The Week That Wasn't in COVID-19: Mouthwash, Hackers, AI Diagnostic

Ellie Kincaid


May 15, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

This week in COVID-19 news, scientists suggested that mouthwash could help prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned of Chinese hackers targeting institutions conducting COVID-19 research, and an AI model predicted potential cases. But you didn't see these headlines on Medscape Medical News. Here's why.


Certain formulations of commercially available mouthwashes could have a role to play in reducing SARS-CoV-2 transmission, researchers propose in an article in which they reviewed the sparse evidence available. Some mouthwash ingredients have been shown to disrupt viral lipid membranes, they note, and they call for additional research and well-designed clinical trials to test whether rinsing with mouthwash could be helpful in the current pandemic.

The hypothesis that mouthwash could help stop the spread of COVID-19 is intriguing, but is still only an hypothesis ― one of countless ideas that may work well in the lab but not in humans. On a webpage devoted to COVID-19 response, this is how Johnson & Johnson's consumer health division, which sells Listerine, answered the frequently asked question about whether antiseptic Listerine mouthwash could kill coronavirus: "No. LISTERINE mouthwash has not been tested against any strains of coronavirus." Perhaps the hypothesis is worth testing, but we didn't think we needed to spend our busy readers' time exploring it yet.

Chinese Hackers

The FBI is investigating how hackers affiliated with the Chinese government are targeting US organizations conducting COVID-19–related research, according to an official press release. "These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property (IP) and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research," the release said.

Administrators at institutions conducting COVID-19 research should be aware of this potential threat, but we didn't write about the FBI's press release because it's light on detail (understandably) and is unlikely to affect the day-to-day work of most clinicians.

AI Predictive Diagnostic

Researchers analyzed the potential COVID-19 symptoms people reported to an app, along with the test results of those who underwent diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2 infection, and developed a linear model to predict how many people with similar symptoms who weren't tested may also be infected by the virus. They calculated that 140,000 of 806,000 participants who reported some symptoms to the app were likely to be infected by the virus.

In the press release, this result is described as "new AI diagnostic [that] can predict COVID-19 without testing," which is not quite what the authors of the article say. The authors note that their data are limited because they're self-reported, test results may not have been accurate, and neither the research participants who used the app nor the individuals who reported test results are representative of the general population. "Our results may overestimate the number of expected positive cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection," they write.

Although interesting as an estimate of the number of undiagnosed cases of COVID-19, this research isn't evidence clinicians can rely on in caring for patients, so we didn't report on it. There's no replacement for diagnostic testing to determine whether someone has COVID-19.

Ellie Kincaid is Medscape's associate managing editor. She has previously written about healthcare for Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and Nature Medicine.


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