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Know Who to Trust: A Quick Guide to Avoiding Confusion in Pandemic Times

Salvador Macip, MD, PhD

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August 25, 2021

Over a year and a half into the biggest pandemic of the 21st century, and we still don't understand that this is a battle where we are fighting not only against a virus but also against ourselves. Our main enemy is not only an infectious disease but something equally contagious: misinformation.

Perhaps this is most evident when we talk about vaccines. We have performed one of the most amazing scientific feats of recent history — having not one but a dozen highly effective vaccines against a new disease in record time and having produced and distributed billions of doses worldwide even faster. But this astonishing advance would be rendered completely useless if people wouldn't want to get a jab because of some ill-informed conspiracy theories. Luckily, this is only happening in a small portion of the population, but it's still a big enough number to be worried.

The simple facts: Vaccines work. They do exactly what it says on the tin, namely preventing the most aggressive forms of COVID-19. This means fewer hospital admissions and fewer deaths. This is not up for debate or a matter of interpretation. You don't need to listen to experts: go to the raw data (here, for instance). Even without a degree in statistics, you will quickly realize that the current wave is having a minimal effect in terms of mortality in the countries where the population is highly vaccinated compared with the previous waves.

The correlation is clear and is exactly what was expected. If vaccines were toxic or making us sick in any way, as some claim, this would be quite evident in places where millions of people have had jabs. We would be seeing lots of severe side effects and deaths, but this is not the case.

We could argue that although vaccines may not be poisoning us, they are generating mild forms of the disease, and this is what is driving the new waves. This requires a bit more understanding of how the COVID-19 vaccines are made.

Indeed, some vaccines can actually cause the same disease they are trying to prevent in a small number of occasions. But that only happens when a full attenuated virus is injected to cause an immune response (eg, in some polio vaccines).

The COVID-19 vaccines used in the United States and Europe have only a very small fraction of the genome of the virus. There is no biological way that this can cause the disease, no matter how hard you try. Nor can this weaken our immune system in any way; there's tons of data proving just the opposite.

There are many websites, videos, and articles that will argue that I'm wrong, despite all the evidence. And sometimes they do it in a way that may make you doubt. You just need somebody with a degree in a scientific discipline and the ability to press the right buttons to start the pied piper effect in a population that is rightly confused by the sheer amount of complex information available to them.

In a recent viral video, a doctor in Indiana mixes truths with ignorance to argue that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn't know what they are doing and that vaccines actually affect the immune system to the point of making us sick. This has already been carefully debunked elsewhere, so there is no need to spend more time on it here.

But I would like to use this example to stress a point that many people tend to forget in times of confusion such as these: Don't trust anyone. Don't let anyone draw conclusions for you. If you can, go to the source; raw data are freely available to anyone nowadays. If it's too complex for you to follow, look for the right filters (there are many doing a great job, from the CDC itself to the New York Times).

Don't just listen to one person: make the effort to look for a few sources and see where they agree (things that are probably accepted by the scientific community) and disagree (things that we probably don't know yet and are open to different interpretations).

And, more important, don't let a diploma dazzle you; even the smartest person in the world can say stupid things. Take Kary Mullis, for instance, probably one of the most relevant scientists of the past decades. Using observation, wit, and sheer ingenuity, he invented a technique called PCR (the same one we use to diagnose COVID-19) — maybe the biggest revolution in the science of the second half of the 20th century, for which he got a much-deserved Nobel Prize in 1993. But despite his many achievements, Mullis believed that he had been abducted by aliens, that HIV did not cause AIDS , and that climate change was not due to human activity. Being a genius doesn't cure you from being (very) wrong sometimes.

This pandemic is testing us in many ways. We will only fully overcome it if we show that we are smart enough to understand who we can trust to tell us what's going on. Let's fight the virus, but let's also avoid falling prey to misinformation.

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About Dr Salvador Macip
Salvador Macip, MD, PhD, is a doctor, researcher and writer. He obtained his MD/PhD at the University of Barcelona (Spain) in 1998, then moved to do oncological research at the Mount Sinai Hospital (New York). Since 2008, he has led the Mechanisms of Ageing and Cancer Lab at the University of Leicester (UK). Macip has published over 30 books, including Where Science and Ethics Meet (2016) and Modern Epidemics (2021). Connect with him on Twitter: @DrMacip

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