Alicia Wang / Sun Graphics Editor

April 9, 2020

COVID-19 Fact vs. Fiction: Busting Common Coronavirus Myths

Print More

In a time of uncertainty and fear surrounding the pandemic, rumors and misinformation continue to spread through social media and word of mouth — oftentimes drowning out expert voices and confusing those seeking information to further understand the unprecedented situation.

To dispel these misconceptions, The Sun created a one-stop guide breaking down common coronavirus myths with the most up-to-date scientific research and information.

The Virus’s Origins

Myth: The virus was engineered to be a biological weapon.

Ever since the coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, China in December 2019, conspiracy theories claiming the virus’ origins could be linked to the development of biological warfare have emerged and continue to circulate across media sources and websites. However, science has indicated that it is highly unlikely that this is the case.

“As of now, all the evidence points to the virus having not been engineered,” said Prof. Hector Aguilar-Carreno, microbiology and immunology, who researches emerging zoonotic viruses. “It was almost certainly in nature before it came to humans.” Aguilar Carreno conducts research on the mechanism of viruses — viral entry, immune responses, antivirals and vaccine development.

According to a recent study in Nature Medicine, genetic and computational analyses of SARS-CoV-2 showed that the virus does not have “ideal” binding to certain human cellular receptors, which is “strong evidence” that the ability of the virus to attack human cells is more likely the product of natural selection, rather than a result of laboratory manipulation.

Scientists currently theorize that the virus originated in humans through a zoonotic transfer, in which the virus was transmitted from an animal host into a human. However, researchers are still debating whether or not there is a possibility the virus was made in a lab.

Transmission and Illness

Myth: The virus only affects the elderly or immunocompromised. 

Although COVID-19 poses the most risk toward vulnerable populations such as the elderly and immunocompromised, Aguilar-Carreno explained that the virus can also have a considerable impact on individuals outside of those categories.

“It doesn’t mean that children…teenagers, or young adults are not susceptible. We are all susceptible [to contracting the virus], it’s just that the elderly are more susceptible to developing disease,” Aguilar-Carreno said. In the U.S., there have been around 800 people under 50 who have died due to the coronavirus, according to the Washington Post.

Myth: For young and healthy individuals, the virus will only be as bad as the flu. 

In March during spring break trips, some college-aged students  openly defied social distancing guidelines, asserting their sense of invincibility and disregard for whether they could contract the virus.

Aguilar-Carreno explained that although younger, healthier individuals have lower chances of dying from the virus, there is still a chance that the virus will have lasting consequences.

“[Just] because you are young and healthy, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be totally fine and it will for sure just be like the flu for you,” Aguilar-Carreno said. “It’s hard to predict who will be more susceptible to disease than others. It’s not only age…there [are] other factors we don’t fully understand.”

Even if an infected individual could experience symptoms similar to those of the ordinary flu, Aguilar-Carreno noted that complications from the disease are a possibility for everyone who contracts the virus.

“Even some people who get sick and then recover…they could lose lung capacity forever. They could get scarring in their lungs and not be able to ever fully recover [from that],” Aguilar-Carreno said.

Therefore, everyone has the social responsibility to protect themselves in order to reduce transmission of the virus to others who are more susceptible to more detrimental consequences of the disease, according to Aguilar-Carreno.

Can pets like dogs and cats contract the virus?

Nature recently discovered that dogs are “not really susceptible” to contracting the virus, and cats can be infected by the virus but it is “not highly transmissible.” There is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted from cats to humans.

Furthermore, none of the cats studied showed signs of illness after being infected, and laboratory conditions were not representative of real-life household interactions between humans and their pets because the cats were deliberately exposed to high doses of the coronavirus.

Although there have been no reports of pets becoming infected with COVID-19 in the United States, the CDC recommends avoiding contact with pets if you have become ill with COVID-19.

Myth: The virus will follow cycles of the seasonal flu and go away in warmer weather. 

According to Aguilar-Carreno, the virus does survive for longer periods of time on surfaces in cold, moist conditions in comparison to a warmer, drier environment. However, warmer summer weather will not completely eliminate transmission of the virus.

“If someone sneezes in your face or coughs right in front of you, the temperature won’t matter,” Aguilar-Carreno said.

According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 can still be transmitted in all areas regardless of climate, and countries with hotter weather have reported cases of the virus.

How long can the virus survive on different surfaces?

Given that SARS-CoV-2 can infect an individual through contact with infected surfaces, many questions have arisen regarding the extent of precaution individuals should take in protecting themselves and their homes.

