Medical personnel conduct drive-through testing for COVID-19 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland on March 19, 2020 (Jim Watson / AFP)

Misleading coronavirus information falsely attributed to Johns Hopkins

Copyright AFP 2017-2020. All rights reserved.

Social media posts attribute a list of points about the novel coronavirus to Johns Hopkins, a leading source of information on the virus. But the US university’s medical program said it is not the source of the claims, and while some are accurate, experts say others contain false or misleading information.

“EYE-OPENING KNOWLEDGE FROM John Hopkins University,” says one of the posts, variations of which have circulated on Facebook since at least March 23, 2020.

Others attribute the claims to “Irene Ken,” a physician whose “daughter is an Asst. Prof in Infectious Disease at Johns Hopkins University,” or to “a Prof in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University,” or to “John Hopkins Hospital.”

A screenshot of a Facebook post taken on April 21, 2020

The points also appear on Reddit here and here, while versions have been posted on Instagram here, here and here.

Johns Hopkins is tracking the spread of COVID-19 -- the disease caused by the novel coronavirus -- providing statistics on deaths and infections as well as other information for both policymakers and the public, meaning its name lends authority to those who cite it.

But Johns Hopkins Medicine said it is not affiliated with the points circulating online, posting on its Facebook page that “rumors and misinformation like this can easily circulate in communities during a crisis.”

“The rumors that we have seen in greater volumes are those citing a Johns Hopkins immunologist and infectious disease expert. We do not know the origin of these rumors and they lack credibility,” it said.

A screenshot of a Facebook post taken on April 21, 2020

And "we have no information" on whether Irene Ken or her daughter exist, a spokesperson for Johns Hopkins Medicine said.

Some of the points themselves are also problematic. AFP Fact Check breaks them down below.

The virus converts cells into aggressors and multipliers

Claim: “The virus is not a living organism, but a protein molecule (DNA) covered by a protective layer of lipid (fat), which, when absorbed by the cells of the ocular, nasal or buccal mucosa, changes their genetic code. (mutation) and convert them into aggressor and multiplier cells.”

Several parts of this description are false, experts say.

“The coronavirus arrives as an RNA molecule that comes wrapped in lipid and protein -- the first point is complete nonsense as written,” Dr. Benjamin Neuman, an expert in coronaviruses who chairs the Biological Sciences department at Texas A&M University-Texarkana, told AFP by email.

“There are no aggressor or multiplier cells -- not sure what that might even be referring to,” he said.

Dr. Julian Leibowitz, an expert in coronaviruses who is a professor of microbial pathogenesis and immunology at Texas A&M's College of Medicine, agreed.

“This is not true on many levels. The virus is an RNA virus, it contains no DNA, and its RNA genome is encased in a protein and is then enveloped by a lipid bilayer that contains several viral proteins,” he said by email.

“When the virus infects cells the virus RNA expresses its genes, it does NOT mutate the genes of the host to convert them into aggressor and multiplier cells,” Leibowitz said.

The decay of the virus depends on temperature and humidity

Claim: “Since the virus is not a living organism but a protein molecule, it is not killed, but decays on its own. The disintegration time depends on the temperature, humidity and type of material where it lies.”

This point is accurate, according to Dr. Wendy Keitel, professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine.

“As mentioned, the decay or loss of the viruses’ ability to infect does depend on temperature, humidity and the type of material where it lies,” she said by email.

The virus is fragile, so soap or detergent is the ‘best remedy’

Claim: “The virus is very fragile; the only thing that protects it is a thin outer layer of fat. That is why any soap or detergent is the best remedy, because the foam CUTS the FAT (that is why you have to rub so much: for 20 seconds or more, to make a lot of foam). By dissolving the fat layer, the protein molecule disperses and breaks down on its own.”

“Some viruses are very fragile; others are not fragile at all,” said Keitel, with coronaviruses being “significantly less stable” than smallpox, for example.

“Soap or detergent is a very effective way to help remove viruses from hands,” she said, but “while the detergent is important for removing soil and may have some effect on inactivation of the virus, the major effects are friction (rubbing the surfaces) and rinsing off the viruses.”

Heat melts fat, so hot water helps counter the virus

Claim: “HEAT melts fat; this is why it is so good to use water above 77 degrees Fahrenheit for washing hands, clothes and everything. In addition, hot water makes more foam and that makes it even more useful.”

This point is misleading; while the virus is sensitive to heat, Keitel said that “it is likely that a temperature high enough to inactivate coronavirus would be too hot for handwashing.” 

