s absurd! This class of compounds have been thoroughly studied, and while investigated for potential anti-viral properties, there is absolutely NO conclusive evidence. In fact, the whole story is is a mix of pseudoscience and fictional ruse: 

“Dr. Li Wenliang reported tea as a reliable source of these compounds, discovering the common beverage’s ability to “stimulate the body in warding off the novel coronavirus.”

LI WENLIANG: FACT OR FICTION?

COMPLETELY FICTION – What we do know is that many plants produce at least one type of methylxanthine. Not only tea, but in coffee, chocolate, yerba maté, and guayusa for example.

The greatest proportion of methylxanthines in tea are caffeine molecules, but it does contain levels of theobromine and theophylline. These are central nervous system stimulants, produced by the plants typically to dissuade pests (insects, animals).

Derivatives of xanthine (closely related to the building block, purine) have even been found to form extraterrestrially – all sharing in stimulating properties.

What they do NOT support is any concrete evidence suggesting antiviral properties against the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). REPEAT: Zero conclusive evidence of such grandiose claims.

Were you one of the thousands of people deceived by this circulating news story? If so, can’t we all learn something from history itself?

HOW TO SPOT MISINFORMATION: HISTORICAL PANDEMICS

With historical pandemics, rumor and panic have inundated outlets of information, leading to mistruths and even protests or revolts. Examples include the 19th century cholera epidemic in Europe, all the way to suppressed mortality rates of the Spanish Flu during WWI.

Historically, pandemics have been scapegoats of fear, it hasn’t been uncommon for protesters to believe them as tools of the elite to kill or further subjugate the lower classes.

Dating back to the 14th century collection of novellas, The Decameron, further describes the myriad of responses during the Black Plague. We see that many of the social actions taken in response to viral pandemics have been driven by deceit, false information, and embellished truths.

Even today, this holds true – in the age of information, we see too much information harms our discernment. And ultimately, we see claims of Dr. Li Wenliang’s ‘miraculous discovery’ as a horrendous play on our emotions

Ulterior Motives of COVID-19?

In the face of this pandemic, there are thematic connections with those historical examples, particularly regarding the political climate. Theories are circulating of political opportunism, as false news breaks of these ‘cures’ or ‘protections’ against the coronavirus.

Worse, official discourse in the U.S. has ranged from downplaying risks, to witnessing unprecedented challenges to medical care, the economy, and industries such as those of higher education and hospitality. It’s easy to see how people may feel frustrated or confused, and not sure what to believe. 

There has been little continuity in official press statements. Dissonant information released from the political level has further elevated public reliance on internet news outlets, unsure what to believe.

Without clear leadership in government, there is a greater chance of these viral (fake) news stories, like that of Dr. Li Wenliang, taking hold in America’s psyche.

Some camps of thought have entirely rejected the reality of the pandemic, deeming it a tool of political control. While others blindly follow what’s trending, subject to misinformation, spotty fact-checking, and straight up lies. 

The range also includes people who’ve doubted the mortality of the situation, or have panicked with ‘precautionary hoarding’. In the former case, viral social stunts like toilet bowl licking have created controversy; in one case an individual has been charged with terrorism for licking retail personal hygiene products.

In the cases of hoarding, dozens now have been accused of price gouging in a nationwide sweep, including regulatory shutdowns of countless Amazon and Shopify online stores.

These are just a couple added examples of how ‘out-of-hand’ this situation has gotten, and more reasons that we need to practice carefully our own fact-checking and objective research. 

CORONAVIRUS FACT-CHECKING

The most accurate guidance remains to calmly, and mindfully follow the precautions set by the CDC. These include simple measures to protect yourself and limit your potential exposure to the virus. 

While some are convinced it’s simply a “bad case of the common cold”, online sources continue making dangerously misleading claims. Those include the overzealous (intentionally deceitful) news articles circulating which state that “drinking tea can protect and cure coronavirus”. Totally untrue.

We need to pay more attention than ever to the few reliable sources of information. Other misinformation and fake news include methods of drinking bleach, or simply sipping warm water every half hour to reduce the infectability of the virus. What!? Where’s the medical evidence?

