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?"