“Hands can be washed in warm or cold water as long as the use of soap and the duration of cleansing is at least 20 seconds,” she said.

Neumen said that “there are proteins in the coronavirus that do indeed denature with heat, but the virus is used to growing in human lungs and intestines, and it is stable up to temperatures a little above 100 degrees F.”

He also highlighted issues with the point’s information about heat melting fat.

“There are fats that melt at different temperatures -- for example, bacteria that live in methane ice and bacteria that live on the rims of... deep ocean volcanoes both have membranes made of lipid molecules (what this person is calling fat), but they have very different melting points,” Neuman said.

Use mixtures with over 65 percent alcohol

Claim: “Alcohol or any mixture with alcohol over 65% DISSOLVES ANY FAT, especially the external lipid layer of the virus.”

This is “not too far off from reality,” Neuman said.

Keitel agreed: “Alcohol is believed to destroy the essential viral proteins and may disrupt the lipid (fatty) layer that is part of the coat.”

Recommended bleach concentration

Claim: “Any mix with 1 part bleach and 5 parts water directly dissolves the protein, breaks it down from the inside.”

This is true, but excessive, according to Neuman.

“A standard store-bought hypochlorite bleach will indeed kill the virus, but it works at half the specified concentration,” he said.

Oxygenated water helps

Claim: “Oxygenated water helps long after soap, alcohol and chlorine, because peroxide dissolves the virus protein, but you have to use it pure and it hurts your skin.”

This is false.

“The amount of oxygen dissolved in water would have very little effect on the virus. This suggests some kind of sham medical product to oxygenate water for health benefits,” Neuman said.

Leibowitz agreed: “Oxygenated water does not generate hydrogen peroxide and alcohol kills the virus after one minute of exposure.”

Bactericides won’t kill the virus

Claim: “NO BACTERICIDE OR ANTIBIOTIC WORKS. The virus is not a living organism like bacteria; antibiotics cannot kill what is not alive.”

This is true, unless it is a product also aimed at viruses.

“Many products are both bactericidal and virucidal (destroying both, physically), but it is correct that a specific bactericide would not be effective,” according to Neuman.

“Antibiotics generally do not inactivate viruses; hence, treatment of a viral infection with a common antibiotic would not be expected to inactivate the virus, and it could cause harmful side effects,” Keitel said, while also noting that “a number of disinfecting chemicals have both antibacterial and antiviral activities.”

Don’t shake used clothing or use a feather duster

Claim: “NEVER shake used or unused clothing, sheets or cloth. While the virus is glued to a porous surface, it is very inert and disintegrates between 3 hours (fabric and porous), 4 hours (copper and wood), 24 hours (cardboard), 42 hours (metal) and 72 hours (plastic). But if you shake it or use a feather duster, the virus molecules float in the air for up to 3 hours, and can lodge in your nose.”

The recommendation is accurate if the items in question are contaminated with the virus.

“The current public health recommendations at this time are to avoid shaking contaminated materials due to the theoretical possibility that the contaminated surfaces could release infectious material,” said Keitel.

“If your feather duster is covered in large amounts of SARS-CoV-2, then I would agree -- don't shake it. Otherwise, it's fine to dust as usual,” Neuman said, using the official name for the novel coronavirus.

And Leibowitz said that the numbers mentioned in this point “are not quite right.”

“The virus can survive for at least 8 days on metal (steel) or hard plastic at room temperature but the relative survival on cardboard, paper, or fabric is relatively short and about 3 hours is the number I have seen,” he said.

The virus remains stable in cold environments

Claim: “The virus molecules remain very stable in external cold, or artificial as air conditioners in houses and cars. It also needs moisture to stay stable, and especially darkness. Therefore, dehumidified, dry, warm and bright environments will degrade it faster.”

Neuman said the virus “does not do well in any of the environments mentioned.”

It “remains stable almost indefinitely in a specialized -80 degree Celsius freezer, but tends to fall apart eventually at any higher temperature including a regular -20 degree Celsius home freezer,” he said.

And according to Leibowitz, “the relationship between humidity and virus survival shows that it is less stable at both high and very low humidity but it was most stable at 20% humidity, which is actually pretty low. Cold increases survival time.”

UV light can be used to disinfect masks

Claim: “UV LIGHT on any object that may contain it and break down the virus protein. For example, to disinfect and reuse a mask is perfect. Be careful, it also breaks down collagen (which is protein) in the skin.”