With so much misinformation, otherwise credible sources have even failed to parse fact from fiction – imagine the difficulties an average individual is having in identifying fact from fiction.

At least one example is the chief medical officer for CVS Health, recommending some of the protocols above, as found from viral social media. Further problematic, misreporting now includes one political authority’s ‘speaking’ on the clinical effectiveness of a potential coronavirus treatment, chloroquine.

This anti antimalarial medication has a small margin between therapy and toxicity. Now, that chemical in the news for numerous poisonings following that same authority’s bold and premature endorsement; it’s absolutely essential to be cautious of what you believe.

You can see how people are overestimating, and underestimating the safety (and efficacy) of numerous ‘potential’ treatments. Again, NOTHING is currently proven to be effective in curing COVID-19.

Especially NOT drinking tea. 

The Bottom Line

Whatever news stories you’re seeing about “ultimate cures” for coronavirus, be extremely, extremely cautious. Once news of a genuine treatment breaks, it will be all over mainstream news, not in the back corners of internet blogs.

And as far as Dr. Li Wenliang’s story is concerned, high quality tea, such as matcha, may have some active benefits against disease – but there is NO justification to entrust it (or other sensational remedies) with your life against this pandemic disease.

Remember, there are no known cures or guaranteed treatments for COVID-19. Many possibilities are under research and there may be an approved treatment or vaccine within due time. In the meantime, below are practical steps that you may take to be part of the solution.

JOINING THE FIGHT AGAINST COVID-19

With fact checking in mind, it’s critical to follow accurate reporting from trusted sources such as the CDC and World Health Organization. Also, you may consider methods to supplement practices of hygiene, social distancing, and sheltering-in-place.

Besides washing your hands, getting good nights’ sleep, avoiding too much alcohol, and drinking your daily matcha elixir, here’s other steps you may take:

  • Zinc: Coronavirus infectability appears to be reduced by the inhibiting action of zinc, which may (not medically proven) protect against entry of the virus into the cell.
    • Typical supplementation is between 15-30mg daily; sublingual tablets may offer direct protections in the upper respiratory system.
  • Vegetables and Fruits: These contain ‘flavonoids’, a class of plant  compounds. Research has found some flavonoids may reduce some aspects of inflammation in the body; simply speaking, this relates to COVID-19, because it’s thought (not proven) that the virus takes advantage of inflammation to increase its virulence.
    • Sources of flavonoids: Chinese skullcap, licorice, quercetin, tomatoes, nuts, and berries
  • Melatonin: Melatonin may act in a similar mechanism as the anti-inflammatory flavonoids in reducing virulence. In trials, supplementation has inhibited NFkB and NLRP3 inflammasome activation (inflammatory processes).
    • It’s thought that age-related decline of melatonin may be one explanation for the gap of affected age-groups by the virus. Take this with a grain of salt, since researchers are yet to prove these mechanisms in the pandemic COVID-19.
  • Vitamin D: Some trials have found vitamin D to decrease the activation of the NLRP3 inflammatory pathway. Efficacy is contested (i.e. not proven to be effective), as other findings report activation of different inflammatory pathways – which may actually increase susceptibility.
    • Researchers report that you may wish to discontinue supplementation if symptoms of the virus arise. And it’s recommended to consult with your physician in any and all supplementation.

Facts surrounding COVID-19 are changing rapidly, and it’s more essential than ever to question sources and perform individual fact-checking. Regular habits for healthy living are recommended to keep your immunity as high as possible to the virus.

Remember, there are NO definitive cures (currently) for the virus, so practicing all recommended cautions is essential to the wellbeing of everyone, particularly those immunocompromised groups.

And in light of circulating rumors, if you’re motivated to give tea an opportunity to boost your immunity, do so with reasonable expectations. It is NOT a miracle cure, though there are reasons it may boost health in other ways.

It’s more likely that it may improve your outlook, bringing balance between mind and body, and perhaps reducing stress associated with disease. Maybe with it, we can calm our mind, and put these sensational news stories to bed, once and for all.

-Team Matcha Kari

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P.S. Were you one of the people fooled by this viral news story?

Let us know how you feel at support@matcha.com.

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