Warning: That Coronavirus News You're Reading Could Be All Wrong

3 min
A researcher observes the gel that assesses the purity of the antigens produced in a laboratory in Brazil, in March. The lab is conducting research on the coronavirus in order to diagnose, test and develop a vaccine. A vaccine isn't expected to be ready for the public for more than a year.  (Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

From the start of this pandemic, science news has unfolded at a dizzying pace and crushing volume. Scientific research, which usually creeps along in the background until publication day and then pops up to say something worthy, is suddenly making breathtaking international news every few days.

The speed of science research has gone into overdrive and the media horde is hungry for answers. Science is meant to be a slow process of asking questions, then submitting the answers to the kind of vigorous probing ordinary people devote considerable energy to avoiding. After that is when the media report the answers—vetted! peer reviewed! confident!—usually with caveats attached: Areas where questions yet unasked are lingering to be sought after.

But now, studies on COVID-19 therapies and possible therapies and could-be-someday-down-the-road-if-it-proves-out-in-mice-first-therapies make screaming headlines before the studies are vetted to assess their merits or limitations. As a result, the public has heard some contradictory and confusing results, and some claims that are flat-out wrong.

KQED’s Tara Siler spoke with science reporter Danielle Venton about this problem and how to understand the science being reported these days. (Edited for length and clarity.)

Why are people hearing so much science that’s not ready for prime-time?

Danielle Venton: We're at a time where there’s this brand new problem, a brand new virus. There are so many unanswered questions. There's a huge need for research and a real desire to get it out quickly. Now, what is also true is that science can be a messy process and things aren't always correct. Science has a way of correcting itself, but unfortunately, right now, that process is happening in public.

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What do you mean by messy process?

So many of the normal safeguards have been glossed over in this desire to get findings out quickly. Dr. Irving Steinberg is a professor of clinical pharmacy and pediatrics at USC. He's been talking and writing about this issue a lot, and he uses the analogy of working in a sausage factory where production suddenly had to be doubled because people were so hungry:

“You can imagine that there might be some problems that would arise in the back room where science is adjudicated—whether it's in the lab or whether it's in the editorial processes—where the sausage is made.

What the public is seeing is some of the spilled sausage out of the casing. You've got this sort of spillage of raw sausage. You know it's a food product, but you don't know what to do with it at that point. It's on the floor. It's dirty. I can't really put it on the grill. Maybe I can put it into a cast iron pan? We've left to the public too many things to figure out.”

What could happen here is that the public may begin to doubt the results. And the danger here is that the public may begin to doubt science. Right now, we are in need of good science and for the public to trust it.

What are some of the big failures in this pandemic, the so-called sausage spillage?

Early in March, some researchers raised concerns in a letter—not a reviewed study—that ibuprofen could worsen COVID-19 symptoms. It wasn’t based on experimental data, it was a theoretical concern based on how ibuprofen works in cells. Three days later, the French health minister tweeted a message saying to avoid ibuprofen. The World Health Organization did the same thing and then reversed itself a day later. More scientists weighed in, and now it’s thought that it’s fine to take ibuprofen. The original worries were based on an incomplete understanding.

A famous example is hydroxychloroquine, which was touted in public as a possible treatment for COVID-19 in an early study. The study was poorly designed and later retracted, but we saw some politicians, notably the president, seize on this and just shoot from the hip.

Demand surged for the drug, so that some patients who need it for conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis couldn’t fill their prescriptions. But it can have toxic side effects—some people abusing it were poisoned. That’s not how science is supposed to work.

Steinberg summed these problems up by saying, “We're seeing knowledge that is being rushed to the public without being assessed. We're seeing misapplied wisdom and we're seeing no perspective.”

Is there basically a tradeoff between speed and accuracy? Is this inevitable during a pandemic?

Moving more quickly always makes it harder to be careful. But we can improve this flow of information without entirely sacrificing speed. You can think of an expert chef, who can still chop quickly and safely at the same time. Training really helps. Experience helps.

There are layers of responsibility. It starts with scientists and researchers, then moves on to scientific journals that publish their work. It also includes policymakers who are trying to interpret results and issue advice to the public. And the press is very important in all this as well. Everyone has different incentives along the way. I would say in our field, competition to be first is a big challenge, but the public loses out when there are shortcuts along the way.

Bad science generally is corrected in the end, but I do worry about the loss of public trust. So more care, more training, learning from mistakes—these can all help avoid some of the missteps we've seen.

How can readers of science news be more careful? Are there some tips out there?

There are a couple of questions everyone can keep in the back of their mind when reading science news. Try to maintain some perspective and look for context. Here’s a series of questions to consider:

  • Is a finding preliminary?
  • Is it from a study or is it just a question scientists are posing?
  • If it’s a study, was it peer reviewed?
  • What do neutral experts, people who are not involved in the research, say about it?
  • If someone is pushing a claim, do they stand to make any money from it?
  • Is this the first time you're hearing about something? Or is there a body of work that supports it? Is the finding in cells, in animals or in humans? If it's in humans, it’s a lot more relevant than if it's in cells or even mice.

And here’s a great tip sheet on how to evaluate news reports on scientific studies, from the website Health News Review.

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