Welcome to real skepticism

Some anonymous guy wrote a popular blog post in which they proposed a radical new idea that the real mechanism of SARS-CoV-2 action was that the virus invaded red blood cells, displaced iron from the heme group in hemoglobin, and thereby both reduced the O2 carrying capacity of blood cells, and released large amounts of toxic iron. They had no expertise in medicine, molecular biology, or epidemiology, and their hypothesis was total bollocking nonsense. The post has since been taken down.

Now there is a thorough post up that utterly demolishes the original claim. I’m not a fan of the hyperbole of saying someone was “destroyed” by a blog post, but in this case, the word applies. The author is an MD/PhD with a specialization in the molecular biology of mammalian heme globins, and he tears into the claims at every level and burns them to the ground. It’s wonderfully entertaining, if you enjoy good science and despise quacks.

His conclusion also brings up a very good question: why do people promote pseudoscience?

The above discussion is by no means an exhaustive list of the blog post’s incorrect statements or conclusions. Nonetheless, I hope it has been sufficient to make clear that the blog post, and even the scientific article that likely inspired it, should not be viewed as a source of any meaningful insight into SARS-CoV-2, how it affects patients, or how the virus might be treated. What I still don’t know is why the blog post author, under a pseudonym, chose to present such an incorrect description of this disease and the underlying pathophysiology with such confidence. That they would go so far as to suggest treatments for the disease despite a lack of any medical training, and in virtually the same paragraph condemn “armchair pseudo-physicians” who push incorrect information, is truly mind-boggling. Tragically, whether it arises from genuine malice, unfounded arrogance, or just simple ignorance, this sort of misinformation about a deadly pandemic can genuinely put lives at risk, and it’s up to those of us who work in this field to fight back against it in whatever way we can.

I wish I understood this phenomenon myself. It comes up all the time in evolution debates — some clown makes grand, sweeping statements dismissing evolutionary biology, and when he gets quizzed on the subject, it becomes rapidly apparent that they know nothing about the subject, and their colon is packed with so much misinformation it’s backing up their throat and dribbling out their ears. Yet somehow the frauds get all the acclaim, get paid well, and bring in adoring mobs of followers who love to see the experts get dissed…oh wait. I think I might have just answered my own question. It’s all money and ego.

Note: there are also skeptics who are all about the money and ego. I’ve known a few.


  1. Bruce says

    Just in terms of size alone, the guess that any virus could displace an individual iron atom is insane. It’s like saying: I can’t find my keys in my pocket, so they were probably pushed out by New Jersey.
    Does the anti-science Dude have any idea how many atoms are in a virus or anything with RNA? Any idea how much bigger any single bond between two atoms is than the size of any single atom? How can everyone forget so much high-school chemistry? Then think they have something to say about medicine?
    It has nothing to do with any virus, but I think we’ve found Dunning-Kruger patient zero.

  2. leerudolph says

    I can’t find my keys in my pocket, so they were probably pushed out by New Jersey.

    That’s just silly. Anyone with any sense of orders of magnitude would realize they could only have been pushed out by Rhode Island.

  3. blf says

    we’ve found Dunning-Kruger patient zero

    So teh impeached quack & Putin puppet currently running amok in Wacko House is Dunning-Kruger patient minus-aleph-null (-ℵ₀)?

  4. says

    By not understanding anything and jumping to relentless self-promotion, the clueless and scammers have a huge positional advantage over people who take the time to think. I think that inherent asymmetry is why we will always have frauds and religions – it’s simply easier.

  5. says

    “Yet somehow…”

    There’s no mystery at all. Our culture has, for the last 50 years, idealized the rebel. We’ve idealized the person who stands alone, thinks outside the box, doesn’t care about your rules, maaan, marches to their own drummer and so forth. Factual accuracy? Who cares? It’s their opinion, and that’s more important!

    In short, these people are (or smartly cast themselves as) the rebels we’ve always been told to support.

  6. says

    I’m wracking my brain, trying to think where this dude got this misinformation. It vaguely resembles Carbon Monoxide poisoning because that does attack the hemoglobin, but it doesn’t destroy it, it temporarily disables it’s ability to transport oxygen. Just speculating that that may be where he got this silly idea.

