Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a field day for cranks, quacks, and conspiracy theorists. For instance, the most recent favorite conspiracy theory is that the worldwide rollout of 5G cellular technology was somehow responsible for the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s responsible for the pandemic and/or causing people living near 5G towers to do more poorly. It’s utter nonsense, of course, but celebrities like Woody Harrelson say it’s true; so people believe it. Of course, it’s natural that conspiracy cranks would glom onto COVID-19 and somehow try to find a rationale, however tortured, evidence-free, or even utterly ridiculous, to combine their favorite conspiracy theory with COVID-19. That’s how we get 5G cranks blaming 5G for COVID-19 and antivaxxers blaming the influenza vaccine for the pandemic. I must admit a failure here, though. I did not foresee the sort of thing that I’m about to discuss. I should have, given that I’m an expert on and connoisseur of pseudoscientific conspiracy theories, but I didn’t. What am I talking about? Well, here’s Jennifer Margulis (an antivaxxer whom we’ve met before) invoking Stephanie Seneff (an antivaccine and anti-GMO crank whom we’ve also met before) to blame bad outcomes in COVID-19 patients on—surprise! surprise!—glyphosate. She calls it “connecting the dots.” I call it batshit nutty.
Before I dive in, I’m not sure if I should thank those who sent me the link yesterday or curse them. I definitely feel as though I’ve lost neurons reading Seneff’s post to Margulis’ website. It’s that bad. Also, before I dive in, I note that Seneff has no relevant qualifications in infectious disease, epidemiology, or any other scientific discipline relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s a computer scientist at MIT, and her sole qualification (if you can call it that) is an undergraduate biophysics degree from the late 1960s. She has, however, made some mind numbingly stupid proclamations over the last several years, including her prediction in 2014 that by 2025 half of all children born that year will be autistic, risibly also stating that “side effects of autism closely mimic those of glyphosate toxicity.” She’s also been known to “dumpster dive” in the VAERS database to blame vaccines for autism.
I love this particular paragraph early on in Seneff’s masterpiece of pseudoscience:
I am a senior research scientist at MIT. I have devoted over 12 years to trying to understand the role of toxic chemicals in the deterioration of human health. I have been particularly focused on figuring out what has been driving the skyrocketing rates of autism in America and around the world. My research strongly suggests that glyphosate (the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup) is a primary cause of the autism epidemic in the United States. When the COVID-19 pandemic began its march across the world, I started to consider whether glyphosate might play a role.
If there is indeed a connection between glyphosate and COVID-19, understanding why and how they’re connected could play a critical role in combating this pandemic.
I’ll take Logical Fallacies for 400, Alex. This one’s an appeal to authority, which is most fallacious when it’s an appeal to false authority.
Seneff starts out by noting how most coronaviruses produce mild disease, in essence the common cold, and are not life-threatening, but how COVID-19 is different. In most patients, it does produce mild disease (or can even be asymptomatic), but for a minority it produces a viral pneumonia that is devastating and, when it happens, frequently leads to respiratory failure and, in many cases, death. Her first mistake is here:
It seems to ferociously attack the lungs, causing the immune system to launch a so-called “cytokine storm,” an exaggerated response by the immune system to an infection that can lead to collateral damage to the lung tissues.
The molecules that are released cause extensive oxidative damage, overwhelming antioxidant defenses. The lungs get destroyed by the body’s own immune system, and the process can terminate either in asphyxiation due to insufficient oxygen, or a complete blood meltdown with massive clot formations throughout the vasculature, often associated with sepsis and/or multiple organ failure.
While an exaggerated and overblown immune response leading to a “cytokine storm” is one hypothesis for how the virus causes death, it’s not at all clear yet that that is the mechanism by which the virus kills, or at least not the sole mechanism. For instance, that might be the mechanism in young people who succumb to coronavirus, but what about the elderly, who succumb at a much higher rate and whose immune systems are, if anything, less responsive than those of young people, due to “immunosenescence“? There’s just so much that we don’t know yet about how this coronavirus kills, but Seneff is, as cranks usually are, absolutely certain, based on her 50 year old undergraduate biophysics degree and her last couple of decades of pseudoscientific investigation trying to link autism to vaccines and/or GMOs and glyphosate.
