Pseudoscience in times COVID-19
By Sambit Dash
Odisha Government, which has been lauded for its handling of COVID-19 in the early phase of the pandemic, came up with a “shocker” recently. Health workers posted in Ganjam district, which has become a hotbed of infection and deaths in the State, were given 10,000 vials of homoeopathy drug “arsenicum album 30”, as a measure to boost immunity.
While there is a mountain-load of evidence against homoeopathy as a branch of science, its peddling by both the Union Government and the State Government in such a critical period of pandemic does not augur well both for the cause of science and people at large.
The bogus claim of this homoeopathy drug first came to light when the AYUSH Ministry released an advisory on March 6 claiming that this drug can boost immunity against COVID-19. It should be noted that this claim was not arrived after any study but it relied on some vague concept of “water memory” that found its way to homoeopathy.
Homoeopathy not effective
While there have been numerous studies debunking the 200-year-old homoeopathy concept, proposed by Samuel Hahnemann, a huge nail in the coffin of this concept was hit by National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) five years ago when it found after analysing a huge body of research that homoeopathy was not effective in treating any health condition. A similar finding was made by the UK’s House of Commons report on efficacy of homoeopathy in 2010.
In such a backdrop, AYUSH Ministry, which technically should drop ‘H’ from its name, claiming immunity boosting by homoeopathy sits very odd at a time when there is a search for solid science, evidence-based, one that has been concluded after rigorous application.
It must be pointed out that while there is certainly a place for alternative medicine, it needs to go through the fire of evidence-based scientific methods. In fact, immunity boosting has become the flavour of the season. From hand wash to bread to ayurvedic concoctions, everything is being claimed and sold as immunity boosting items.
On the one hand while it shows that regulatory bodies have been lax by allowing marketing of such items, it misleads a population already scared and apprehensive of the coronavirus. Immunity is a broad and complex concept and builds on basics of balanced diet (that sadly vast majority of Indians cannot afford to have), good sleep, moderate exercise (we are not a very exercise-friendly nation otherwise) and healthy mental state, but all these claims to boost immunity should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Not very far from these dubious claims is the promised land of ‘plasma therapy’. Odisha has started plasma therapy in select hospitals and recently claimed that it has benefited four of the six ‘moderate to seriously’ COVID-19 patients. The SCB Medical College and Hospital has been identified as the plasma bank and the State is appealing to individuals, who have recovered from COVID-19, to donate blood. While there is much more scientific evidence about it than pseudoscience like homeopathy, and more and more results of studies are coming in, it still has to be taken with caution.
In a review article published on July 10 by Cochrane, which included in it 20 completed studies on plasma therapy, involving 5,443 participants (which had only one randomised controlled trial, the gold standard of evidence-based medicine), it was concluded that with the limitation of having just one RCT, poorly reported results and other therapies going on along with plasma therapy, it is uncertain whether this method really helped patients get better. However, the brighter part is that more than 50 RCTs on plasma therapy are underway and it should be incumbent upon Odisha Government to encourage such studies while admitting that plasma therapy is not the panacea, just not yet.
It is time to demand for sound science, pandemic or no pandemic. Many a tall claim has fallen flat, read hydrocholroquine. Many exalted claims have shocked even the cheerleaders, read Coronil by Patanjali. In these dire times, the need for good science is all the more imperative. Frontline workers in Ganjam or elsewhere do not need the sugar pills of homoeopathy, even for the feel good factor. They need better working conditions, PPEs and assurance in terms of insurance. They also need effective leadership and training. These are going to provide them with the necessary immunity.
__ The author is Senior Grade Lecturer, Department of Biochemistry, Melaka Manipal Medical College (Manipal Campus). He comments on public policy, healthcare and issues of social interest. He tweets at @sambit_dash