Combing Through the Science of COVID-19

Conflicting research and questionable policies raise questions about pandemic public health response
June 23, 2021 Updated: June 24, 2021

Does wearing a cloth or paper face mask protect you from a virus? Is the PCR test a reliable method for identifying an infection? Do lockdowns help slow the spread? Are there any safe medicines that have successfully treated or prevented COVID-19?

Ask these questions to a random selection of people and you’ll probably get very conflicting answers. That’s because there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the COVID pandemic. Health experts have always emphasized that science guides their public health orders, but many doctors, lawmakers, and scientists have challenged these rules on the lack of science that supports them.

Even the origin of the virus has been fraught with scientific controversy. Since the dawn of the pandemic, officials insisted that SARS-CoV2, the virus said to cause COVID-19, emerged from nature, jumping from bat to human in one fell swoop. Despite evidence suggesting that a Chinese virology lab might have been the true source, a February 2020 statement in the prestigious Lancet journal panned the man-made virus conjecture as a wild conspiracy theory. Thereafter, the idea was routinely met with criticism, social media censorship, and worse.

Former CDC Director Robert Redfield told Vanity Fair that he got death threats from fellow scientists after telling CNN he believed COVID-19 had “escaped” from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“I was threatened and ostracized because I proposed another hypothesis,” Redfield said. “I expected it from politicians. I didn’t expect it from science.”

But today, the same health experts that once shunned the idea now admit that the lab leak theory is at least a strong possibility.

It’s important to understand the scientific details behind COVID-19, because solid information can help us react better to it. As we’ve all recently experienced, a pandemic doesn’t just bring a new virus, but a whole new lifestyle. The imposed measures hurt or destroyed small businesses, closed schools, and kept our social circles painfully small for more than a year in an effort to contain, or at least slow, the spread of a potentially deadly disease. Officials sold these prolonged inconveniences with an appeal to reason: “Trust the science.”

But did the science end up supporting these sacrifices? Did mask mandates and lockdowns actually save lives as health experts claimed? After a year of real-world experience, and a wealth of studies charting the course, can we come to a clearer understanding of what works and what doesn’t in a pandemic?

Dr. Colleen Huber tackles the question in her new book, “The Defeat of COVID.” Her mission is to educate people on how our bodies function, methods we’ve used in the past to address infection, and the scientific evidence related to COVID-19 so we can better understand the crisis we face.

“There is so much misunderstanding about so many things related to COVID. The less we know about the human immune system, the activity of viruses in general, the natural interventions that have worked so well for so many of our ancestors for countless generations, then the more that a scary virus story sends people into the deep end of fear,” Huber said. “Fear alone is quite crippling. I find that it makes people agree to things that they would not otherwise agree to.”

Huber’s conclusions consistently oppose much of what is reported in mainstream media. But she cites more than 500 medical studies to make her case.

“For each of the studies that I’ve cited there are quite a few more, especially for the therapeutics. There’s a massive amount more that I could have cited,” she said. “Because this is not the conventional viewpoint, I really wanted to go heavy on the research.”

Her aim is to present the best understanding from quality evidence: studies that involve humans, mostly COVID-19 patients and control groups, and seldom animals.

The distinction is important because, in the realm of science, some research is deemed stronger than others. For example, support for rules such as social distancing came primarily from observational studies and mathematical models that suggested that the measure could slow the spread of disease. However, Huber says that no evidence ever supported the value of social distancing in a preventive way.

Previous evidence also showed that it didn’t work well enough to go through the hassle. The World Health Organization dismissed the idea of social distancing as a public health measure in 2006 as “ineffective and impractical.” Yet health experts decided to revisit the idea for COVID. People were instructed to stay six feet away from each other in 2020. Then in 2021, the new prescribed distance was three feet apart.

Some indoor public spaces still encourage the practice with floor markers as a reminder of the prescribed distance between people. But it may be more theater than science. In a Wall Street Journal article, former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb said there was no “scientific basis” for the six-foot guideline and no “randomized controlled trials that show value of this practice.”

The reasoning behind the official demand to space everyone six feet apart under COVID hinged on the concept that people were spreading the virus unknowingly. However, it remains unclear how much damage these asymptomatic spreaders really caused. In a WHO news brief from June 2020, infectious disease epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove stated that the spread of the virus by asymptomatic carriers “appears to be rare.”

A few days later on a Facebook Live video, Van Kerkhove clarified that there were “misunderstandings” attached to her previous statement. She explained that asymptomatic people can in fact spread the virus, though the degree to which they can is unknown.

Huber found no evidence that demonstrated any transmission from an asymptomatic person. The journal Nature published a study of the Wuhan population, involving nearly 10 million people. They found no positive tests among 1,174 close contacts of asymptomatic cases.

Masks Save Lives?

Perhaps no aspect of COVID is more controversial than masks, and a lot of this confusion stems from very mixed messaging from the people promoting the practice. First, masks were said not to protect people from viral transmission, then, a month later they were considered essential daily wear for everyone. Earlier this year, two and three masks were recommended for even more protection.

The message on masks is still all over the place. A few months ago, officials stated that even after receiving a COVID vaccine, masks would still need to be worn until at least 2022 and possibly beyond. But recently, fully vaccinated individuals were permitted to go maskless indoors. However, many who have already received their jabs still choose to keep their face covered in public.

But the perceived safety features of mask wearing haven’t stood up to real-world experience. In March, Texas and Mississippi lifted their state requirements on mask orders, despite warnings that the move would lead to a surge of new coronavirus cases and certain doom. Instead, death counts plummeted.