In any event, Seneff does note that it’s a small percentage of people who succumb to the virus (although the law of large numbers means that when many millions are infected thousands—or even millions—will die), and asks:
What’s the difference between the people who rapidly succumb to the virus and tragically die, like this father and teacher in New York , and people, like my colleague’s daughter, who barely notice they are sick?
That is, of course, the million dollar question, arguably the single most important question to answer in determining how to treat COVID-19. Of course, this being Stephanie Seneff, you know that she’s about to go off the rails in trying to answer the question, particularly given her second question:
And what’s the difference between the geographical locations where the virus is causing a serious crisis and those that hardly notice a departure from normalcy?
Let me just interject here what the probable answer to that second question is: Time. The virus just hasn’t made its way to those locations yet. It will. Give it time.
Seneff goes on to postulate that the difference between those who suffer only mild illness (or no illness at all) after being infected with SARS-CoV-2 must have something to do with the immune system. (Well, duh!) She then drops an anecdote to support what she calls a “surprising hypothesis about glyphosate and COVID-19.” “Surprising” is a rather kind word. I would have chosen a different one, but let’s see where this goes:
Robert and Elizabeth Mar were a couple who lived in Seattle. They ran a popular restaurant in the section of the city called Maple Leaf . Tragically, they both succumbed to COVID-19 and died within two days of each other.
The Mars were both in their 70s, so they match the profile of increased susceptibility due to older age. But perhaps a more significant factor was the fact that their restaurant was located just a few blocks from Interstate 5, an 8-lane highway where trucks, buses, and cars passed by all day long, spewing out toxic exhaust fumes.
Why would the location of their restaurant matter? My hypothesis is that the biofuel industry is inadvertently introducing glyphosate into fuels that power our cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, and ships. While it has long been known that exhaust fumes are toxic to the lungs, there has been a transformation in the fuel industry over the past decade that may have led to a critical increase in the toxicity of the fumes. Specifically, aerosolized glyphosate may be causing damage to the lungs that makes catching what should be a mild cold into a serious health crisis.
Why couldn’t it have equally likely to have been the paint in their restaurant?
Obviously, the much more likely explanation for the deaths of Robert and Elizabeth Mar is that they were both over 70 and lived in the same house. If one person catches COVID-19, it’s highly likely that anyone else living in the same house will catch it as well given that the virus can be spread to others while the infected person is still asymptomatic. When two people living in the same house and working in the same restaurant are over 70, the odds that both will die of the disease increase considerably.
The next part of Seneff’s unhinged speculation is truly amazing. I have seldom seen such careful cherry picking and “connecting” of carefully chosen dots. She starts by noting that Seattle is a coastal city, with 41% of its area comprised of water, while the Yangtze River cuts through Wuhan, the Chinese city where first COVID-19 cases were identified, further noting that the Yangtze River is highly polluted with wastewater discharge and runoff of fertilizer and pesticides from nearby agricultural lands.
She next looks at US hotspots as of March 26, specifically New York City and New Orleans, claiming that the “connection between glyphosate and COVID-19 could be seen in locations where dangerous runoff is more prevalent.” Ri-ight. She basically notes that a series of hot spots in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa trace the Missouri River, a tributary of the Mississippi and a “huge area” tracks the Mississippi River down to New Orleans. Ri-ight. Or it could just be that there are large cities along these massive rivers. Then she gets to the Great Lakes, noting that there is a cluster of COVID-19 outbreaks between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Chicago, Illinois along the west bank of Lake Michigan.
Of course, it’s hard not to note that there are several…oh, you know…cities on the banks of Lake Michigan and that high population density facilitates the spread of a contagious viral illness. Then Seneff points out hotspots along the Hudson River. It clearly doesn’t seem to register with her that large population centers are often built near water, be that water a river, a lake, or an ocean.
Now, be amused at how she starts to try to work in the exceptions to her observations:
Queens, New York is perhaps the most affected area in all of the United States. A case can certainly be made for New York being vulnerable due to the large number of international visitors as well as excess crowding in a metropolitan area.
