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COVID-19 Fake News: From Melbourne's BLM Protests to Global Hydroxychloroquine Tests

In late June Essential Research conducted a survey of over a thousand people[1]. From that survey, some 42% asserted that "Many of the new cases of Covid-19 in Victoria have been from people who attended the Black Lives Matter protest"; in contrast, only 37% of those surveyed disagreed. Prior to this survey there had been hysterics from conservative politicians (including the Prime Minister) who apparently thought that going to sporting events is acceptable and healthy, but political protests is not, going as far as saying that those who attended should be charged [2], whilst he flings around his scarf at a sporting event like a holy virus sprinkler.

In reality, it turns out, that one protestor "may have been infectious at the rally", and two others have tested positive that was not infectious at the rally. There is no evidence that they contracted it at the rally [3]. The rally, attracting some ten thousand people, was not something I was particularly in favour of at the time, even given the importance of the topic, for the health reasons raised. But it turns out that the combination of low outdoor infectiousness and what was then a low community rate worked in Melbourne's favour.

But that does not change the fact that after weeks of haranguing of the claim by certain well-paid members of the chattering class and their endless promotion by their yellow media that many people believe things to be true that simply is not true, as The Australian has shown [4]; a wrong claim, but the racist dog whistle had done its work, as it was widely shared on social media. Surprisingly, when a key outbreak is verified as occurring from a Melbourne law firm that seems to generate less of a reaction [5]. Racist fictions apparently are more exciting to some than prosaic facts.

So when surveyed more people had an opinion that was contrary to the facts than those who had an opinion that accorded to reality. The hyperbolic who are called by dog-whistles are a plurality. Will those people with wrong opinions change their minds? Perhaps, with the fullness of time. Certainly, however, most people do not initially change their opinions when confronted with the facts. Instead, they tend to strengthen their opinion at first; being wrong leads to visceral reactions [6] and already prone to the dominance of feelings they are not going to let facts get in the way.

Moving from the local to a more global perspective one sees the same unfortunate effects, specifically the ability of hydroxychloroquine as an effective cure against COVID-19. A key medical figure in the promotion of this curative has been Didier Raoult, director of the Unité de Recherche sur les Maladies Infectieuses et Tropicales Emergentes. Highly published, through some rather questionable approaches, Raoult is rapidly being recognised as a narcissistic crank [7], whose claims of a 100% cure through hydroxychloroquine involved small sample sizes, early cases, and removing data points whose results didn't agree with the ideology, even to the extent of excluding patients who had died.

Yet such was the ideological promotion by significant public figures and their politically partisan (rather than scientifically informed) advocates that one in every five registered drug trials in the world was testing hydroxychloroquine, an enormous use - and as we discovered, misuse, of global resources. For months there was a lack of convincing evidence from the numerous study attempts that lacked a sufficiently high enough standard of research: there was "insufficient and often conflicting evidence on the benefits and harms of using hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine to treat COVID-19" [8] as one review put it.

Then, in June, three major studies were published that showed the anti-malarial drug to be ineffective, two as postexposure prophylaxis, and one on severely ill patients showed no benefits [9]. The University of Minnesota's post-exposure prophylaxis trial was the first peer-reviewed study to provide data from a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial and the UK's Randomised Evaluation of COVID-19 therapy (RECOVERY) Trial was, as the name implies, a randomized controlled clinical trial, and multi-armed as well. With an initial six proposed interventions, the Trial is designed to pick up new treatments and drop those which are ineffective. The Minnesota study came to the conclusion that hydroxychloroquine was as effective as placebo [10], whereas the RECOVERY

These results came in within weeks of The Lancet retracting a paper [12, 13] which suggested that the use of hydroxychloroquine increased the death rate in COVID-19 patients. Concerns were raised with regard to the veracity and accuracy of the data conducted by Surgisphere Corporation and when The Lancent attempted a third-party peer-review of that data, Surgisphere would not transfer the full dataset and audit report citing confidentiality requirements; as such the data could not be verified. Advocates of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, hot on the heels of this retraction and egged on by the online yellow journalism of France Soir, argued that the dosages were too high and applied too late [14], ignoring the aforementioned trial that it didn't serve as postexposure prophylaxis. Also overlooked was the utterly terrible record that France Soir has with basic journalistic standards and in particular its previous publication of several rather unscientific and downright conspiratorial articles related to COVID-19 [15].

