Investigating the ‘Interesting Points’ Supposedly Stated by Harvard Doctor
In early January 2022, an email was circulated online that claimed to summarize a presentation given by a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) that appeared to downplay the severity of SARS-CoV-2 infection and predicted a mild pandemic forecast.
Snopes readers forwarded our team the email, which had a subject line of “Subject: Fwd: Fw: Latest from MGH – FYI.” We have included a screenshot of the content below:
The notes were said to have been taking during a presentation that a physician by the name of Dr. Edward Ryan participated in by phone with the unnamed “partners and managers” of the anonymous author’s “firm.” Specific details regarding the presentation were not listed. Based on the email’s vague content, the post is considered a classic example of an internet phenomenon known as copypasta (more on that here). Anyone can attend an advanced presentation on a complex subject and take notes. That doesn’t mean their notes accurately reflect the points made by the presenter.
Ryan is a real person who is employed at MGH and holds three director positions at the Global and Infectious Diseases department, Tropical and Geographic Medicine Center, and the Travelers’ Advice and Immunization Center. He is also a professor at Harvard University, where he received his doctorate in Medicine.
But did Ryan really make those points listed in the email chain? We reached out to him directly to determine whether there was any truth to the 14 points listed in the email chain. Though both Ryan and MGH declined our request for an interview, the institution referred us to this statement.
“We are aware of COVID-19 information circulating online evidently reflecting an individual’s personal notes from listening to a talk by Edward Ryan, MD, director of Global Infectious Diseases at MGH. These notes lack context, details, and nuance,” wrote MGH.
“For instance, the role that vaccines play in mitigating severe disease or death was not included, and individuals with comorbid conditions should continue to take extra precautions to minimize contracting COVID irrelevant of age,” the statement continued.
The viral email came at a time when the omicron COVID-19 variant set record highs for new case reports and health leaders changed up isolation regulations, furthering confusion and misinformation online. Snopes followed up with MGH to confirm whether the presentation in question had occurred, as well as to receive a recording of it for our analysis. We did not receive a response at the time of publication.
However, we broke down some of the verifiable key points, as they appeared in the original email, below:
Claim: “Omicron lives in your nose and upper respiratory area which is what makes it so contagious. It isn’t able to bond with your lungs like the other variants.”
Research suggests that the lungs tend do to better against omicron than against previous variants, while cells in the nose appear to be more vulnerable. Therefore, scientists believe omicron to be much more infectious and less lethal. It is true that this subtle difference could make it less dangerous for some populations, wrote the scientific journal Nature, but a report by The New York Times found that many of these studies have been conducted on nonhuman subjects as research that has yet to be peer-reviewed.
While omicron may infect differently, it is a relatively new variant and there is much to be revealed about long-term implications of infection. Until more is known about omicron and other variants to follow, health experts add that vaccination is the most effective way to protect against SARS-CoV-2 infection generally.
Claim: “The increased hospitalization numbers should be taken with a grain of salt as most of them are secondary admissions (i.e. people coming in for surgery for broken bones, etc. who are tested for COVID).”
To respond to this claim, Snopes reached out to Dr. Timothy Brewer, an infectious disease physician and professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who sees patients with both SARS-CoV-2 and influenza. He said that as of the end of December (which at this writing is the most recently available data), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 60% or more of COVID-19 hospitalizations involved either a cough or shortness of breath.
“The fact that majority of patients were reporting one of these two symptoms — or possibly both — suggests to me that these were unlikely to have been picked up by routine screening of hospitalized patients as suggested. Though the total number of hospitalizations is the highest to date in the pandemic, the rate of hospitalizations per case is still below last winter’s peak,” explained Brewer.
“These numbers are consistent with South Africa and U.K. data suggesting the omicron variant is less pathogenic than delta was. However, because the COVID-19 case numbers are more than twice was last winter’s peak were, total hospitalizations are up too.”
But there appears to be an uptick in these incidental hospitalizations in recent weeks. Given the infectiousness of omicron, hospital patients are testing positive for the virus after being admitted for other concerns, reported The Washington Post. For example, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a December 2021 White House press briefing that “many children are hospitalized with COVID as opposed to because of COVID.” Some New York hospitals have reported between 50% and 65% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 also had incidental infections, reported The New York Times.
Claim: “We won’t need a booster for omicron because they wouldn’t be able to develop one before it’s completely gone and we’re all going to get it which will give us the immunity we need to get through it.”
As of this writing, this claim is false. In response to the omicron variant, the CDC released a statement on Dec. 20, 2021, to specifically acknowledge that the recent emergence of omicron “further emphasizes the importance of vaccination and boosters.”
Vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths, the agency noted. This is one reason that in January 2022, the U.S. is seeing some of the highest rates of infection since the pandemic started yet death rates have been halved. While scientists are currently investigating omicron and how effective vaccines are to this specific variant, authorized vaccines in the U.S. are still most effective against other variants, including delta.
A study published in January 2022 and conducted by scientists at the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT and Harvard found that an additional booster dose of Moderna or Pfizer is needed to provide immunity against omicron and that the traditional primary series is largely ineffective against the variant. At the time of publication, the CDC recommends everyone five and older be fully vaccinated and those 16 and older to get a booster shot after completing their primary vaccination series.
Claim: “COVID will join the 4 other coronaviruses we deal with that cause the common cold, upper respiratory infections, RSV, etc. It will become a pediatric disease mainly affecting young children with no immunity.”
In response to this claim, Brewer noted that SARS-CoV-2 has repeatedly demonstrated that it is well adapted for human-to-human transmission.
“As such, I suspect that it will continue to circulate in the human population for a long time going forward as other coronaviruses currently do. However, there is no necessary correlation between pathogenicity — the ability to cause disease — and transmissibility (ease of spread) or endemicity,” explained Brewer.
Take HIV, for example, which was first detected in the 1980s and has been infecting humans in the 40 years since. Brewer notes that there is no evidence that HIV is any less pathogenic in 2022 than it was four decades ago. The difference is that modern medicine now has a better understanding of how the virus infects, spreads, and treatments to suppress it.
“There is no reason to assume that SARS-CoV-2 will become more or less pathogenetic as it continues to circulate. Either or neither could happen. [This is] another reason to get as much of the world protected through vaccination as soon as possible to try to limit the rise of new variants,” added Brewer.
Claim: “Forty percent of those infected will be asymptomatic.”
While this claim is true, such findings do not mean that asymptomatic COVID-19 infection is not a concern. An estimated 4 in 10 people with COVID-19 infection may indeed by asymptomatic, according to a December 2021 study published in the peer-reviewed journal, Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers analyzed a total of 95 studies as part of their research and concluded that such the “high percentage of asymptomatic infections highlights the potential transmission risk of asymptomatic infections in communities.”
Though asymptomatic individuals may not themselves experience a severe case, they may still transmit the virus to those around them. This is especially pertinent in health care facilities where the researchers noted about one-third of workers and in-hospital patients were asymptomatic, which could further contribute to disease spread in places where vulnerable people may be seeking care.
High rates of asymptomatic infection in people who are traveling (nearly 53%) further presents justification for screening and testing precautions, argued the authors, not the other way around.
Claim: “Rapid tests are 50-80% sensitive to those with symptoms, only 30-60% sensitive to those without symptoms.”
Rapid antigen tests are different than molecular RT-PCR tests because they detect proteins on the surface of the coronavirus whereas a PCR test detects viral RNA. It’s true that the accuracy or rapid tests, both in those with symptoms and without, is generally lower. This is part due to user error, for example, a user may not properly collect a sample, or it may be too early in their infection for the test to detect infection.
“Typically, the sensitivity of antigen tests is 30% to 40% lower than for RT-PCR, depending on whether tested subjects were symptomatic or asymptomatic,” wrote the Infectious Disease Society of America.
A study conducted at two Wisconsin universities found that swabs reported a sensitivity of 79% in symptomatic people and 44% in asymptomatic people. Those issues are compounded when omicron is factored into the equation. Early, non-peer-reviewed research suggests that rapid tests may be less sensitive to omicron than other variants, particularly at the beginning of infection. This means that most people with omicron were likely infectious for several days before testing positive for the virus.
However, this doesn’t mean that testing should be thrown out altogether. Rather, it furthers the importance of isolating when sick and continuing to test for several days to allow time for viral loads to increase enough to be detected by a rapid test. A laboratory test is still the most accurate.
Claim: “We are fighting the last war with COVID and should be pivoting back to normal life, but society isn’t quite ready for it.”
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, indeed said in December 2021 that as the world enters the third year of the pandemic, he was “confident that this will be the year we end it – but only if we do it together.” But rather than downplay the severity of the virus, Ghebreyesus added that “no country is out of the woods from the pandemic” and that inequities between countries regarding vaccines and treatments must be addressed to beat COVID-19.
Similarly, on Jan. 6, 2022, the director-general said that the pandemic will not end until “global leaders who have shown such resolve in protecting their own populations will extend that resolve to make sure that the whole world is safe and protected.” He cited a goal to vaccinate 70% of people in every country by the middle of the year, and again addressed resource availability concerns when it came to tests, equipment and treatments.
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