  7. petesh says

    Question authority does not actually mean Authority is always wrong.

    Hey, maybe I’ll make a T-shirt! I could get rich. Oh, wait, the factory is shut.

  8. christoph says

    @ petesh, # 7: I saw a T-shirt that said “Question authority. Go ahead, ask me anything.”

  9. whheydt says

    On the other hand, a robotics expert has built a prototype ventilator based around readily available parts and a Raspberry Pi single-board computer. (There’s an article about it on BBC News under Tech. The picture of the Pi in the article is a Pi4B, the latest model.) The effort is serious enough that it is undergoing tests in Colombia and, should it work as intended, might be used on human patients as early as mid-May.

    According to that article, one of the problems they are having in South America is that the parts to build ventilators are scarce and expensive. If this works, lives will be saved.

  10. says

    Actually had to follow up on more of the bad science. The “Toxic Iron” claim specifically. Iron poisoning is a thing, and if you ingest around 3g of iron supplement you could OD and die. Thing is though the average human being has between 3.5g and 4g of iron. So somehow the virus releases pretty much all the iron in your blood and you die. That’s really silly. LOL silly.

    Sounds like the guy completely disregarded the fluid accumulation in the lungs, the high fever, the general stress on the cardiovascular system just to back up his very silly blood cell theory. Conclusion it’s garbage science.

  11. garnetstar says

    Even before I read the debunking post, just basic chemistry says that there’s almost nothing that going to remove iron from a tetradentate chelating ligand (heme). That’s why proteins so often use heme groups to bind transition metals: the metals stay there.

  12. Jado says

    You’re forgetting the most important part of pseudoscience – the unproven suspicion that it COULD happen. I mean, that dude thinks it could. That’s proof right there, if some dude thinks it could then a multi-verse theory of reality means that in some world somewhere it IS happening, and therefore, that world MIGHT be this world. It’s all quantum mechanics and higher math. Imaginary numbers, like eleventy-twelve and overly-eight.

    And that’s how easy it is to start spouting pseudoscience. Now where’s my money?

  13. unclefrogy says

    @14 yeh I don’t know what that means?

    It looks to me like these ideas come from the same place as many plots and plot devices in fantasy fiction as seen in movies. Do they think that the science in movies and tv is always based on reality? Hollywood is not reality
    uncle frogy

  14. nomdeplume says

    I have a theory that an outbreak of coronavirus causes a number of human brains in the population to come up with nonsense conspiracy theories. This ability is an adaptation the virus has evolved to prevent the population taking serious action to eliminate it.

  15. vereverum says

    I think that, like matter and energy, the total amount of intelligence in the universe is a constant.
    The more the net population increases, the less available per person.
    Fortunately distribution is still unequal.

  16. wzrd1 says

    @6&10, to me it sounds like he totally fucked up understanding what Plasmodium does in malaria. Malaria fouls up the heme molecule, but thankfully, doesn’t release it (although some medications can expose the poor parasite to that nasty, oxidizing iron.
    So, give him 10% for understanding an organism enters RBC’s and fouls up heme while it’s busily chomping away, but 90% wrong on organism, cause of illness and well, what day of the week it is.

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  19. Howard Hershey says

    In addition to all the other problems in thinking the Coronavirus acts by displacing iron from Hb, there is the problem that human red blood cells (rbc’s) are “mostly bags of hemoglobin“ (to paraphrase a Startrek alien who described humans as “bags of mostly water”). They have no nucleus, no mitochondria, no endoplasmic reticulum, and are largely inactive wrt protein synthesis. Not a likely place for making more copies of a coronavirus, even if the virus can enter the cell (which requires the presence of enough ACE-2 membrane protein in order to compete with the known large numbers of ACE-2 on epithelial tissues including blood vessels, airways, and alveoli epithelium). [I haven’t found an article even mentioning ACE-2 levels in rbc’s.]

    And entry is just the first step. The near absence of protein synthesis in mature rbc’s and the lack of endoplasmic reticulum (where new coronaviruses ordinarily mature) and mitochondria (for aerobic metabolism; although loaded with O2, rbc’s don’t use the O2 for metabolism) also would be problematic.