That Viral Video About a COVID-19 ‘Cure’ Is Wrong

Photo:  YURI CORTEZ, Getty Images
Photo: YURI CORTEZ, Getty Images

There’s a viral video out there — removed from many platforms, but there’s a good chance you’ll see it soon if you haven’t already — in which a doctor standing in front of the Supreme Court steps claims that “you don’t need masks” because “there is a cure” for the coronavirus. It’s wrong and dangerous.

Things get stupidly politicised sometimes. For whatever reason, U.S. President Trump was an early endorser of hydroxychloroquine as an experimental treatment for COVID-19. After that, the drug started popping up in conspiracy theories. Big Pharma is trying to hide it, or whatever.

There’s nothing special or even promising about hydroxychloroquine, but it makes a great Macguffin in stories alleging that the virus is a hoax, or that masks are just a symbol of control, or that Bill Gates is trying to microchip us all with the Sign of the Beast under the guise of a vaccine program. (I wish I were joking, but that one is a surprisingly wide-reaching belief.) As with any conspiracy theory, the message being shared is the conclusion — that we should reopen businesses, or whatever — and the supposed facts underlying it shift according to what is convenient.

What’s true in the video, and what’s not?

The speaker, Stella Immanuel, says that she is a doctor and that she practiced in Nigeria. That much checks out: a person of that name does have a medical licence on file with the state of Texas, and the licence states that she got her medical degree from a university in Nigeria.

She says that she has treated 350 patients with COVID-19, given them all a regimen of hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and the antibiotic Zithromax, and that none have died. We don’t have any way of judging whether this is true; she hasn’t released any data that I’ve been able to find.

“You don’t need masks,” she says. This is wrong; masks are imperfect but extremely helpful in protecting us from giving the coronavirus to each other.

She continues: “…There is a cure.” There is no cure.

What do we know about hydroxychloroquine?

Immanuel claims that a paper about hiccups “proves” that the NIH knows hydroxychloroquine “cures” COVID-19. But the paper is no proof of a cure. It states that a patient had hiccups and was positive for COVID-19, and that the patient felt well enough to be released from the hospital a few days later. The authors’ conclusion is that doctors should consider COVID-19 as a possible diagnosis for patients with hiccups or with other unusual symptoms. Yes, the patient was treated with hydroxychloroquine while in the hospital, but from this paper we can’t say if that actually helped or if he would have done just as well without it.

The truth is that hydroxychloroquine has been used a lot in the last few months. The first trials that put it in the news had serious flaws, but doctors around the world often chose to give it a try. It’s (normally) an easily available drug, with known side effects that are often mild to manageable. Immanuel says she used it to treat malaria in Nigeria, and it’s true that the drug is commonly used for this. Its use for malaria and for other conditions like lupus is why the drug is so widely available and its side effects well known.

But in all these studies, hydroxychloroquine — with or without zinc and azithromycin — has not shown itself to be a “cure,” nor even a promising treatment. You can read here about which experimental treatments are showing promise and which are not. Hydroxychloroquine lands squarely in the “not promising” category.

So why is this doctor telling us hydroxychloroquine is a cure, if it’s not a cure?

I can’t tell you what’s going on in Stella Immanuel’s head. Maybe she really did have good results with 350 patients; maybe not. I do know that in March she told her followers on Facebook that “those who know what to look for” will find the pandemic to be an opportunity to make money. In April, she was still advising people to wear masks. Later that month, she began tagging people like the U.S. President and Tucker Carlson in her tweets about the pandemic.

On her social media profiles, she has shared other misinformation, including a claim that the coronavirus vaccine “will fuse with your own genes and modify your genetic makeup,” which is not a thing any of the vaccines in development are designed nor, as far as anyone knows, remotely able to do. The Daily Beast has more on her past statements about health, including the idea that gynecological problems are caused by having sex in one’s dreams with demons.

Immanuel was at the Supreme Court with a group called America’s Frontline Doctors. The group’s website disappeared sometime between when I first loaded it this morning and just now as I am writing. The video itself has since been deleted from Facebook and YouTube, although people are still re-uploading it. I found several posts of the video in private groups today, including this one that is still up.

Whatever happens to the video, the myths in it will continue to circulate because they are attractive. It tells us, falsely, that masks are unneeded, that lockdowns are unnecessary, and that there is a surefire cure for COVID-19 that the government is covering up. This is all clearly, obviously false, and these myths were circulating long before this specific video. They’re still as wrong as ever.

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