However, as the map below shows, Queens is also nearly surrounded by water, and it has La Guardia International Airport just to the north and JFK to the south. It is cut through by three major interstate highways, I-278, I-495, and I-678.
The airline industry has been exploring the use of aviation biofuels since at least 2009. United Airlines was the first airline to introduce aviation biofuel in its airplanes, and the first city in the world to offer aviation biofuel was Los Angeles, California.
Within California, Los Angeles is a COVID-19 hot spot. United offers many flights to the United hub just to the south of New York City, Newark Liberty International.
The Netherlands has been harder hit than many other countries of Europe. In 2011, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines became the first airline in the world to operate a commercial flight on aviation biofuels . The fuels were biokerosene derived from used cooking oil.
United Airlines, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Air France, now all power airplanes with a blend of conventional fuel and aviation biofuel. All offer services into and out of New York City. Other cities with major airports in the United States, besides New York City and Los Angeles, stand out as hot spots, such as Denver and Salt Lake City in the Midwest.
You know, I’m kind of annoyed that nowhere does Seneff mention my home city of Detroit. Detroit is currently a huge COVID-19 hotspot, and the number of cases and deaths is. alas, still climbing. I mean, come on! Detroit is built on a river too! Don’t we get some crank love as well? She also conveniently omits hotspots that don’t fit her “hypothesis” that are visible on her own map included with her post, such as Colorado, central Indiana, the Texas panhandle, and Idaho. I’m particularly amused, though, at the attempt to blame aviation biofuels for COVID-19. This is totally out of left field. Even if I had predicted that an anti-GMO crank would blame glyphosate or GMOs for COVID-19, I doubt I would ever have predicted that an anti-GMO crank would have blamed aviation biofuels for the pandemic!
Of course, Seneff uses her batshit “hypothesis” to explain away differences in how hard various nations have been hit by the pandemic, deftly shifting from aviation biofuel to biodiesel fuels. She notes that the three leading cities in the US in the use of biodiesel are New York, New Orleans, and Washington, DC, all COVID-19 hotspots. (But what about Detroit, Seattle, Los Angeles, and all the other cities in the US that are COVID-19 hotspots or are currently emerging as COVID-19 hotspots?) She claims that the reason Russia has reported so few cases of COVID-19 thus far is because its powerful oil and gas lobby has prevented the widespread adoption of biodiesel fuels. Of course, it could also be that Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime isn’t reporting the scope of the problem in Russia or because Russia is at the low end of the exponential curve and growth in its caseload is only now accelerating, with Moscow as the epicenter.
After confusing causation with tortured correlation (no, really, it took some contortions even to develop a correlation) to biodiesel and biofuel use, Seneff pivots to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which she blames on…you guessed it!…glyphosate. COPD, is, of course, a major risk factor for death in COVID-19 patients, which makes sense given that COPD patients have much lower pulmonary reserve in the face of the viral attack on the lungs. She cites a mouse study in which airborne glyphosate exposure supposedly stimulated airway inflammation and asthma-related cytokine production in the lungs. Never mind that smoking is the single biggest risk factor for COPD, which in turn is the single biggest risk factor for severe COVID-19 disease and ICU admission.
Or maybe it’s the e-cigarettes—with glyphosate, of course! Yes, the Gish Gallop is strong in Seneff:
This newly emergent disease has been given the name, E-cigarette, or Vaping, Product Use-Associated Lung Injury (EVALI).
A 2020 paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine describes the typical symptoms of this new disease:
“The most common respiratory symptoms were shortness of breath (85%), cough (85%), and chest pain (52%). Reported gastrointestinal symptoms included nausea (66%), vomiting (61%), diarrhea (44%), and abdominal pain (34%). All patients had one or more constitutional symptoms, with the most common being subjective fever (84%). Upper respiratory symptoms such as rhinorrhea, sneezing, or congestion were not commonly reported.” [18, my emphasis].
The most well-known symptoms of COVID-19 infection are dry cough, fever, and shortness of breath, but there can also be digestive issues such as diarrhea and vomiting . Distinct from a normal cold, rhinorrhea (runny nose) is usually absent. The symptoms of COVID-19 are remarkably similar to the symptoms of EVALI.
