Reports from Cuba: 14 rumors about coronavirus: some Cuban, others universal

14yMedio reports from Havana via Translating Cuba:

14 Rumors About Coronavirus: Some Cuban and Others Universal

Here at 14ymedio we want to contribute to the truthful spread of information about the coronavirus. We are aware that we don’t have many certainties up to this point, given that the virus is new and research all over the world is beginning to be carried out with the little data available, but there is a lack of scientific evidence that can settle certain questions.

However, we want to help in checking information in face of the risk that Cubans may receive propaganda or disinformation in a centralized system. Here we offer 14 questions and verified answers.

Has Cuba developed a vaccine against the coronavirus?

At this time there is no vaccine against the coronavirus. Neither Cuba nor any other country has developed it although there are various laboratories in some twenty countries around the world that are working on it. The World Health Organization has already warned that it will not be ready in less than a year, since there are many subsequent studies that have to be done. This weekend there was a controversy between the US and Germany, since that country has accused Washington of wanting to make it exclusively with the trial from the pharmaceutical CureVac.

Does Cuba have “the cure” for coronavirus for already infected cases? 

Those infected do not develop the sickness (they are asymptomatic) at a high rate, but around 30 or 40% do, with pneumonia being the most dangerous which, linked with chronic conditions (hypertension, coronary pathologies, diabetes) and depressed immune systems (in cancer treatment or HIV carriers) can become complicated, meaning a risk to life.

Patients with symptoms are being treated all over the world with different medications and therapies, but until now no country has a totally effective cure, because it largely depends on the point at which the disease is detected, the state in which the sick person arrives at the hospital, and his or her previous medical condition, as well as the medical care they can receive, thus the importance of not filling up hospitals.

Is interferon a “cure” for coronavirus?

In recent weeks the news that the Cuban drug Interferon Alpha 2B has helped thousands of Chinese patients recover from the pneumonia associated with COVID-19 has circulated widely on social media. The trigger for this information was a tweet by Miguel Díaz-Canel in which he assured that it was “Interferon Alpha 2B: the Cuban drug used in China against the coronavirus.” However, the leader’s message did not clarify that it was one of 30 medications being used in the Asian country in the treatment of those patients.

One day after that tweet, the newspaper Granma, official organ of the Communist Party, added that the Cuban drug has had “palpable results in the cure of more than 1,500 patients,” but without citing sources. An investigation carried out by the Venezuelan site Efecto Cocuyo revealed that the figure in reality corresponded with those patients who had managed to recover from the disease up until February 6, but the official Chinese report where that statistic appears for the first time “never attributes their recovery to the effect of the Cuban drug or any other treatment.”

The Cuban Embassy in China also spread the message, on February 5, and touted the role of the drug in Chinese authorities’ fight against COVID-19: “The Health Commission has selected our product among those used in the fight against #coronavirus,” the Cuban embassy in Beijing wrote on Twitter. However, on the website for the mixed Chinese-Cuban company ChangHeber, with headquarters in the city of Changchun, where the recombinant Interferon Alpha 2B is made, there is still no information on its use in patients with coronavirus. The website only mentions its efficacy in treating hepatitis, leukemia, lymphoma, papilloma, and myeloma, among other illnesses.

Cuban authorities have brandished the massive local fabrication of Interferon Alpha 2B as one of the main strengths of the country in face of the advance of the disease; however, some specialists qualify this assertion. “The drug is not going to prevent you from getting infected, it doesn’t cure COVID-19 by itself, and although it has proven useful to alleviate symptoms, there will not be tons of Interferon that will save us in the case that the appropriate measures of containment and mitigation are not applied, and as a consequence, the health system will collapse,” warned the Cuban biologist Amílcar Pérez Riverol.

Do high temperatures prevent infection?

Although there are various scientific theories that indicate that the virus does not tolerate temperatures above 82 degrees fahrenheit, none of them have yet been proven and the WHO maintains that the coronavirus can circulate in any area unless the opposite is proven. This contradicts the propaganda of the Ministry of Tourism that is promoting Cuba as a safe destination for sun and sand. Spreading this information, currently, is irresponsible.

It was only on Sunday, and after the rumor about heat as an “antidote” for coronavirus had widely circulated, that national Cuban television issued a denial. By that point, the deceitful advertisement by Havanatur and Cubatur had already reached thousands of potential vacationers. That advertisement also included the claim that “seawater” kills bacteria, which makes Cuba even more attractive as a destination, but is a matter of confusion because COVID-19 is a virus, not a bacteria.

Will tourists find a “safe destination” in Cuba and free and effective medical attention if they get sick on the Island?

There has been on official pronouncement that the tourists hospitalized in Cuba for coronavirus symptoms will be treated for free. Bárbara Cruz Rodríguez, general director of Marketing of Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism, assured that “clients who decide to come to Cuba will be well received” and “we will give them all services,” an assertion that indicates that the Government could be planning for a time in which the national coffers suffer a serious drop in funds.

To this must be added that, over the weekend, the Italian tourist Marta Cavallo, who is admitted under suspicion of coronavirus at the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine (IPK), reported on the conditions in she is experiencing in that hospital. “We are in a terrible hospital, in dramatic sanitary conditions, they ask us to take the soup from the plate, there isn’t even toilet paper…they don’t give us news of any kind,” she wrote on Facebook.

