Panacea is the last thing we need at this moment of panic. With a death toll surpassing 5,000 as of April 2 and expected to reach as high as 20,000 before the end of the pandemic, we have all the reasons on Earth to panic and latch onto any hope for a miracle cure. President Trump tweeted not one, but two.
His recent tweets regarding Abbot ID-NOW, which can test for COVID-19 in minutes, and antimalarials hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and chloroquine (CQ), apparent miracle medicines that eradicate the deadly virus, surely got him a lot of applause.
As a biologist by training, I want to share a couple of stories before digging into the science.
First story: I grew up in Wuhan, China, which used to be an “oh I never heard of that place” to general public. After the outbreak, desperate people drank herbal potions to prevent and cure COVID-19 and as a matter of fact, quite a lot recovered. Before you rush to Google the name of potions, I want to point out that per mass COVID-19 data collected worldwide, the majority of infected recovered just by drinking water at normal dosage.
The other story: One day I accidentally sneezed on cancer cells growing in a petri dish while working in the lab. The next day all cells died, 100%. Those who know how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin might begin to think I hit the jackpot. No, I did not, and just FYI, I’m writing this piece in my kitchen, not on some private exotic island.
I did not even announce my sneezing discovery to any pharmaceutical business, not even my lab mates! If I did, I would’ve been laughed at. Anyone who works on cell culture knows they are very delicate and fragile, and can be easily wiped out by sneeze, sweat, etc.; anyone who couldn’t keep their cells alive were considered sloppy and un-hire-able in the first place.
HCQ/CQ is no different from those herbal potions used by the Chinese, just presented in a better-looking scientific cover. Some researchers added HCQ/CQ to infected cells and saw that virus spread had stopped. I bet it would be more effective if they had sneezed.
The truth is, adding drugs to cultured cells is as simple as dropping a chemical, while getting drugs to infected organs is a completely different game, which is why scientists think the HCQ/CQ claim from the cell experiment is farfetched.
Having said that, the cell experiment mentioned above is still scientifically sound, although its potential is overstated if not misleading. The strongest “evidence” to support Mr. Trump’s claim came from Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, a family doctor in a small village in New York with a population similar to that of Newhall. He claimed that he cured 699 COVID-19 patients with HCQ along with azithromycin and zinc. Since this discovery is more clinically relevant than the cell experiment mentioned above, instinctively I should’ve discussed it first. What held me back is that as of April 2 (the time I am writing) I have not seen any discovery published in a reputable clinical journal; everything is from the mouth of Dr. Vladimir Zelenko. This is perhaps unsurprising, as while there have been many miracle drugs throughout human history, none of them, not even the mighty penicillin, ever gave 100% efficacy even in its best quality. However, there is an exception I can think of that is 100% effective to human beings, and that is cyanide, if it can be counted as a drug.
No doubt, Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 is a great product if we just read its advertisement, which claims it can detect a positive result in as little as five minutes and a negative in as long as 13 minutes. It is undeniably a fast rabbit, compared with those turtles currently used in public health labs that take roughly five hours. The only thing about ID-NOW that bothers me, however, is that it is too tiny to carry a big load: It only reads one sample at a time, and has to go through at least 13 minutes to exclude any miss of weak positives, whereas the aforementioned turtles can carry a heavy load of about 100 samples per run, per machine, resulting in a rate of only six minutes per sample.
Don’t get me wrong, I crave for any fast testing and breakthrough medicine/therapy as you all do; the only issue I have with these claims (or with my self-doubt) is that I just have never seen a panacea in my life nor been logically convinced of its existence.