In early April 2020, a post published to Medium.com circulated on social media, titled “Covid-19 had us all fooled, but now we might have finally found its secret.” The post went viral in archived and replicated form even after the site removed it for violating its rules against spreading disinformation.
Let’s break down the components before we look at the content of the blog post.
What is Medium.com?
Medium.com is a popular and open content management system (CMS) to which anyone can publish long-form pieces, blog posts, or other material. Upon its introduction in 2012 and 2013, its purpose was described by its creators: “[Medium] helps you find the right audience for whatever you have to say.” An early assessment of Medium’s pros and cons was published by The Atlantic in August 2013, explaining examples of the platform’s ability to give individual stories reach:
Over the last year [late 2012 through August 2013], Medium’s momentum has been building … In the last couple weeks, five very different posts circulated widely in social media, all housed at Medium.com … The first two pieces are awesome. The second two are the opposite of awesome. And [the other] story was fascinating[.]
Almost every social media user encountered and/or shared a post published to Medium.com by the time the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in 2020, and at least some users were aware that posts to Medium were almost always self-published and without editorial oversight — which leads to this piece: “Covid-19 had us all fooled, but now we might have finally found its secret.”
In fact, a cursory glance at the beginning of piece revealed a few things, among them a top-level notice from Medium.com that anyone was able to publish content to the site, and that its content was not necessarily vetted:
What is “Covid-19 had us all fooled, but now we might have finally found its secret,” and does it look credible?
In just that one paragraph and byline (shown in the above screengrab), we can see:
- No specific individual with any identifiable legal name took credit for the piece. In lieu of a name, the author listed themselves solely as “libertymavenstock“;
- The very first sentence asserts that “a mountain of anecdotal evidence” emerged out of COVID-19 epicenters such as New York City (NYC), Spain, and Italy;
- The second sentence goes on to claim, wrongly, that this purported anecdata was “leading to a general field-level consensus backed up by a few previously little-known studies“;
- “We” have “had it wrong all along” regarding COVID-19;
- Whatever “we” had wrong (it’s not immediately clarified) was a thing that United States President Donald Trump apparently did not “have wrong”;
- Whatever followed the introductory paragraph pertained to widely-touted a combination of hydroxychloroquine and “azithromicin” as a surefire cure for COVID-19;
- The author, holding themselves out as an expert on the bleeding edge of COVID-19 treatment, was unable to correctly spell “azithromycin”;
- None of the following claims indicated they were supported with linked citations. Places where citations ought to have appeared included:
- What happened in between April 1 and April 5 2020, the “mountain” of evidence;
- What specifically transpired in Italy, Spain, and New York City to inform the author’s assertions;
- How specifically that information surpassed the “piling up” level (since it was ostensibly such voluminous anecdotal evidence);
- Where exactly the author located a “general field-level consensus” on their forthcoming assertions;
- The “few” and “previously little-known studies,” linked, named, and numbered — how many was this “few,” two or 22?
- Who specifically “got it all wrong,” and what was misperceived by these people;
- What specifically President Trump “got right.”
Why does it matter?
It didn’t inspire confidence that the first paragraph made extraordinary claim after extraordinary claim without linking to anything credible (or anything at all, for that matter) to back up their claims. Also, it ought to go without saying that any sort of partisan political commentary “(cough Trump cough)” was out of place in anything intended to be a serious examination of medical approaches to COVID-19. It didn’t read like credible information, because it almost certainly wasn’t based solely on these features.
But let’s move beyond the first three sentences.
Again, at some point between its April 5 2020 publication and April 9 2020, libertymavenstock’s piece was removed — presumably by the platform (Medium) and not the author. As shown above, when the article was live the following warning was automatically added:
Anyone can publish on Medium per our Policies, but we don’t fact-check every story. For more info about the coronavirus, see cdc.gov.
As of April 9 2020, visitors to the page would see the following message indicating manual review and removal:
This account is under investigation or was found in violation of the Medium Rules.
Who is “libertymavenstock” and why did they use a pseudonym? Could they be a whistleblower in the medical or research fields?
In this instance, the use of a pseudonym was a double-edged sword in terms of how the piece might be viewed.
Science-minded people would likely notice the lack of citations as well as the partisan features of the first paragraph, and therefore view the blog post with a healthy dose of skepticism. Partisan readers, on the other hand, would likely either be open to the claims because that information confirmed their political beliefs, or conversely, reject anything thereafter because it conflicted with their personal political perspectives.
One example of the former could be observed in an iteration of the article shared to a politically-themed group of people from upstate New York. Along with the article, the Facebook poster posited that any information validating the efficacy of azithromycin and chloroquine would be viewed negatively by “Democrats (like Cuomo)”, because it represented a “HUGE win” for Trump:
Okay people, be prepared to read a little. I promise, it will be worth it. This is the best article I have read yet. I like how it was put in laymen terms, but Democrats (like Cuomo), elites and big pharma will still dispute it because it is a simple, cost effective, and easily distributed treatment for the Chinese COVID-19 coronavirus. Oh and because it proves Trump right once again and gives him a HUGE win!
As to the identity of libertymavenstock, the Canadian blog Small Dead Animals dug a little into the source of the claims, explaining in an April 5 2020 post:
With a few minutes of sleuthing, I found the identity of the author — Andrew Gaiziunas along with his Youtube channel on cryptocurrencies, and an interview. It had 7 views as of this morning. So buyer beware should it pop up in your travels. (Update: He is likely the son of a retired Illinois doctor of the same name.)
It would be useful if our readers in the medical field would chime in.
Fair warning: to anyone veering off topic or jamming up the threads with conspiracy jackshit – prepare to be disappeared.
An undated update to the post included an email from Gaiziunas, asserting authorship and explaining that he dashed off a quick blog post and “threw it up on Medium just to save a copy and see if anyone would have feedback.” Gaiziunas indicated that his broader intent was for the blog post to be “handed off to much more qualified and experienced hands,” and that he felt that he had achieved this aim.
Also notable was that Gaiziunas stated the information in the post “may or may not” be useful (i.e., based in any sort of scientific reality), and the letter was peppered with “mights” and “maybes.” Finally, Gaiziunas pointed to one (1) citation — presumably the “mountain” of studies (plural) to which he alluded in the first paragraph:
Just popping in to say hello and add some context before anything gets out of hand.
Me and my dad (retired M.D.) were intrigued by the possibilities behind this particular piece of research coming across my desk [a recent] morning: [link]
Being all stuck at home under quarantine, we wanted to learn more. My dad provided the medical knowledge, I provided the tech & sleuthing skills, and we came up with this core hypothesis. As we pulled together a series of anecdotal data, some pre-prints, and even some peer-reviewed papers, a clearer picture of the hypothesis formed. We found missing pieces precisely where we thought we would. And yes, we became convinced this is not only plausible but quite likely (or a similar mechanic) to be the case.
Remember, the piece’s first paragraph teased certainty, not a hypothesis yet to be tested. Moreover, reaction to the piece as measured in shares indicated that those amenable to his speculation were interpreting it as authoritative science, not something which “may or may not” be true:
I threw it up on Medium just to save a copy and see if anyone would have feedback. We got plenty — much over both of our heads, some out-of-left-field fantastic ideas. For example, if this turns out to be the case, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy might save lives (we have far fewer hyperbaric chambers in the US than ICU beds), a mountain climber suggested portable hyperbaric bags which are pretty cheap (in comparison) and can fit through hospital doors could do the trick.
This was precisely the type of interaction we were looking for.
The article has since been taken down by Medium, but it seems it garnered sufficient interest in the 12 hours it was up as to be handed off to much more qualified and experienced hands. We’re hopeful some of this can be found to be useful; it may or may not, but NOT sharing it would have weighed heavier on our minds if we found out later this theory, or something similar to it, could have helped save lives and yet we did nothing about it.