Can the borders remain open and the arrival of tourists kept up without this influencing the number of infections? Did the airport controls detect the first cases of coronavirus?

The border controls are currently one of the resources most used by the majority of countries, but their success is relative. Border closing has been used in China, which has managed to check the epidemic, but not in South Korea, which is also achieving that.

Border closings can help because it limits mobility and, thus, social distancing is being demonstrated as effective, although it is not effective alone. Airport controls are hardly reliable despite being used in a massive form. The majority of those infected are asymptomatic and especially in the first days, when the viral load is lower. Even tests may not detect it, creating a false sense of security. Quarantine, on the other hand, does guarantee greater security without an investment of resources.

Does keeping classes open help turn schools into detection centers?

In general, the majority of countries are proceeding to close schools. Although children appear to be less likely to present grave symptoms or get sick, they are carriers of the virus in any case and have a high risk of transmitting it through their socialization and lower awareness of the seriousness of the situation.

Although children are encouraged to wash their hands frequently, they touch each other and many surfaces when they play, which is why schools are important transmission centers.

In some places with more elderly populations, like Cuba, where grandparents frequently assume childcare duties while the children’s parents work, it could also be an added risk of infecting one of the greatest high risk groups.

Cuba has 1,125,000 residents aged 60-69, 768,000 aged 70-79, and 392,000 older than 80, rates very similar to those of Italy and Spain, countries battered by the virus. It is a case that can be learned from Spain, where the same thing is happening and where children are urged not to visit their grandparents.

Is early detection enough to stop the coronavirus?

In part yes, but in the case of Cuba the four confirmed cases of coronavirus are people who passed through the airports without any symptom being detected. One of them, a Bolivian living in Milan, arrived on the Island on February 24 and was in Santa Clara without her illness having been detected before she joined, on March 8, her Cuban husband, who was then presenting cough and fever. By then, the tourist had overcome the coronavirus and interacted with dozens of people.

So although early detection can help, the measures of containment and restriction on mobility, entry into the country, quarantine, and self-isolation seem to be more effective to slow down the speed of transmission, thus attempting to not collapse the health systems.

Do the cloth surgical masks that will be distributed in Cuba work as a barrier against the virus?

There are different types of face masks, the majority of which are available to people, as is the case with the cloth face masks that are planned to be distributed on the Island. But these masks do not prevent contagion, although they do prevent transmission.

Infected people can use them to avoid infecting others, but healthy people cannot avoid being infected that way. The clinical ones are more effective, but neither are they the only measure. There is a shortage all over the world of masks, although the industry is making them at a forced march and China has sent shipments to various countries that need them. Cuba already warned that the lack of money will prevent buying them.

Can rum be used to sanitize the hands?

In face of the shortage of soap to wash hands and also other products like sanitizing gel, Cubans are making use of other products to maintain hygiene. Perfumes, colognes, and even rum are some of them, but it is likely that these solutions do not totally protect those who use them.

To sanitize the hands and eliminate the virus requires alcohol in a sufficient quantity as well as glycerine, experts warn. The small boxes (tetrapack) of Planchao or Silver Dry rum that many are using as a hand “gel” only have 36% alcohol when a concentration of 70% is required. Specialists reiterate that a better way of protecting oneself from coronavirus is washing one’s hands with soap and water frequently, for at least 20 seconds each time.

Is it useful to drink alcohol or hot beverages to prevent contagion?

The rumor that hot drinks helps prevent coronavirus comes directly from the belief that temperature has an influence. As we previously said, there is no evidence yet that the virus dies at 82 degrees, but additionally the infection system is not related to the consumption of liquids. Some doctors have even warned that these false tricks can be counterproductive if they affect the mucous membrane. Regarding alcohol, not only is that theory unfounded but it is also very dangerous. In Iran last week 36 people died, drunk from consuming alcohol believing that it would stop contagion.

At what distance can the virus be caught?

A totally secure distance is one greater than two meters. The virus is transmitted through fluids, like drops of saliva and nasal secretions that leave a person who coughs or sneezes, which is approximately one meter. In the case of living with someone who is infected, measures must be taken like isolating them in one room and avoiding sharing a bathroom, in addition to maintaining the hygiene of the home and persons. All these measures are very complicated in the context of the homes and hygiene products found in Cuba. To which must be added that common on the Island are long lines to buy basic products, packed public transport, and overwhelmed bureaucracy offices.

Can pets be infected?

No. Pets like cats and dogs cannot be infected with the coronavirus and, in fact, one of the exceptions to confinement in the countries that have imposed it, like Italy and Spain, is for taking out dogs, although as quickly as possible and only with one person. Despite everything, it is a good idea to maximize hygiene by washing hands very well with soap and water after touching pets.

Is there any home test to see if one is infected?

In some countries there has spread a rumor that one can simply check if he or she has been infected by filling the lungs and seeing if there is no pain in the side when holding the breath for 10 seconds. Neither this nor any other test works for self diagnosis. Following recommendations from health authorities and, in the case of presenting symptoms, self isolating or consulting doctors are the measures that stop the spread of the virus. Ruling out the illness with these types of false tests can only contribute to spreading the infection.

Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera