No vaccine or effective treatment has yet been found for people suffering from COVID-19. Under the circumstances, a physician in Kansas City wonders whether prayer might make a difference, and he has launched a scientific study to find out.
"It has to be a true supernatural intervention," says Dr. Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy.
A cardiologist at the Kansas City Heart Rhythm Institute, Lakkireddy is the principal investigator in a clinical trial involving 1000 patients with COVID-19 infections severe enough that they require intensive care.
The four-month study, launched on May 1, will investigate "the role of remote intercessory multi-denominational prayer on clinical outcomes in COVID-19 patients," according to a description provided to the National Institutes of Health. Half of the patients, randomly chosen, will receive a "universal" prayer offered in five denominational forms, via Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. The other 500 patients will constitute the control group. All the patients will receive the standard of care prescribed by their medical providers. Lakkireddy has assembled a steering committee of medical professionals to oversee the study.
"We all believe in science, and we also believe in faith," Lakkireddy says. "If there is a supernatural power, which a lot of us believe, would that power of prayer and divine intervention change the outcomes in a concerted fashion? That was our question."
The investigators will assess how long the patients remain on ventilators, how many suffer from organ failure, how quickly they are released from intensive care and how many die.
Lakkireddy describes himself as "born into Hinduism," but he says he attended a Catholic school and has spent time in synagogues, Buddhist monasteries, and mosques.
"I believe in the power of all religions," he says. "I think if we believe in the wonders of God and the universal good of any religion, then we've got to combine hands and join the forces of each of these faiths together for the single cause of saving humanity from this pandemic."
Scientific studies of the power of prayer have been attempted before. Lakkireddy's description of his study lists six previous clinical trials involving religious intervention. Some showed slight improvement for patients receiving prayer. Other studies have found no significant prayer effect.
Lakkireddy says he can not explain how people praying remotely for someone they don't know (or a group of people,) could actually make a difference in their health outcomes, and he acknowledges that some of his medical colleagues have had "a mixed reaction" to his study proposal.
"Even from my wife, who's a physician herself," he says. "She was skeptical. She was, like, 'OK, what is it that you're looking at?"
Lakkireddy says he has no idea what he will find. "But it's not like we're putting anyone at risk," he says. "A miracle could happen. There's always hope, right?"
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
What if people around the world of all major faiths prayed together for the healing of people with COVID-19? A heart doctor in Kansas wants to answer that question scientifically. NPR's Tom Gjelten explains.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: It's called intercessory prayer. The idea is that God can perhaps be called upon to heal a whole set of sick people, 500 people to be exact.
DHANUNJAYA LAKKIREDDY: It has to be a true supernatural intervention.
GJELTEN: Dr. Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy, a cardiologist in Kansas City, yesterday launched a four-month COVID-19 prayer study. The plan, identify 1,000 infected people being treated in intensive care units. Five hundred of them will be prayed for. Five hundred won't be. Neither group will know about the prayers, nor will the doctors or nurses taking care of them. Lakkireddy already has a steering committee for the study. The group first has to find hospitals willing to participate.
LAKKIREDDY: We all believe in science, and we also believe in faith. And if there is a supernatural power, which a lot of us believe, would that power of prayer and divine intervention change the outcomes in a concerted fashion? That was our question.
GJELTEN: In four months, the investigators will look at the outcomes - how long the patients were on ventilators, how many had organ failure, how quickly the patients were released from intensive care, how many died. Lakkireddy says he was born into Hinduism but believes in the power of all religions. The prayers will be offered by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. The idea of a scientific study of the power of prayer is not new. Some previous studies of patients with heart disease or cancer found slight improvement in patients receiving prayer. Some found no difference. Lakkireddy says he can't explain how people praying remotely for someone they don't know where a group of people would actually make a difference. And he admits his medical colleagues have a mixed reaction to his study.
LAKKIREDDY: I mean, even my wife was a physician herself. She was skeptical, and she was like OK, what is it that you're looking at?
GJELTEN: Lakkireddy says he has no idea what he will find. But he says, it's not like we're putting anyone at risk here. A miracle could happen. There's always hope, right? Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.