With a pandemic, impatience can be deadly

With a pandemic, impatience can be deadly

The question of whether dietary supplements might help combat the coronavirus reveals an essential tension between what people want and what we’ve got.

What we want is an end to the pandemic. We’re tired of high unemployment, being stuck at home, out of school, fearing for our health and our loved ones’ lives, being told that we shouldn’t see the grandparents over the holidays. We want a new drug or a vaccine. We want this nightmare to stop. But there is no end in sight.

What we’ve got, instead, is soaring rates of new infections, up 44 percent in the second half of October in the United States. We’ve got some treatments that reduce symptoms and some vaccines in the works, but no imminent rescue. And we’ve got an unrelenting virus that’s killed more than 230,000 people in the United States, and more than 1 million worldwide.

Small wonder that people are looking for other options, asking whether dietary supplements such as vitamin D or zinc (both of which President Trump has taken) might help. Science News contributing correspondent Laura Beil examines the data on those and other supplements. She finds that while many scientists are conducting studies to see if certain supplements can reduce symptom severity, hospitalizations or deaths, it’s still not clear whether there’s going to be any benefit. As one scientist told her, the best bet is “wash your hands, wear a mask, stay six feet apart.”

In this issue, we also delve into the question of whether people who survive a bout with COVID-19 will be immune from future infection. As staff writer Erin Garcia de Jesus reports, because our experience with the virus is still so new, researchers don’t have enough data to know whether surviving an infection will confer lifetime protection, as it does with measles, or be just a short-term deal, as it is with influenza. The same goes for a vaccine: Will it work for life, like the measles shot? Or will vaccination have to be an annual affair, as it is for the flu? It’s too soon to tell.

Saying “scientists don’t yet know” is not what we want to hear. But we do need to accept this uncertainty, especially when some policy makers are arguing that the fastest route to ending the pandemic is to achieve herd immunity by stepping back and letting people get infected. If infections don’t confer long-term immunity, that approach won’t work. And even if it did, it would condemn many, many more people to illness, suffering and death — tragedies that don’t have to happen if we are patient, follow public health guidance and wait for science to find solutions.

Other countries have figured out what to do while giving the scientists time to do their jobs. Nations that have effectively throttled the virus include Japan, Brunei, Finland, China, Thailand, New Zealand, Norway, Taiwan and South Korea. None of those places have fancy technology or miracle cures that we lack. They’re relying on long-known public health measures and are trusting in science to drive policy. It’s working. People are safely back at work, in school, in restaurants and in shops. If the United States chose to, we could do the same.

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