UV light can “inactivate” viruses, but Keitel said it is not recommended for the general public to use this method.

“At this time it is not recommended for non-medical personnel to attempt to use UV light to inactivate viruses for the purpose of disinfection of face masks. Cloth masks should be washed frequently in hot soapy water and dried in a drier,” Keitel said.

As for the effect of UV on the virus, Neuman said that it “crosslinks nucleotides in the virus RNA -- it can damage protein as well, but that is the mechanism of inactivation.”

Keitel said that “UV light has multiple potential ways of inactivating viruses, including effects on the proteins and on the genetic material.”

AFP Fact Check has addressed the topic of using UV light against the novel coronavirus here.

The virus can’t penetrate healthy skin

Claim: “The virus CANNOT go through healthy skin.”

This is “true but the reasoning is off,” according to Neuman. “There aren't any cells with the viral receptor in skin, healthy or unhealthy, so it would not be able to infect.”

Keitel said that “at this time there is no evidence that this coronavirus can go through healthy skin,” and that “injury to the skin is required in order for many viruses to gain entry through the skin.”

Don’t use vinegar against the virus

Claim: “Vinegar is NOT useful because it does not break down the protective layer of fat.”

It is accurate that vinegar is not recommended, but that this is because there is “no data to support the claim that it works, and it can be harmful to surfaces,” Keitel said.

Low-concentration alcohol doesn’t work

Claim: “NO SPIRITS, NOR VODKA, work. The strongest vodka is 40% alcohol, and you need 65%. Edit: there are a few alcohols more than 65%, and Vodka does come in 50%, but still not strong enough to kill the virus.”

This “is generally correct, but there is at least one vodka that is 96% ethanol, and would be OK,” according to Neuman.  

“The use of spirits for disinfection is not recommended and has not been studied. Consumption of alcohol for this purpose is discouraged,” Keitel said.

Listerine does work

Claim: “LISTERINE WORKS! It is 65% alcohol.”

This is false: “Listerine is only 27% ethanol, and would not work reliably,” Neuman said.

“First, it has not been tested against the coronavirus. Second, not all Listerine contains alcohol. Third, the alcohol content does not exceed about 20%, significantly lower than the recommended concentration for disinfection purposes,” said Keitel.

And “Listerine does not contact all surfaces where the virus may be located (e.g., nasal, lower respiratory tract),” she said.

Virus concentrations can be higher in confined spaces

Claim: “The more confined the space, the more concentration of the virus there can be. The more open or naturally ventilated, the less.”

“This is true, but distance between individuals is much more important. The virus spreads mostly by small droplets (about 10 microns diameter) generated from coughs and sneezes and they do not stay in the air very long and mostly settle out of the air after traveling less than 6 feet,” said Leibowitz.

Neuman said: “The size of the space doesn't matter so much -- it is a case of whether the virus is in it. Most buildings would have HEPA-filtered air, which is designed to catch coronavirus-sized particles and remove them from what we breathe.”

Wash your hands

Claim: “You have to wash your hands before and after touching mucosa, food, locks, knobs, switches, remote control, cell phone, watches, computers, desks, TV, etc. And when using the bathroom.”

This is a “harmless and a reasonable idea,” Neuman said, while Keitel said that it is recommended to do so after touching “potentially contaminated surfaces.”

Moisturize your hands

Claim: “You have to Moisturize dry hands from so much washing them, because the molecules can hide in the micro cracks. The thicker the moisturizer, the better.”

According to Neuman, “you most certainly do not have to moisturize, but if you find it more comfortable, you can. It has no bearing on the virus, and is certainly not protective in the way mentioned here.”

And Leibowitz said that “you may want to  moisturize your hands from lots of hand washing but the virus doesn’t hide in the cracks.”

Keep nails trimmed short

Claim: “Also keep your NAILS SHORT so that the virus does not hide there.”

“This is not a game of peek-a-boo -- you are unlikely to get respiratory droplets under your fingernails, and even if you did, the virus is unlikely to go from under your fingernails onto your mucosal membranes,” Neuman said.

Leibowitz agreed, saying: “This virus is spread by the respiratory route and nail length has nothing to do with this.”

AFP Fact Check has debunked more than 350 examples of false or misleading information about the novel coronavirus crisis. A complete list of our fact checks on the topic in English can be found here.

UPDATE: This article was updated on April 23, 2020 to add comment from Johns Hopkins Medicine.
 
W.G. Dunlop