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Q&A: Debunking Myths About COVID-19, Treatment, Vaccines With Wash U's Michael Kinch

Michael Kinch
Washington University

Many aspects of everyday life and commerce are grinding to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the online world remains as frenetic as ever. And while virtual tools and social media platforms provide much-needed connections in these isolating times, they’ve also made it easy for harmful misinformation to spread almost as fast as the coronavirus itself.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, we worked to combat some of the false assumptions circulating about the virus. Host Sarah Fenske talked with Michael Kinch, the director of Washington University’s Centers for Research Innovation in Biotechnology and Drug Discovery, and he fielded listener calls in addition to Fenske’s questions.

Kinch, who is also a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and an associate vice chancellor, provided an antidote to some of the most common myths out there right now. He touched on where things really stand in terms of COVID-19 treatment, hopes for a vaccine and how people can best protect themselves — both from the virus and from bad information.

Here are seven of the questions listeners asked via phone, Twitter and email, along with Kinch’s answers:

Listener: I’m a senior citizen and I’m actually on day nine of my sheltering in place, and I haven’t actually left my house. This is my ninth day. What I’ve heard is that it’s actually safe to take a walk outside, maybe go down to the park, get some fresh air. But I tried to find that information on the World Health Organization website, and I didn’t find that. So I’m actually just seeking confirmation that I can actually just get out and take a walk.

Professor Kinch: Absolutely. I would encourage people to get out for their mental health as much as for their physical health. The two things you want to do are avoid being within six [feet] of a person … because those people could be infected. And the second thing is, be very wary about touching surfaces that might be infected, so railings, things like that.

Listener: Vaccine development for H1N1 began in April 2009 and was widely available by December 2009. Do you see that same sort of timeline for COVID-19 vaccine availability?

Kinch: Unfortunately, probably not. And the reason for that is that with influenza vaccines, we have had a flu vaccine since 1945. And every year we engineered new strains. … So with H1N1, we were able to just adapt an existing vaccine, [whereas] with this vaccine we have to start from scratch. And the hard part about a vaccine, andI spoke about this actually on this show a few years ago, is that you’re taking a healthy population and you’re now giving it something to try to prevent disease. So you’ve got a very high bar for safety. And what that means for COVID-19 vaccines is that they’ve got to undergo quite a bit of safety testing so that we don’t end up hurting more people than we end up helping.

Listener: I’m curious if it’s a wise choice to donate blood at this time.

Kinch: As a matter of fact, the blood supply as I understand it is under a lot of stress, because people are not going out. Actually, senior citizens tend to be amongst the best blood donors, and I tend to give every two to three months. And so I would encourage everyone to go out. I’m sure that when you give blood, and I plan to do it in the next week or two, that you want to maintain that social distance … but beyond that, it is completely safe. There’s no risk of becoming infected as long as the blood workers are being screened, and I guarantee they are.

Listener: I heard that Cuba is using antivirals to treat patients in Italy. What do we know about these antivirals and their efficacy?

Kinch: The Cubans are testing a drug called interferon alpha 2b. It was approved in 1995 for use against melanoma. Its efficacy against COVID-19 is not known.

Listener: Is it safe for a 64-year-old healthy woman to visit her daughter and 2-year-old grandson here in St. Louis? I've been staying home, she's a teacher and has been in the broader population until last Wednesday, whereas I've been staying home for 10 days or so.

Kinch: This is a challenging question, and it comes down to assessing the likelihood that the 64-year-old will encounter the virus, either during the travel or as a result of catching it from people in the house.

Listener: What extra precautions should be taken if we have an in-home health care aide for an elder? Should we still have the aide coming to the house?

Kinch: The key is to have a conversation with the aide about the likelihood that they might be exposed to the virus. It becomes a trade-off between the added risk of infection from the aide against the services they provide.

Listener: If someone who is infected donates blood, wouldn’t that blood infect the patient?

Kinch: To my knowledge, there is no evidence that the virus is found in the blood (unlike, for example, HIV). Instead, the virus tends to stay localized to the lung. So no, there would be no risk until or unless it is found that COVID-19 can live in the blood (which is unlikely).

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.