For their own part, the Oxford University researchers point out that the dose levels were taken from Professor of tropical medicine, Nick White, with pharmacokinetic models, designed to rapidly kill the virus but not to trigger toxicity [16]. With this data, and that from the World Health Organization's Solidarity Trial (including the French Discovery Trial), and a Cochrane review of other evidence on hydroxychloroquine, the WHO announced that the hydroxychloroquine arm of the Solidarity Trial to find an effective COVID-19 treatment was being stopped. Unlike the retracted paper from The Lancet the announcement was met with sober approval from relevant experts "an example of clarity", "negative results are still valuable", "unequivocal evidence", "proper studies done at scale", "extremely helpful", "definitive proof", "a high quality trial in that it is a double-blind randomised controlled trial" [17].

Several weeks have now passed and the international health community has accepted the results. Either there is a massive global conspiracy that is so broad and deep that the medical profession as a whole is suspect, or some people have been conned, and even deliberately so. The thing is, conspiracies themselves aren't that silly. People with extreme levels of power and wealth engage in conspiracies regularly; that's the lesson of Wikileaks and the Panama Papers; a personal favourite is the General Motors streetcar conspiracy. Conspiracies are, however, not carried out by the scientific community who publish their results publically and to their peers. Through the process of public disclosure and review, science (and other research) advanced by becoming increasingly "less wrong". There are, however, conspiracies to discredit scientific knowledge and reasoning; and they make an effort not to disclose their behaviour.

The sad fact is that science itself has become politically partisan. It is not a fault of science as such, but rather because scientific facts are respected by some political orientations, and are undermined by others. They are undermined by those who can gain economic advantage from such a situation, whether in a quest for public attention, sales, or to undermine political opponents; Denis Muller at The Conversation has recently noted that News Corp in Australia is engaging in the sort of dangerous reporting that is well beyond the accepted limits of free speech insofar it is now a public health risk [18]. It is an ideological perspective that is prepared to sacrifice real, visceral lives in favour of keeping the economic fires burning. Australia now has a Prime Minister who claimed: "The best protection against the virus is to live with the virus, to live alongside the virus and to open up your economy. [19]. The United States has a president that promotes baseless claims that "Everyone is lying. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust. I think it’s all about the election and keeping the economy from coming back, which is about the election. I'm sick of it" [20]

There are people who are susceptible, indeed most of us at least some of the time, can be caught by it. But there are those who are deliberately popularising untruths for economic and political advantage. In this, a time of international crisis, that it has become increasingly evident that the promoters of "fake news" are doing so for such ends. Many years ago consumer advocates realised that public safety and a well-functioning economy required some regulation of the "free speech" of commercial products; that freedom was limited by the truth. One has the freedom to advertise and promote commercial products as much as they like as long as they do not misrepresent the product. It is time to consider whether the same should apply to political opinions as well, where the "product" is governance and public policy.


1] The Essential Report 29 June 2020
2] Meeting on Morrison's Terms
3] Liberal politicians have linked Victoria's COVID-19 increase to Black Lives Matter protests. What are the facts?
4] Can the Black Lives Matter Protests in Melbourne be blamed for the current Outbreak?
5] Melbourne law firm labelled 'key COVID-19 outbreak'
6] Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds
7] He Was a Science Star. Then He Promoted a Questionable Cure for Covid-19.
8] Hydroxychloroquine or Chloroquine for Treatment or Prophylaxis of COVID-19: A Living Systematic Review
9] Three big studies dim hopes that hydroxychloroquine can treat or prevent COVID-19
10] Hydroxychloroquine studies show drug is not effective for early treatment of mild covid-19
12] Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis
13] Could taking hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus be more harmful than helpful?
14] Oxford-Recovery clinical trial & overdose: a hard pill to swallow
15] "The website of France-Soir, a former national newspaper that relaunched online in 2015, and that has published unsubstantiated
claims about the COVID-19 pandemic"
16] Covid-19: The inside story of the RECOVERY trial
17] expert reaction to the RECOVERY trial reporting no clinical benefit from use of hydroxychloroquine in patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19
18] Whether a ratings chase or ideological war, News Corp’s coronavirus coverage is dangerous
19] Scott Morrison praises NSW as a model for handling coronavirus outbreaks
20] Trump retweets game show host Chuck Woolery’s baseless claim that ‘everyone is lying’ about coronavirus

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