- “Covid-19 had us all fooled, but now we might have finally found its secret” was published by cryptocurrency YouTuber Andrew Gaiziunas (in concert, he claimed, with his retired doctor father);
- Gaiziunas “threw it up on Medium” solely to get feedback;
- The blog post was inspired by one  “piece of research”;
- Gaiziunas felt his goal — “hand[ing the claims off] to much more qualified and experienced hands,” was achieved by its viral spread;
- He and his father were “hopeful some of this can be found to be useful; it may or may not” be, in his estimation.
Did Gaiziunas add anything else?
He confirmed that Medium (the platform) removed his post, and that he himself did not delete it.
What was the “piece of research” which came across Gaiziunas’ desk? Was it “a general field-level consensus backed up by a few previously little-known studies that we’ve had it all wrong the whole time” as he said?
Based on his email to the Canadian blog quoted above, it doesn’t seem so.
What Gaiziunas linked was, in fact, labeled as a “pre-print,” or “research papers shared before peer review”:
A preprint is a full draft research paper that is shared publicly before it has been peer reviewed. Most preprints are given a digital object identifier (DOI) so they can be cited in other research papers.
In the linked explainer on pre-prints above, it is noted that “preprints are not the final form of a research paper for most authors.” The iteration linked by Gaiziunas and the blog was a pre-print called “COVID-19: Attacks the 1-Beta Chain of Hemoglobin and Captures the Porphyrin to Inhibit Human Heme Metabolism.”
A bright yellow dropdown button directly under the title was labeled “Version 5 (old),” and the provided abstract read:
The novel coronavirus pneumonia (COVID-19) is an infectious acute respiratory infection caused by the novel coronavirus. The virus is a positive-strand RNA virus with high homology to bat coronavirus. In this study, conserved domain analysis, homology modeling, and molecular docking were used to compare the biological roles of certain proteins of the novel coronavirus. The results showed the ORF8 and surface glycoprotein could bind to the porphyrin, respectively. At the same time, orf1ab, ORF10, and ORF3a proteins could coordinate attack the heme on the 1-beta chain of hemoglobin to dissociate the iron to form the porphyrin. The attack will cause less and less hemoglobin that can carry oxygen and carbon dioxide. The lung cells have extremely intense poisoning and inflammatory due to the inability to exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen frequently, which eventually results in ground-glass-like lung images. The mechanism also interfered with the normal heme anabolic pathway of the human body, is expected to result in human disease. According to the validation analysis of these finds, chloroquine could prevent orf1ab, ORF3a, and ORF10 to attack the heme to form the porphyrin, and inhibit the binding of ORF8 and surface glycoproteins to porphyrins to a certain extent, effectively relieve the symptoms of respiratory distress.
That pre-print summary continued:
Favipiravir could inhibit the envelope protein and ORF7a protein bind to porphyrin, prevent the virus from entering host cells, and catching free porphyrins. Because the novel coronavirus is dependent on porphyrins, it may originate from an ancient virus. Therefore, this research is of high value to contemporary biological experiments, disease prevention, and clinical treatment.
That yellow dropdown allowed people viewing the pre-print to select another version, such as “Version 6,” indicating the pre-print was revised on April 7 2020. Its first portion was identical or nearly identical to the first portion transcribed above. However, of note is that after “effectively relieve the symptoms of respiratory distress,” its authors had revised the subsequent text to emphasize:
Since the ability of chloroquine to inhibit structural proteins is not particularly obvious, the therapeutic effect on different people may be different. Favipiravir could inhibit the envelope protein and ORF7a protein bind to porphyrin, prevent the virus from entering host cells, and catching free porphyrins. This paper is only for academic discussion, the correctness needs to be confirmed by other laboratories. Due to the side effects and allergic reactions of drugs such as chloroquine, please consult a qualified doctor for treatment details, and do not take the medicine yourself.
Between the fifth working pre-print on March 27 2020 and the sixth version on April 7 2020, authors amended the text to clarify the following:
- Chloroquine’s “therapeutic effect on different people may be different”;
- Their pre-print “paper [was intended] only for academic discussion”;
- Its “correctness needs to be confirmed by other laboratories,” i.e., be reviewed and replicated;
- And most importantly, “[d]ue to the side effects and allergic reactions of drugs such as chloroquine, please consult a qualified doctor for treatment details, and do not take the medicine yourself.”
