Editorial: How coronavirus is revealing the problems with ‘fast science’
Garlic and sesame oil will not, we repeat, will not safeguard you from the new coronavirus, unless the garlic keeps others at a safe distance. Nor is bathing in bleach a good idea.
The myths traveling the social media circuits about COVID-19 are sometimes ludicrous and occasionally dangerous. Yet at the same time, the evolving advice from experts about this novel threat has left the public uncertain what to believe. The news media haven’t always helped matters by publicizing seemingly dramatic findings prematurely or without adequate vetting or context.
Scientists are churning out papers at an unprecedented rate, resulting in useful new information as well as a fair amount of confusing and/or contradictory messages. Medical and biochemical researchers, universities and businesses promote new studies that are often not ready for prime time, or they give opinions that aren’t based on real evidence. Other scientists helpfully jump in to counter problematic reports, but don’t attract the same level of attention.
On a recent weekend, Fox News trumpeted that it had “exclusively learned” about a San Diego biotech company that claims to have an antibody that provides 100% inhibition of the new coronavirus. “We want to emphasize there is a cure. There is a solution that works 100%,” the CEO of Sorrento Therapeutics told Fox. But the network didn’t present any data to support this claim, nor anyone from outside the company to offer perspective on the discovery.
Sorrento may indeed have found the miracle cure we’ve all dreamed of. But not only has the company not published any study of its antibody, there has been no clinical trial in animals or humans yet. Nevertheless, the company’s stock price rose after the Fox story and several commenters demanded fast action by the FDA to approve the new therapeutic.
Society isn’t nearly science-literate enough. So when there’s news about studies of a potential therapy’s effect on animals — such as with the Oxford University vaccine candidate — many readers and viewers see an imminent solution. There’s too little heed paid to the saying among scientists that “mice lie and monkeys exaggerate” — in other words, what works with animals frequently doesn’t translate into success with humans.
Here’s another example. In early April, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist suggested that ocean waves might contain virus and spray it many feet through the air. She was quoted by the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune warning about the risks of surfing or even walking along the coast. Her theory was based on her years of expertise on pathogens in the surf, not on any measurement of whether the virus could be found in seawater or ocean spray.
A week later, Kim Prather walked back her comments, which The Times also reported. But on social media, people who hadn’t heard the later news continue to warn each other about the “study” that had found dangers of being in or near the ocean.
HealthNewsReview.org, a website devoted to critiquing health and medical journalism, has found a lot to criticize lately. One main concern, said the website’s publisher Gary Schwitzer, is how many preprints of studies are suddenly being picked up as big news. These preliminary reports — which haven’t yet been subjected to peer review and found rigorous and important enough to publish — have been available online for years, largely so that scientists could get early feedback on their work from other experts. The papers that are ultimately deemed worthy of publication are often modified before they appear in a medical journal. That’s why news reporters generally waited for the vetted articles to be published by journals.
Now those papers provide an unending source of interesting fodder about the biggest story in many decades, mixing worthwhile material with the occasional questionable conclusion or flawed methodology. With a surge of new preprints coming online, there is a danger of creating a deluge of seesawing information about COVID-19 that leads the public and its elected representatives down misleading paths.
Articles written for lay people should explain how preliminary the results are, Schwitzer says. Multiple expert sources should be consulted to give the preprint a critical eye, and if they say it sounds dubious, perhaps it isn’t news after all. Often, journalists do all of this work. Occasionally, they don’t.
One widely reported preprint warned that people might need to stay much farther than six feet away from each other while exercising outdoors, because of how air moves in the slipstream behind a runner or bicyclist. The study was based on mathematical modeling, not on any measurement of viral levels, and it doesn’t suggest that someone running in the path of an infected person faces increased risk, yet the researcher was advising people to maintain greater distances than many would even find possible. Some publications included strong caveats about the report; others didn’t.
Other well-publicized preprinted studies that have been blasted by critics include one by Stanford University researchers on antibody tests, which reported that many more people appeared to have been infected with the coronavirus than had been believed, and one led by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which warned that a mutated version of the new coronavirus was of “urgent concern” because it might be more contagious. This publication broke the latter story; others countered with pieces that featured the critics.
Even published studies shouldn’t be accepted unquestioningly, says Ivan Oransky, founder of Retraction Watch, which does what its name implies: report on published studies that are corrected, retracted or that otherwise are doubted. The French study cited as evidence for using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 — a dubious practice that President Trump has touted — was criticized for a variety of methodological and ethical problems. More robust studies found that the drug made no difference in death rates, and one study was halted because of the drug’s side effects on patients.
This is a confusing and terrifying time. The pandemic calls for speeding up science in ways that seemed impossible a few years ago, but the scientific world is commendably doing it. And we as journalists make a major effort to bring readers the most important news as quickly as possible. But when sketchy or premature information makes the rounds, the public is misinformed, sometimes in dangerous ways.
When does fast science become problematic science? COVID-19 is testing us on that question and many more. Just remember that the rush to publish can take us down a road to nowhere.
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