So are the symptoms of a lot of respiratory illnesses. You know where this is going, of course:
Propylene glycol and glycerol are important additives in e-cigarettes. These are often sourced from waste from the biodiesel manufacturing process .
Furthermore, vitamin E acetate is sometimes used as a thickening agent in e-cigarette production, and it has been identified as a candidate source of the lung problems associated with vaping, although no biological mechanism has been offered .
What scientists are missing is that vitamin E is commonly sourced from soybean oil, probably from GMO “Roundup-ready” soybeans, since these are the lion’s share of the soybean market. And the biodiesel fuel industry relies on the debris on GMO roundup-ready corn fields or fields of wheat commonly sprayed with glyphosate just before the harvest.
Since vaping involves heat, vapors are released that likely contain vaporized glyphosate, which is then breathed into the lungs and directly impacts the lung tissues.
“That likely contain vaporized glyphosate”? Of course, if there were any actual evidence that e-cigarette vapor actually does contain vaporized glyphosate, you know that Seneff would have cited it—nay, trumpeted it. She didn’t, which tells me that there probably is no evidence and that she’s just pulling this speculation out of her nether regions and releasing the stink as if it were crank perfume.
Next up, she claims that glyphosate disrupts a class of proteins known as collectins, which are involved in modulating immune responses, by substituting for the amino acid glycine. There is no evidence that glyphosate substitutes for glycine in any mammalian protein. Indeed, there is powerful proteomics data showing that glyphosate does not substitute for glycine. Remarkably (actually, completely unsurprisingly) the papers claiming that glyphosate can substitute for glycine and mess up human proteins are all published by Stephanie Seneff and her cronies. She then further claims, without evidence, that glyphosate causes fatty liver disease, which she blames on glyphosate without good evidence, because of course she does.
She then pivots to more correlation that doesn’t indicate causation:
Bhutan is a landlocked country in the East Himalayas, bordered by Tibet and India. The population of Bhutan is a little over 807,000 people.
As of this writing in early April 2020, only four cases of COVID-19 have been reported for Bhutan, two of whom were visiting foreigners.
Bhutan has embraced the ambitious goal of becoming the world’s first 100% organic nation . Is it possible that there is so little COVID-19 because Bhutan’s people aren’t being over-exposed to glyphosate?
Obviously, it’s more likely that Bhutan hasn’t suffered much from COVID-19 yet because it’s an tiny isolated nation in the frikkin’ Himalayas with a population of under a million people.
Hilariously, after all that Gish galloping and confusing correlation with causation, Seneff finishes her magnum opus of COVID-19 crankery by JAQing off:
The United States has stood out as the country hit the hardest by COVID-19. We also consume more glyphosate per capita than any other country in the world. It will be a tragic irony if it turns out that our attempts to reduce carbon emissions through the use of extracts from glyphosate-exposed food crops and trees as a source of fuel in cars, trucks, buses, ships, airplanes—and as heating oil for buildings—turn out to be one of the primary causes of the COVID-19 epidemic.
I cannot claim to have proven that glyphosate is causing the weakened immune system and lung damage that sets up a susceptibility to an acute response to COVID-19. Science is a process of inquiry and we must keep inquiring. However, the circumstantial evidence is compelling and more research is needed. I hope I will inspire scientific researchers who have the necessary skills to further explore this hypothesis.
And maybe we should also “keep inquiring” whether the Easter Bunny can alleviate COVID-19 or homeopathy can cure it. I will give Seneff credit as a crank. I’ve never seen anyone combine anti-GMO nonsense in such an amazing display by linking aviation biofuel, biodiesel, vaping, and glyphosate with such tenuous links and then “just asking” if glyphosate is making the COVID-19 pandemic worse. It is truly a sight to behold if you’re a connoisseur of crankery, as I am. On the other hand, as much as this sort of article amuses me, it also alarms me. People might believe this nonsense. For Jennifer Margulis to have published it does, however, demonstrate that, as an antivaxxer, she has zero credibility when it comes to evaluating science.