A precautionary tale of COVID and pseudoscience

By Daniel Norero

July 2, 2020

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it’s sparked numerous conspiracy theories that are often spread by extreme right and “alternative” medicine forums and media.

Although these conspiracies initially may seem funny and even entertaining, they present the same risk as pseudoscience and “alternative” medicine: they endanger people’s lives.

It was within this context that I was informed on June 19 about the death of Iván Santandreu, an entrepreneur in the world of alternative medicine and esotericism in Chile. I’d known him for years, primarily in his role as spokesman for the anti-GMO movement in Chile and a directive member of the Global GMO Free Coalition. The biggest surprise to me was the cause of death confirmed on his death certificate: COVID and cardiorespiratory arrest.

Santandreu had many public debates about GMOs with Dr. Miguel Ángel Sánchez (executive director of ChileBio) and he debated on a popular Chilean TV program with Guido Nuñez Mujica, a Venezuelan biologist and Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow who for several years was based in Chile.  For my part, I debated with Dr. Sofía Valenzuela against Santandreu and another anti-GMO activist and film producer at the University of Concepción (UDEC) in 2014.

Iván Santandreu, left, on the 2013 discussion panel “GM Crops: Reality and Controversy” with Mark Lynas, center, and Chilean pro-GMO experts. Image: SQT

Although Santandreu had a bachelor’s degree in marine biology and gave a speech supposedly very supportive of science when talking about GMOs, his life revolved around anti-scientific postulates. He had been dedicated for at least two decades to a Bach flower business and “vibrational medicine” and he served as director of the “Mundo Nuevo” magazine.

The magazine’s website  — it’s in Spanish, but Google translations are useful —  and YouTube channel are filled with references to all kinds of “alternative” medicines and criticisms of modern medicine, HPV vaccines and industrial agriculture, as well as a mix of esoteric and spiritual beliefs. It has also translated hundreds of reports from quack sites like Dr. Mercola’s Natural News into Spanish.

His YouTube channel features conversations with Chile’s Dr. Soto, who gained notoriety for promoting quack medicines on TV and recommending the ingestion of MMS, a toxic compound derived from chlorine and used in industrial cleaning, and Josep Pamies, a controversial Spanish organic farmer and “alternative healer” who recommended MMS as treatment for COVID.

Excerpts from Mundo Nuevo.  From top left, Dr. Blaylock: Masks are a serious risk to healthy population,  Measures against the coronavirus: so drastic that they can cause more harm than they prevent,  Influenza vaccine increases the risk of coronavirus infection by 36% and  Dr. Ricardo Soto: “The coronavirus comes to test the vibrational state of humanity.”

Santandreu’s magazine also echoed certain conspiracies and misinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic. These included questioning the use of masks, quarantine measures and social distancing and using such terms as “hysteria” and “mass panic” to describe the response to the pandemic. His public social media feeds were peppered with images of sheep wearing face masks and posts comparing quarantine controls with photos of Nazis requesting documents from Jews in concentration camps (examples here and here).

Before continuing, I want to make it clear that I’m writing this not as a personal attack against Santandreu. In fact, I’ve never felt any animosity toward him despite our many debates about GMOs. After one such debate, we shared a cocktail with Pisco, an alcoholic drink that curiously is much more carcinogenic than the glyphosate that he had just criticized. In 2015, when the global March Against Monsanto passed outside the sector where I lived, I went out to take photos and ran into Santandreu and we chatted and joked around despite our differences. That moment was captured in the photo at the top of this article.

So, no, this isn’t personal. But I do think this can be a teaching moment. My goal, with all respect to his family, is to help people learn from his tragic death. Was his infection with the novel coronavirus related to the ideas he spread about COVID in his magazine? I don’t know for certain, but everything indicates that it’s very likely. Just look at his actions: using Twitter to issue a direct call to some mayors against the use of masks, using a preprint service without peer-review to get his articles out without scientific vetting and interviewing a guest, without mask or social distancing, for a video on the use of  “essential oils as antivirals” a month ago.

It would have been tremendously irresponsible if Santandreu’s anti-quarantine and anti-mask ideas facilitated his infection and death, and worse, if there are people within his large circle of followers still spreading and copying these ideas.

Obeying mandatory quarantines, wearing masks and maintaining social distance are still the best tools currently available to prevent the spread of the virus — even if we personally don’t like those tactics or they temporarily harm the economy. Countries such as Chile or Sweden have failed to contain the virus precisely because they did not impose effective quarantine measures.

Returning to the COVID conspiracies mentioned at the beginning of this article, their spread has been the subject of arduous study in recent months and social media platforms have applied filters to try and reduce their dangerous impacts. Meanwhile, the problematic anti-mask campaigns initiated by a segment of President Trump’s followers in the United States are a recipe for worsening the disaster.

We are in a situation where a belief in an apparently harmless element could, with high probability, trigger a death — and possibly promote infection in thousands of other people. Santandreu’s regrettable passing serves as a clear example that in order to achieve effective physical containment of the virus and pandemic, it is also key to contain the dangerous and deadly “infodemic” of conspiracies and pseudoscience.

Main image: Iván Santandreu, left, and Daniel Norero at a 2015 March Against Monsanto event in Santiago, Chile.