Coconut oil's effect on mild COVID-19 cases investigated
Researchers in the Philippines believe they have proven virgin coconut oil reduces coronavirus load in patients - but a virologist from Auckland is not celebrating just yet.
Dr. John Taylor, senior lecturer in Virology from the University of Auckland, said for now there is no published peer-reviewed research paper complete with the study methods and clinical trial details.
“When a new virus comes along it’s quite understandable that people might say what about this coconut oil that has been linked to health properties, maybe it will do something similar against the novel coronavirus.
“I think [plants are] worth investigating and in fact, we have done some of this research ourselves. It’s all about being honest and accurate with the claims that you might make when you research the biological properties or bioactive properties of any plant molecule,” he told the Samoa Observer.
In a statement published last month, the Department of Science and Technology Secretary Fortunato de la Pena said after six months of experiments, their researchers found compounds from virgin coconut oil and coconut oil “decreased coronavirus count by 60-90 per cent at low viral load,” meaning in mild cases.
The research, also reported on by local media, is said to have found that the oil has a “key mechanism in upregulating the immune response against COVID-19.
Dr. Jaime Montoya, Executive Director of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development said the research will eventually help treat COVID-19.
“The results are very promising, as not only does it show that the virgin coconut oil, by itself, can destroy the virus, but it also has a key mechanism in upregulating the immune response against COVID-19,” Dr. Montoya said in the Philippine government statement.
“Indeed, we look forward to the results of clinical trials on the various uses of virgin coconut oil as an adjunct for the treatment of COVID-19.”
Dr. Taylor said that because he or others are unable to look at the study design or a number of patients in the clinical trials, the findings need to be read critically.
“You have to take these findings at face value when nothing gets taken at face value in science,” he said.
“It might be true of what the researchers have found in their study so far but in this case the study is unpublished so it is a preliminary finding that needs verification.
“Unless this study has been done very carefully with a very large number of patients, it’s unreliable. I say that because clinical trials are by their nature unreliable unless you incorporate a lot of people.”
He said while small clinical trials, happening all over the world in hospitals treating COVID-19 patients, are a good start for investigating possible treatment options, moving to test their wider application is a careful process.
“Extrapolating meaningful results from such small clinical trials is really the fly in the ointment, as it were, it’s the fatal flaw in many of these types of studies.
“They are a good place to start but then if you want to confirm there is some genuine clinical benefit you have usually got to increase the number of patients quite substantially in order to factor in the number of variations that would occur in any population recovering from a COVID-19 infection.”
Until that time, it is too soon to get excited about the findings, Dr. Taylor said.
But he was unsurprised that coconut oil is being investigated in this way, and said other plant-based extracts are also being researched for their potential use in the fight against COVID-19.
“There are all kinds of chemicals in naturally occurring plant extracts and many of them are if used in sufficient concentration, capable of inhibiting a virus replication,” Dr. Taylor said.
“It doesn’t immediately offer a cure but that is certainly believable that a chemical component in coconut oil may have benefits as an antiviral treatment. Whether it is by consuming it orally or rubbing your hands or another way, I can’t say.”
One issue he had with the statements made is on how the compounds can “destroy the virus.”
“Now, the virus isn’t actually alive in the first place,” the virologist and cell biology expert said.
“They are inert and as soon as they encounter a living cell then they use the metabolic energy in that living cell to replicate themselves and spread. But viruses can be chemically inactivated so they cannot infect the cell or can’t replicate themselves.”
Dr. Taylor said incomplete publications of clinical trials or scientific research have now become commonplace, but peer-reviewed publications remain the gold standard for verifiable information.
With the internet becoming a place where anyone can publish unverified information, and with large amounts of research ongoing in relation to the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to be careful about what one reads.
“You have got to dig a little bit deeper and find out what the real story is behind a reported finding that links some compound to something else,” he said.
It is understandable that given the history of coconut oil’s medical properties known around the world for hundreds of years and independently proven in scientific experiments, that research would begin to apply coconut oil to COVID-19.
“The tricky part is to establish a body of evidence through rigorous experiments and trials that establish a factual basis for the claim.
“This is why science depends on Peer Review. Anyone can say anything but only through peer review can the findings be endorsed and accepted by other experts in the field to lend their reputation and expertise to validation.
“Without that process, unfortunately, the internet is full of people saying things that may or may not be true but the public have no guarantee that there is any credible truth or evidence behind any claim that is made.”
Further research at the Philippine laboratory is also being done to see whether virgin coconut oil can increase the immune system’s responses and whether existing drugs or supplements can be used to viably treat COVID-19.
“Researchers also discovered that said compounds were observed to improve cell survival. More experiments, however, are needed to determine whether higher concentrations of these compounds will further reduce the replication rate of the virus,” the Department of Science and Technology statement says.