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With a pandemic, impatience can be deadly


The question of whether dietary supplements can help fight coronavirus reveals an essential tension between what people want and what we have.

What we want is the end of the pandemic. We are fed up with high unemployment, being trapped at home, out of school, fearing for our health and the lives of our loved ones, telling ourselves that we should not see grandparents during the holidays. We want a new medicine or a vaccine. We want this nightmare to stop. But there is no end in sight.

On the contrary, what we have is to increase the rates of new infections, 44% more in the second half of October in the United States. We have some treatments that reduce symptoms and some vaccines in the works, but there is no imminent rescue. And we have a relentless virus that has killed more than 230,000 people in the United States and more than 1 million worldwide.

No wonder people look for other options and wonder if dietary supplements like vitamin D or zinc (which President Trump has taken) could help. Laura Beil, a Science News correspondent, examines data on these and other supplements. He finds that while many scientists are conducting studies to see if certain supplements can reduce the severity of symptoms, hospitalizations, or deaths, it’s still unclear if there will be any benefit. As one scientist told him, the best bet is to "wash your hands, wear a mask, stay six feet away."

In this issue, we also delve into the question of whether people who survive a fight with COVID-19 will be immune to future infections. As personal writer Erin Garcia de Jesus reports, because our experience with the virus is still so young, researchers do not have enough data to know whether surviving an infection will provide lifelong protection, as with measles, or just long-term agreement term, as with the flu. 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 for the flu? It's too early to tell.

Saying “scientists don’t know it yet” is not what we want to hear. But we need to accept this uncertainty, especially when some policymakers argue that the quickest way to end the pandemic is to achieve herd immunity by taking a step back and letting people become infected. If infections do not confer long-term immunity, that approach will not work. And even if it did, it would condemn many, many more people to disease, suffering, and death, tragedies that don’t have to happen if we are patient, follow public health guidelines, and wait for science to find solutions.

Other countries figured out what to do while giving scientists time to do their work. Nations that have effectively reduced the virus include Japan, Brunei, Finland, China, Thailand, New Zealand, Norway, Taiwan, and South Korea. None of these places have luxury technology or miraculous cures that we lack. They rely on already known public health measures and rely on science to drive politics. It's working. People go back to work, school, restaurants and shops. If the United States had chosen to do so, we could have done the same.


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