The virus can survive on different surfaces for different periods of time, depending on properties of the surface. According to Aguilar-Carreno, a more absorbent surface, such as cardboard, is more likely to “dry out” the virus and cause it to survive for a shorter period of time compared to less absorbent surfaces like plastic and steel.

Although the virus was found to be viable for up to 72 hours on plastic and up to 48 hours on stainless steel, the amount of virus that remains on these surfaces after a few days is very low. Infection through contact with these surfaces is possible but unlikely after extended periods of time.

As a precaution, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends frequent handwashing, as well as daily cleaning and disinfecting of frequently-touched surfaces such as doorknobs, phones and keyboards.

“The virus could be on surfaces for minutes to hours, depending on temperature [and] many [other factors],” Aguilar-Carreno said. “In general, spraying packages with a solution that is at least 70 percent ethanol or some disinfectant [would] reduce the chances of you getting the virus.”

Despite the virus’ viability on surfaces for extended periods of time, transmission is still much more likely through close contact with an infected individual.

Are masks effective forms of protection against the virus?

Especially since individuals exhibiting no symptoms can transmit the virus, the CDC has recently recommended that all Americans wear “non-medical, cloth” masks such as bandanas out in public places.

However, it has been repeatedly emphasized that masks are not a substitute for social distancing measures, and medical-grade masks such as N95 respirators should be reserved for medical workers.

“Are [masks] going to protect you? Yes, partially, and anything helps,” Aguilar-Carreno said. “It’s not going to prevent you from getting the virus…but anything you can do to help reduce the transmission of the virus…is a good thing.”

Myth: None of my friends have the virus, so it should be fine to hang out with them.

In defiance of urgent calls for social distancing measures, many people continued to participate in social gatherings in mid-March, resulting in a slew of coronavirus cases associated with “spring breakers” determined to enjoy their vacations.

Given that most transmission occurs between people, the CDC urged everyone to stay at home as much as possible, to distance oneself from others and avoid contact with those displaying symptoms. Social distancing is especially important to prevent transmission to those who are at higher risk for severe illness due to the virus.

“You might be okay, but someone else that you interact with down the line may not,” Aguilar-Carreno said.

Treatment and Prevention

Will Vitamin C, Vitamin D or other vitamins help prevent me from getting the virus?

In order to prevent contraction of the virus, the CDC recommends frequent hand-washing and social distancing.

Yet as anxieties over contracting COVID-19 have skyrocketed, many have turned to dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals, extracts and herbal remedies.

High doses of certain vitamins and minerals can be toxic for the body and none of these items have been proven to prevent contraction of the virus. However, Aguilar-Carreno explained that there is merit in taking steps to improve one’s overall health.

“None of the vitamins or minerals, or anything that you take [will] prevent you from getting the virus,” Aguilar-Carreno said. However, one’s overall health can be improved with exercise, proper nutrition and appropriate vitamin supplements, which can potentially help individuals recover quicker if they do contract the virus.

“The stronger that you are in general…[will] play a role in how well you can recover, and fight the virus,” Aguilar-Carreno said.

But, based on “promising” experimental treatment reports from China, some New York hospitals are administering patients with very large doses of vitamin C, and clinical trials testing the clinical efficacy of vitamin C infusion treatments have been initiated.

Will gargling salt water or drinking water every 15 minutes prevent contraction of the virus?

There has been recent circulation of “miracle cures” on various social media platforms, suggesting that frequently sipping on water can prevent the coronavirus from entering the lungs. This is false — there is no evidence that these measures would kill the coronavirus, although staying hydrated is generally beneficial.

Gargling and drinking can ease some of the respiratory symptoms associated with coronavirus infection, although these remedies are not going to prevent infection from the virus or cure someone who already has the virus, according to Aguilar-Carreno.

How effective is hand sanitizer in preventing the virus?

According to Aguilar-Carreno, using hand sanitizer is “better than nothing,” but frequent handwashing for at least 20 seconds is the most effective method to clean one’s hands.

Because the coronavirus is enveloped with a membrane of lipids, soap molecules can surround the virus, break apart the lipid membrane and wash away any remnants of the virus with water.

If soap and water are not available, the CDC recommends using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, and avoiding touching one’s eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

Myth: There is a cure or vaccine for COVID-19 already out there. 

There is no current cure, treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 available yet, although there has been an acceleration of research and clinical trials to help develop and test coronavirus treatments.

“I’m hoping that within a few months we will have something that will be at least somewhat effective in preventing [infection, so] the possibility of the spread of the disease will go down significantly,” Aguilar-Carreno said. “However, proper research takes time, so unfortunately it might take longer than a few months until we have a proper vaccine for use in humans that is highly effective to prevent contracting the virus.”