Huber has researched the mask issue extensively. The conclusion of her research team after publishing four peer-reviewed papers found that the masks “made COVID-19 worse in every way,” due to oxygen deprivation, bacterial pneumonia, and more. Huber points to demographic data showing that mask use also correlated with higher rates of COVID-19, as well as the physics and chemistry of why.

“Masks have quite a hazardous profile,” she said.

What Works?

So what did science show support for? There is evidence that severe and fatal COVID-19 cases demonstrate a close relationship to deficiencies in nutrients known for supporting immune function: specifically vitamins C and D, and the mineral zinc. Low levels of these nutrients were consistently found with the sickest people. It’s also why many doctors prescribe these nutrients in their COVID treatment protocol.

Some of the best evidence in this regard is for vitamin D. A meta-analysis of several studies published in an October 2020 edition of the journal Nutrients correlates vitamin D levels and COVID-19 cases, as well as the mechanisms that may drive the protective process.

One study from the Mayo Clinic found that among patients admitted with confirmed COVID-19 “in-hospital mortality and the need for invasive mechanical ventilation” was more common among those with vitamin D levels below the recommended reference range.

For people already familiar with this nutrient, vitamin D’s protection against COVID is expected. Past research has shown significantly improved outcomes of respiratory infections, shorter hospital stays, a lower cost of care, and lower mortality with higher serum levels of vitamin D. Low D levels have previously been associated with increases in inflammatory cytokines, viral upper respiratory tract infections, and blood clots—some of COVID-19’s key characteristics.

Huber points out that the vast majority of people who died of COVID-19 were either elderly or obese, which just happen to be two populations for which low vitamin D is particularly an issue. Seniors tend to lack the vitamin because they often keep indoors, and their bodies don’t manufacture the vitamin as well as younger people. Obesity adds another obstacle.

“Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. It is stored in the fat in the body,” Huber said. “All of us have fat. However, the more we get toward obesity, the more that same amount of vitamin D in the body is diluted into peripheral fat, so it’s not really being used by the immune system so much. The reason I mention it is because according to the CDC, 78 percent [of COVID-19 fatalities] were obese.”

Drugs for Treatment

Another big controversy with COVID-19 is whether there are safe and effective drugs to treat it. Health experts and regulators have only endorsed the three or four experimental vaccines authorized for emergency use, and anything else is strongly discouraged. But many doctors say they have successfully treated COVID with remedies that haven’t been approved by regulators. The most controversial of these is chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine (HCQ).

But this controversy is a fairly recent development. In a 2005 article published in the Virology Journal from the National Institutes of Health, researchers concluded that chloroquine was a “potent inhibitor of SARS coronavirus infection and spread.”

“Chloroquine has strong antiviral effects on SARS-CoV infection of primate cells. These inhibitory effects are observed when the cells are treated with the drug either before or after exposure to the virus, suggesting both prophylactic and therapeutic advantage,” researchers stated.

For COVID-19, however, HCQ was branded dangerous. The Lancet journal reported that HCQ didn’t help in COVID treatment, but instead worsened outcomes. Regulators quickly condemned the drug, treatment studies examining HCQ were stopped, and hospitals fired doctors for prescribing it. However, the Lancet report failed peer review and the article was quietly retracted. Still, health officials still consider HCQ a dangerous and ill-advised COVID treatment.

But the official response to HCQ doesn’t match the science. In addition to many doctors around the world reporting success in the clinic, research has shown more promise than peril. As of the writing of Huber’s book, 53 studies have shown positive results with HCQ for COVID. In addition to the Lancet article, Huber only found 13 global studies showing neutral or negative results on HCQ and 10 of them were of patents in very late stages of the disease where no antiviral drug is expected to have much effect. The author of two of the negative articles drew his data from an obscure Brazilian study that gave enormous doses of HCQ to extremely ill patients.

Another lesser-known drug that doctors are using to successfully treat COVID is ivermectin, which in addition to HCQ, is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines.

Huber points to a meta-analysis of 49 trials of ivermectin treating COVID in humans, all have shown positive results.

Despite safety evidence going back three decades, the FDA discourages ivermectin’s use for COVID. However, the only concern the agency mentions is the risk of overdose. Ivermectin is only available for humans by prescription, but is sold over the counter for veterinary use. The fear is that a sick and desperate individual might bite off too much of a large pill meant for a horse.

“The FDA has received multiple reports of patients who have required medical support and been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses,” the agency said in a statement. “The FDA has not reviewed data to support use of ivermectin in COVID-19 patients to treat or to prevent COVID-19; however, some initial research is underway. Taking a drug for an unapproved use can be very dangerous. This is true of ivermectin, too.”

Doctors prescribe ivermectin for COVID all over the world, and a big draw is the price tag. Huber says that in Africa, a full course of ivermectin treatment for COVID costs less than a U.S. dollar. For both safety and effectiveness, she ranks it as the top COVID treatment.

“I think ivermectin shows the most promise of all the therapeutics that I mention. For preventative purposes, people should make sure they have enough vitamin D on board. But in a curative way, nothing beats ivermectin. The spike protein which is the key SARS-CoV2 entry into the human cell has three parts to it. It’s a trimeric protein. I think we would be fortunate if ivermectin blocked only one of those three parts, but it has been found to block all three,” she said.

“Ivermectin was almost made for COVID because it blocks the three parts of the spike protein, and it blocks viral replication and it won’t let it into the human cell. Plus, it has a wonderful safety profile. 3.7 billion doses have been given since 1975, and all ages children were fine. No pregnancies were lost.”

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