VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte’s claim on getting virus samples from cadavers needs context

Read this fact check in Filipino

President Rodrigo Duterte’s remark about horses developing immunity through the injection of blood from deceased coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients needs context.

STATEMENT

Talking about solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic in one of his late night addresses, Duterte said:

“Usually magkuha ka kasi ng doon sa patay, kunan mo ng dugo niya, i-inject mo doon sa kabayo. Iyong kabayo, kaya niya na ang ano, 'yon (virus) ang i-inject mo dahan-dahan sa kabayo rin. Huwag naman bigla kasi magka-COVID talaga. Biktima 'yan. Dahan-dahan lang hanggang ma-immune. Kapag marami ng antibodies 'yung kabayo, doon na kunin 'yung maraming

(Usually you get from a dead person, collect the blood then inject it to a horse. The horse can take it (virus), just do it slowly. Don’t do it hastily because [the horse] will really acquire COVID. It’s also a victim. Do it bit by bit until it’s immuned. If the horse already acquired plenty of antibodies, you can get [antibodies] from it...)”

He added:

Dumaan na 'yan ng kabayo. Kagaya ng kagat ng ahas. (It has already been done with the horses. Like [in] snake bites).”

Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office, Talk to the People of President Rodrigo Duterte, April 16, 2020, watch from 41:31 to 42:17

FACT

Viral samples of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), which causes COVID-19, are “isolated from swab from patients [in acute phase of infection], and highly unlikely from a deceased person,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO) Philippines.

In a May 9 email to VERA Files, the health agency explained that viruses, like SARS-CoV-2, are known to replicate themselves using infected cells, thus:

“...if cells are no longer functioning in a dead body, the virus replication will also stop and remaining viruses in the body will be degraded.”

However, since there is “no scientific evidence yet” for SARS-CoV-2, WHO Philippines said “excretions from recently deceased patients must be handled carefully and properly disinfected with dignity and respect in order to prevent potential contamination.”

It is “unethical to directly harvest a virus from a dead body for vaccine research without prior consent,” WHO Philippines added.

In the Department of Health (DOH)’s March 22 guidelines on handling remains of suspected, probable, and confirmed COVID-19 cases, it said burial and cremation shall be done “within 12 hours after death.” Personnel handling the deceased bodies were also instructed to wear appropriate personal protective equipment and observe hygiene practices.

In producing vaccines, viruses are typically weakened or “inactivated” (killed) so that they lose their ability to infect the cells. (VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Five questions on COVID-19 vaccines, answered)

These are then administered to animals or humans in order to generate antibodies and develop immunity without having to get the disease first. (See VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Five things you need to know about COVID-19 antibodies)

COVID-19 and antibodies

Antibody treatment for COVID-19 “requires [a] live host who has recovered from the disease,” not a dead individual, who will provide a “convalescent plasma” to be used for the current patient, according to DOH.

Convalescent plasma is the liquid portion of the blood which contains antibodies to fight off the infection.

In an email interview, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Singh-Vergeire told VERA Files that the treatment is done:

“...in order to prevent or treat a disease caused by a specific infectious agent, such as a virus. This administration of antibodies is aimed at neutralizing the virus by conferring passive immunity to the patient.”

Passive immunity pertains to the transfer of an antibody produced by one human or animal to another.

Among hospitals making use of this method is the Phillippine General Hospital (PGH), which is currently investigating convalescent plasma therapy as a form of “compassionate treatment” for COVID-19 patients.

In an April 24 online interview, PGH spokesperson Jonas del Rosario said the plasmas they use are from “donor[s] who survived and recovered from COVID-19” as these contain antibodies. This is administered only to patients who are severely and critically ill as a “treatment of last resort” since there is “no clear cut evidence yet that plasma therapy works,” he said.

To be able to donate, the PGH, in an online call for donors, said plasma survivor-donors must have:

  • evidence of prior COVID-19 disease;
  • recovered from the disease; and,
  • passed all standard requirements for blood donors, such as good health on the day of blood extraction.

Del Rosario, in a separate interview on April 17, also said asymptomatics who have fully recovered from the disease are “welcome” to donate, as long as they have already developed antibodies.

A known treatment that uses horses to generate antibodies is the “hyperimmune serum.” It is used to treat patients with snake bites, or those exposed to tetanus, diphtheria, or rabies virus, WHO Philippines said.

But WHO clarified that while it is “biologically plausible” to produce “neutralizing” antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in horses, “further review and studies are needed.”

On March 11, United States-based biopharmaceutical company Emergent Biosolutions said it has been developing a potential treatment for severe hospitalized patients with COVID-19 by manufacturing plasma from immunized horses.


Sources

Presidential Communications Operations Office, Talk to the People of President Rodrigo Duterte, April 16, 2020

Radio Television Malacañang Youtube, Talk to the People on COVID-19, April 16, 2020

World Health Organization Philippines, Personal communication, May 9, 2020

United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019: Guidelines for Clinical Specimens, May 5, 2020

Merriam-webster.com, Acute

Department of Health, Department Memorandum No. 2020-0158, March 22, 2020

Department of Health, Personal communication, April 24, 2020

PGH Blood Donor Center Facebook, Information on Convalescent Plasma Donation, April 15, 2020

News5 Facebook, PGH spokesperson explains plasma therapy, April 24, 2020

PGH Blood Donor Center Facebook, Who is eligible to donate?, April 15, 2020

Marou Pahati Sarne Youtube, Plasma Therapy for COVID-19 patients, April 18, 2020

Department of Health, Philippine Health Advisories: First Aid on Snake Bites, pg. 110, 2012

United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tetanus

United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Diphtheria

United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rabies

Emergent Biosolutions website, Emergent BioSolutions initiates development of plasma-derived product for treatment and prevention of Coronavirus disease, March 11, 2020


(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)

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