HEALTH
03/03/2020 9:29 AM AEDT | Updated 03/03/2020 9:29 AM AEDT

The Truth Behind Five Coronavirus Myths

Here's how effective those masks really are, and why the seasonal flu vaccine won't stop Covid-19.

A coronavirus endemic is now “inevitable”, scientists have said, and the government have released details of sweeping measures that could be brought in if or when the outbreak worsens.

The internet allows us to stay up to date with every possible update on the virus, but researching something as complex as a novel virus can get confusing pretty quickly – especially when certain corners of the web are full of myths, misinformation, and full-blown conspiracy theories. 

Here are five coronavirus myths we need to shut down – and what we should be doing to protect ourselves instead:

1. Wearing a mask means you won’t get infected

Amanda Perobelli / Reuters
A mannequin wearing a protective mask and Brazil’s soccer jersey.

Groups of people wearing masks – in airport terminals, supermarkets, quarantined streets – have already become the defining image of the Covid-19 coverage, and even in areas with very low, or even zero, cases, masks in all their variations are selling out. 

Google Trends shows that a tiny majority of worldwide internet users were searching for “coronavirus mask” prior to January 20, 2019 – but by February 26 searches for the term had rocketed, including in the UK.

The most in-demand type of masks are N95 respirators which are often worn by workers in industries such as construction and healthcare. While they might be effective at preventing contact with contaminated liquid, they won’t hold back small particles in the air from coughs or sneezes, and so aren’t effective protection from Covid-19. 

According to the US government’s Food and Drug Administration, the mask might help reduce exposure of your saliva and respiratory secretions to others – but there’s no official advice on whether a mask worn by those already infected would slow the spread of coronavirus. 

In fact, wearing a mask could increase your risk of contracting the virus, infection prevention specialist Eli Perencevich told Forbes. 

“Wearing a mask is tricky because it can create a false sense of security,” Dr Perencevich said. “If you don’t wash your hands before you take off the mask and after you take off your mask, you could increase your risk.” 

Healthcare professionals are trained specifically in how to wear the masks, but if a member of the general public wears one incorrectly then they risk trapping exactly the particles they are trying to keep out inside the mask. 

Best practice for preventing the spread of the infection is: 

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze

  • Put used tissues in the bin immediately

  • Wash your hands with soap and water often – use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available

  • Try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean.

2. Coronavirus can be cured by a ‘Miracle Mineral Solution’ (MMS)

Widespread access to the internet means that a significant proportion of the global population can stay well-informed about rapidly-developing situations such as the coronavirus outbreak, but it can also provide a space for dangerous conspiracy theories and ‘cures’ to flourish. 

One dangerous myth propagated in more questionable sections of the internet is that of a “supposed cure”, commonly referred to as MMS (Miracle Mineral Solution). 

Conspiracy theorist Jordan Sather, who shares information through his social media relating to the Q-Anon pro-Donald Trump far-right conspiracy theory, is one proponent of the solution, alongside countless other online personalities who claim the solution as a cure for autism and diseases such as cancer, the New Statesman reports. 

In reality, MMS consists of 28% sodium chlorite – a chemical compound most commonly known as bleach.

Whilst it might be effective at stripping germs from your household surfaces, it’s in no way safe to consume. Ingestion is likely to cause severe vomiting, diarrhoea, and in some cases acute liver failure.

Just to reiterate, it’s definitely not a ‘cure’ for a viral infection such as Covid-19.

3. Seasonal flu is more likely to kill you

You might have overheard someone saying something along the lines of “oh well, the regular flu kills more people each year than coronavirus has”. 

So far that’s technically true – coronavirus has only been around for a few months and according to Public Health England around 8,000 people die each year from seasonal flu so the number of deaths is higher – but that doesn’t mean the mortality rate for coronavirus isn’t higher. 

Researchers are currently working on the basis that around 1% of people who contract coronavirus will die, with a best guess of nine people out of every 1,000 cases, the BBC reports.

The likelihood of dying from Covid-19 is dependent on a myriad of factors; including age, sex, health, and how good the health service looking after you is. 

Working out the chances of death from coronavirus is not a simple process, not least because an unknown number of people with mild symptoms won’t see a health professional, but may pass the infection on to someone else who may be at higher risk. 

As with coronavirus, it’s difficult to establish what percentage of people with flu die each year as many don’t visit the doctor with mild symptoms, but estimates suggest that around 0.1% of people with seasonal flu die each year, the New York Times reports. 

Working from those figures, death rates for coronavirus are ten times than what they are for seasonal flu.

4. Vaccines for pneumonia and flu will protect you from Covid-19

No, vaccines such as the flu jab – which more than 25m people in the UK are offered each year – will not protect you against coronavirus. 

Guidance on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) website states “Vaccines against pneumonia, such as pneumococcal vaccine and Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib) vaccine, do not provide protection against the new coronavirus.”

The organisation however does recommend all eligible members of the public to get vaccinated against respiratory illnesses. 

Resources are already being poured into developing a vaccine for coronavirus – and researchers are already testing potential vaccines on animal subjects, BBC news reports. 

If those trials are successful they could be trialled on humans within months, but there’s no quick way of mass producing a safe vaccine. 

There are four coronaviruses that can already infect humans and cause the common cold. None of them yet have vaccines. 

For the time being, the best way of avoiding coronavirus is to take preventative measures such as maintaining a high standard of personal hygiene.

5. You can get coronavirus from household pets

Coronavirus is believed to have originated in a wet market in Wuhan, central China, where humans were in close quarters with a huge variety of animals both alive and dead. 

It is there that scientists believe the virus leapt from animals to humans – but that doesn’t mean you’ll catch coronavirus from your household cat or dog. 

There have been reports of a dog in Hong Kong being quarantined after testing ‘weak positive’ for the virus, but WHO maintain on their website that there is no evidence that pets can be infected with novel coronavirus.

“However,” their website states, “it is always a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water after contact with pets. This protects you against various common bacteria such as E.coli and Salmonella that can pass between pets and humans.