The Week That Wasn't in COVID-19: Hannity, Pet Infections, Nicotine Patches

Donavyn Coffey 

April 24, 2020

This week in COVID-19 news, researchers claimed Sean Hannity's show may have increased the virus' spread, cats caught the coronavirus, and a French hospital is trying out nicotine patches to stave off infection. You didn't see these headlines on Medscape, though. Here's why.

Sean Hannity's Show Enabled COVID-19 to Spread?

Areas where Fox News viewers had more exposure to Sean Hannity's show compared with Tucker Carlson's also had higher rates of local infection and death due to the coronavirus, according to research that University of Chicago economists posted online. In February and early March, Hannity downplayed and ignored the virus while Carlson warned viewers about the disease. The economists conducted a poll of 1045 Republican Fox News viewers older than 55 and analyzed their viewing patterns against publicly available data on COVID-19 cases and deaths by county. 

The economists asked respondents when they started changing their personal behavior because of COVID-19. Hannity viewers changed their behavior 5 days later than viewers of other shows, they found, and concluded that misinformation from his show may have delayed social-distancing measures in some populations. 

However, because the research is retrospective it's impossible to truly elucidate cause and effect from an association. News reports say that many experts consider the study sophisticated, but it has not been through the peer-review process. And although the epidemiologic impacts of misinformation are important for journalists and public health officials to consider, this economics research does not inform how busy doctors should diagnose and treat patients with COVID-19. For all of these reasons, we didn't think this study was newsworthy for our readers. 

Confirmed Cat Cases

Two New York cats became the first confirmed pet cases of COVID-19 in the United States this week. The cats, who live in different parts of the state, are believed to have contracted the virus from people in their household or neighborhood. 

While there have been other cases of pets contracting the virus from people, there is no evidence that pets can then transmit COVID-19 to other people or cause the disease to spread, a CDC official told the Associated Press . At this point, there's no reason for physicians to make special recommendations to patients with pets, so we decided not to cover this development. 

New Study Using Nicotine Patches

A team of French researchers plans to begin a clinical trial to test whether nicotine patches may be effective against COVID-19 for hospital workers and infected patients on the regular wards and in the ICU, according to a news report. The trial was inspired by data posted as a preprint showing that the rate of smokers infected with COVID-19 at one hospital in France was much lower than the rate of smokers in the general population, which they interpreted to suggest that tobacco may contain some protective substance. There's limited (and somewhat conflicting) evidence that nicotine may be able to downregulate ACE2 expression in the lungs, reducing the receptors by which the coronavirus enters cells. 

There are many clinical trials testing various treatments for COVID-19, and the beginning of a trial is not as relevant for busy clinicians as the results. This clinical trial's results could be informative, but the hospital data, which Medscape's French edition explains in a commentary, is not itself enough to change treatment protocols. We closely track clinical trial results, but decided to pass on the trial initiation, as it isn't really newsworthy for clinicians who need actionable data.

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