As scientists report tentative success in treating coronavirus patients with HIV drugs, health officials fear that misinformation about the virus could spark a run on medications.
Last month clinical trials in Wuhan, China, began treating coronavirus patients using a combination of two anti-HIV drugs, lopinavir and ritonavir, which are sold under the brand name Kaletra by AbbVie.
The treatment showed promising results, and on Sunday doctors in Thailand confirmed that one patient who was given a mixture of flu drugs and the lopinavir-ritonavir combination had “vastly improved”.
But the global panic over the virus has been accompanied by a wave of misinformation as alarmist news stories claim that the virus has been genetically engineered to include ‘pieces of HIV’.
With a vaccine still potentially years away, many on social media have been spreading the idea that antiretrovirals can combat the virus, even though additional studies are still needed to determine if this could be a standard practice of care.
This has raised concerns that “everybody will buy them and there will not be enough for HIV people”, said Dr Sylvie Brand of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
At a press conference on Tuesday she expressed concern that this “infodemic” could cause people to panic-buy the HIV drugs and ignore the WHO’s recommendations.
“There is a kind of sense of panic, so we try to clarify what we know about the science, what is still unknown and to provide a recommendation that can help people protect themselves and their families,” she said.
The WHO’s current recommendations include frequently washing hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub, coughing or sneezing into a tissue or an elbow and maintaining a distance of at least three feet from people who appear to be sick.
“[There’s] a lot of concern about the availability of drugs. So we are trying to address those concerns and clarify to people that we are just at the phase of clinical trials, and when we have more evidence, then we will issue a recommendation on treatments,” Briand said.
With a mortality rate of around 2 per cent, the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak has continued to climb and has now almost reached 500. However the number of people in China recovering from the virus is also rising, suggesting that the treatment plan may be working.