What’s the best pain-killer for COVID-19? Only more studies can answer that

March 18, 2020
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

The World Health Organization weighed in Tuesday to try to clarify conflicting medical advice about the effect of ibuprofen on COVID-19.

Spokesman Christian Lindmeier said that while there isn’t any evidence linking ibuprofen to complications with COVID-19, he recommended taking alternatives like acetaminophen (the main ingredient in Tylenol) while scientists investigate the matter.

This comes in response to a French minister’s tweet, a hoax WhatsApp message, and an online debate in a tension-filled medical community. All of that created a challenge for fact-checkers trying to give the public the best advice.

On Saturday, French Health Minister Olivier Véran tweeted anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen could worsen symptoms. Véran pointed to a 2019 study conducted by France’s National Agency for the Safety of Medicine that showed ibuprofen caused complications for all infectious disease patients.

At the same time, health authorities in Spain and Austria were reporting there is no evidence to suggest ibuprofen worsens COVID-19. The Austrians went so far as to call it a hoax.

In an updated fact-check published Tuesday in French publication Liberation, a spokesman for Véran’s office conceded that while there are no studies tying ibuprofen to COVID-19 complications, they were acting on the consensus of French health professionals.

“We don’t have all the facts,” said Joaquín Ortega, head of content for Spanish fact-checker Newtral. He said journalists need to take extra care writing about public health so Newtral opted to give a broader explanation.

Mario Viscosa, a reporter for Newtral, published two stories explaining both the official position of Spain’s Agency for Medicine and Health Products as well as claims made in a March 11 article in the medical journal, the Lancet. The authors of the Lancet piece looked at the chemical composition of the COVID-19 virus and theorized that anti-inflammatory medicines could worsen the symptoms. Viscosa also said these theories required more research.

In Austria, fact-checkers had to contend with a hoax WhatsApp message pretending to be from the Medical University of Vienna. The fake message claimed the university had definitively connected ibuprofen to problems with COVID-19, but was immediately refuted on the school’s Twitter page.

“Everybody’s just very confused,” said Alice Echtermann, from the German fact-checking group Correctiv. Her fact-check published Monday concluded there was no concrete evidence to support Véran’s claim, but was updated Tuesday to reflect the WHO’s statement.

“I think some have the opinion, ‘OK, we’d rather just warn people of something so people don’t do something wrong,’ and others say, ‘OK, this warning is a step too far,” Echtermann said.

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