Fake news, as viral as omicron

Vaccines, effective protection against COVID-19. This variant of SARS-CoV-2 is not milder, but more contagious. Fake news behaves like rumors; in social networks, it has a perfect breeding ground.

Fake news, as viral as omicron
Vaccines, effective protection against COVID-19. Photo by Jeremy Bezanger / Unsplash

The only effective protection we have so far against COVID-19 are the vaccines and the measures we have known since the pandemic began almost two years ago: masks, hand washing, and social distancing said Susana López Charretón, a virology specialist at UNAM and member of El Colegio Nacional. Since the appearance of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, there have been miracle products that promised to prevent the infection, such as chlorine dioxide; others that claimed to cure it, such as hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin, which have already been shown to have no effect, but there are even doctors who continue to prescribe them.

Chlorine dioxide, teas, and other measures that do not work and have been widely shared on social networks and by word of mouth represent a high health risk: "None of them protect. The only protection is vaccines," stressed the member of the Institute of Biotechnology. Among the latest news that has been circulating is that two cannabis acids can bind to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, blocking a critical step in the process used by the virus to infect people. However, this information found in the Journal of Natural Products as research in progress, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.jnatprod.1c00946, says "as an adjunct to vaccines...", but has been misrepresented in the belief that marijuana use helps prevent and fight COVID-19.

Another misinformation from the appearance of the Omicron variant and the increase in infections in Mexico and the world, is that vaccines are no longer useful against this strain, and that mouth covers do not perform their function either; the argument is that if vaccines worked, there would not be so many infections. In this regard, López Charretón clarified: "Yes, they are working. Most of the people who get infected and are vaccinated have mild symptoms. From the beginning, the message has been very clear: vaccines do not protect against infection, but the serious evolution of the disease and more severe consequences, such as death".

The member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences insisted that, although there are some changes, the virus remains the same, and the measures used since the beginning of the pandemic still work. In the case of mouth covers, using a cloth one is better than nothing, and if people cannot have the KN95 they can use two surgical ones and one cloth one; that is, try to filter as much as possible the air we breathe and exhale.

Another popular idea is that "the pandemic is a pharmaceutical business", to which the expert acknowledged that there is a part of business, but there are also efforts by the World Health Organization and companies to facilitate or make medicines and vaccines more accessible for countries with fewer resources.  The pharmaceutical industry invests billions of dollars in research and development, for example, in 2019 alone, according to the report of the Congressional Budget Office, in the United States, it is estimated that it allocated 83 billion dollars to that item (https://www.cbo.gov/publication/57126).

Additional misinformation is that if this variant is milder, it is necessary to go out to catch it; however, the specialist clarifies that Omicron is not milder, but more contagious. It seems "lighter" because there are more people vaccinated, "but that does not mean that you could not have a bad time. It is still a 'Russian roulette' how everyone will evolve. Anyone can get sick.

Why do we believe in fake news?

For the academic of the Faculty of Psychology, Ricardo Trujillo Correa, fake news behave like rumors and have in social networks a perfect breeding ground to proliferate. "We are capable of paying attention to anything if it calms our anxiety, due to the low threshold of fear we have. We look for information that gives us what we can't find elsewhere. That's why it's so easy for us to fall for fake news." Rumor and magical thinking have been researched for more than 100 years because they both start from a similar process and have three main characteristics: the first is that they must be ambiguous enough for people to take it up according to their cultural context.

The second is how important it is for the center of life; it seems that we need to be aware of what's new because if not, we are left out of the conversations. We consume information and it has that function: to seek control over life. If we are told that avocado puree is useful against COVID, we will consume it; it is a form of certainty and certainty. The last characteristic is the low threshold of fear: "there is fear because of a situation of uncertainty, and fake news is the perfect breeding ground because we seek information that allows us to anticipate or not fall into the problem at hand".

Some groups try to disrupt, for example, the antivaccine groups, who spread the word that they are useless or wrong, and that causes people not to get vaccinated. "That also gives them an air of superiority, of knowing something that others don't," clarified Ricardo Trujillo. Also, social networks favor division and polarization between groups; the agreement is not reached and positions become more radical; "we only see those who agree with us".