Fact check: White pine tea likely not helpful against COVID-19

2022-04-25 05:52:07 By : Ms. Cecy Yan

From lemon drops and red onions to alkaline foods and high doses of vitamin C, the internet is full of alternative remedies claiming to be protective against COVID-19. None of these quick fixes has any scientific or clinical backing, but this hasn't stopped them from being suggested time and again on social media.  

And now the latest claim to join their ranks: Drinking white pine tea can prevent COVID-19 vaccine shedding.

"Concerned with vaxx shedding? White pine tea can stop it," claims a June 9 Instagram post. 

The poster alleges a chemical compound found in the tree's needles, called suramin, can prevent many of the supposed effects of vaccine shedding. In an accompanying infographic, such effects are listed as "inhibit(ing) inappropriate replication/modification of genetic material, stop(ping) the spike protein from disrupting (the) menstrual cycle and prevent(ing) damage from viral... and vax shedding." 

The post also touts the benefits of shikimic acid, saying it is "so important in surviving viral infections." 

But white pine tea doesn't prevent vaccine shedding among people who have received the COVID-19 shot because vaccine shedding caused by that injection isn't an actual phenomenon, experts say.

And while some research has found suramin might be potentially helpful against COVID-19 infection, it doesn't come from pine needles, and both it and shikimic acid may actually be more harmful than beneficial. 

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USA TODAY has reached out to the Instagram user for comment.  

Vaccine shedding can rarely occur with some types of vaccines, but not with the ones currently available for COVID-19.

"As none of the current COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use in the USA contain live SARS-CoV-2 virus, viral shedding is not an issue for these vaccines," Dr. Matthew Laurens, an infectious disease specialist and vaccine researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said in an email to USA TODAY.

Live attenuated vaccines, or LAVs, refer to shots that contain a weakened version of the virus stripped of its ability to replicate. This form prevents it from stirring up serious disease and infection while still provoking a strong immune response. LAVs include those for smallpox, chickenpox and the combined vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella.     

The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine does use a common cold virus to carry and deliver the genetic instructions for the COVID-19 spike protein to cells (a technology known as a viral vector). But again, the virus is unable to make copies of itself to cause disease, said John Grabenstein of the Immunization Action Coalition and a former director of the Defense Department's immunization program.      

Similarly, the spike protein encoded by the messenger RNA, or mRNA, of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, can't be transmitted from one vaccinated person to another unvaccinated person

"The mRNA vaccines make the spike protein for a few hours and then stop. They don't ever get outside the body," Grabenstein told USA TODAY. 

The post's claim that white pine tea can stop "inappropriate replication/modification of genetic material" also has no basis in science; mRNA can't be incorporated into human DNA because it doesn't enter the nucleus, the cell's genetic powerhouse. 

Grabenstein explained that if the cell were a chicken egg, the nucleus would be the yolk and the cytoplasm – the area outside of the nucleus where other cellular structures like the mitochondria are found – would be the white of the egg. The mRNA strictly works in this "white" region and is degraded there once the cell produces the spike protein.

There is still a small chance vaccinated people can get sick and spread the virus, called vaccine breakthrough cases. But this is expected since the vaccines don't confer 100% protection. And research suggests these individuals are less likely to transmit COVID-19 compared with unvaccinated people. This spread isn't related to any kind of vaccine shedding, it's just natural disease spread as happens far more often between the unvaccinated.

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There is some evidence to suggest the COVID-19 infection itself, not being around people purportedly "shedding" the vaccine, can impact menstruation (thus a good reason for women to get vaccinated). Claims tying vaccine shedding to changes in one's period or miscarriages have been previously debunked by USA TODAY.

Contrary to the post's claim, suramin is not from white pine needles: it was created by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer in 1904 from a dye called trypan blue, commonly used in laboratories for cell staining.

The chemical has been used as a drug to treat African sleeping sickness, a parasitic disease transmitted by the tsetse fly, found only in sub-Saharan Africa. Suramin is not commercially available in the U.S. but can be obtained by physicians from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Laurens, the UMD infectious disease specialist, warned there are serious side effects associated with the drug: kidney and liver toxicity, eye reactions, adrenal insufficiency and allergic reactions resulting in inflammation and anemia, to name a few.

Others on social media have presented suramin as a potential treatment, but the evidence behind that is mixed.

Studies conducted in July and October found suramin might be able to prevent the coronavirus from replicating in cell cultures. But another study published online in May found that neither suramin nor another antiparasitic drug chloroquine could stop the virus from entering human cells – through a receptor called ACE2 – or from replicating. 

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"The common and considerably toxic side effects of suramin and the lack of consistent, promising results from laboratory studies likely explain why suramin is not currently used to treat or prevent COVID-19," Laurens said. 

Shikimic acid is a key ingredient in making influenza drug Tamiflu and can come from pine needles, but alone it can't be used for the treatment of any condition. 

"I would not expect that it could have any efficacy against COVID-19 if taken as an herbal remedy," Laurens said. 

He also cautioned shikimic acid by itself could be potentially carcinogenic, as one study in 1972 found mice that received it later developed "cancerous and precancerous lesions" in the stomach and malignant leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues.

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It's also important to note, the shikimic, or shikimate, pathway mentioned in the post as "important in surviving viral infections" is used by bacteria, fungi, some plants and algae to create basic amino acids. This pathway isn't present in humans since we get our essential amino acids from our diet and in-house gut bacteria. 

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that white pine tea can prevent COVID-19 vaccinated people from “shedding” the spike protein. None of the COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. contain live coronavirus, and the spike protein cannot be transmitted from one person to another. Suramin, which is not from white pine, does not have conclusive evidence backing its use to treat COVID-19. The only chemical compound mentioned in the post that is from pine needles, shikimic acid, can't be used to treat any condition alone and may actually be toxic.

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