How does that pre-print relate to Gaiziunas’ deleted Medium post?
After repeatedly promising throughout the piece to address chloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, a subheading was bore the headline, “The story with Hydroxychloroquine.”
It began by claiming that “misguided” and “counterproductive” media criticism of the hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin regimen for COVID-19 was “purely for political reasons,” and continued:
All that hilariously misguided and counterproductive criticism the media piled on chloroquine (purely for political reasons) as a viable treatment will now go down as the biggest Fake News blunder to rule them all. The media actively engaged their activism to fight ‘bad orange man’ at the cost of thousands of lives. Shame on them.
How does chloroquine work? Same way as it does for malaria. You see, malaria is this little parasite that enters the red blood cells and starts eating hemoglobin as its food source. The reason chloroquine works for malaria is the same reason it works for COVID-19 — while not fully understood, it is suspected to bind to DNA and interfere with the ability to work magic on hemoglobin. The same mechanism that stops malaria from getting its hands on hemoglobin and gobbling it up seems to do the same to COVID-19 (essentially little snippets of DNA in an envelope) from binding to it. On top of that, Hydroxychloroquine (an advanced descendant of regular old chloroquine) lowers the pH which can interfere with the replication of the virus. Again, while the full details are not known, the entire premise of this potentially ‘game changing’ treatment is to prevent hemoglobin from being interfered with, whether due to malaria or COVID-19.
No longer can the media and armchair pseudo-physicians sit in their little ivory towers, proclaiming “DUR so stoopid, malaria is bacteria, COVID-19 is virus, anti-bacteria drug no work on virus!”. They never got the memo that a drug doesn’t need to directly act on the pathogen to be effective. Sometimes it’s enough just to stop it from doing what it does to hemoglobin, regardless of the means it uses to do so.
So “Covid-19 had us all fooled, but now we might have finally found its secret” was published on April 5 2020 and removed by Medium.com, and the pre-print on which it was based was revised. Did anything else happen in the interim?
Yes, actually. On April 8 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly removed then-novel and tentative guidance for experimentally using the drugs.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has removed from its website guidelines for doctors on how to prescribe two antimalarial drugs that President Donald Trump has touted as potential treatments for the novel coronavirus.
Trump has been pressing federal health officials to make the drugs — hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine — more widely available, despite little reliable evidence that they are effective at treating the virus.
The updated CDC guidance, published [on April 7 2020], is shorter and no longer gives dosage information about the drugs.
Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat coronavirus. Nevertheless, [a few days prior] the FDA issued an emergency use authorization to distribute the two drugs from the national stockpile to treat patients hospitalized with Covid-19.
The CDC says the drugs are under investigation in clinical trials.
On March 30 2020, we addressed the the recently issued guidelines and emergency use authorization issued for the drugs:
In short, that EUA was in place for about a week before the CDC quietly stopped providing hydroxychloroquine guidelines for doctors and patients to treat COVID-19 off-label.
Can we get a TL;DR?
A once-anonymous April 5 2020 Medium.com post headlined “Covid-19 had us all fooled, but now we might have finally found its secret” circulated, but was pulled by Medium within a few days. A Canadian blogger tentatively identified its author, and that person (Andrew Gaiziunas) confirmed that he was the one who had published the post. Although the original post was framed as containing novel and medically sound information, in Gaiziunas’ own words, it was merely guesswork based on a since-revised pre-print strung together with political opinions.
The pre-print on which it was based (“[Version 5, old] COVID-19: Attacks the 1-Beta Chain of Hemoglobin and Captures the Porphyrin to Inhibit Human Heme Metabolism”) was revised in the interim to included additional detail emphasizing that the paper was “only for academic discussion,” its hypotheses had not yet been replicated or reviewed, and that no one reading it should themselves take hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine due to its potentially fatal side effects.