There has been an unprecedented global scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with hundreds of studies published weekly, and a dizzying amount of media coverage of that research.
The thirst for knowledge has also spurred some dubious practices, including the constant dissemination of new scientific information by press release, the hyping of unproven treatments from powerful political pulpits and breathless reporting on even the most mundane developments in COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.
In this overcharged atmosphere, the public can be forgiven for being perplexed about where things stand on the coronavirus, from the benefits of masks to the risks of sending children back to school.
Heck, even the world’s most prestigious medical journals are having trouble keeping up, as evidenced by three high-profile scandals this month alone.
COVID-19 disproportionately affects people suffering from cardiovascular disease, so when the New England Journal of Medicine published an article showing that heart drugs such as angiotensin-converting–enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin-receptor blockers (ARBs) were safe for use by COVID-19 patients with heart disease, it was big news. It turned out that the data used to demonstrate that point were dubious, so the paper was retracted on June 4.
The next day, the Lancet medical journal also retracted a high-profile study, one showing that the highly touted drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine were not only ineffective in treating COVID-19, but caused harm to patients. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, said the data used were a fabrication and a fraud, and that it was impossible to detect in the peer-review process (which consists of having external experts assess a paper before publication).
Another paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, made wild claims about the benefits of masks for preventing transmission of coronavirus. Scientists have demanded it be retracted, saying it features egregious errors and verifiably false statements. There were issues about peer review there, too.
What’s just as problematic is that even if the methods and data were flawed, the conclusions of the research may well prove true. But studies have to be done properly, and the methodology transparent, to be credible and useful.
Given the thirst for coronavirus information, some scientists are cutting corners and journals are fast-tracking peer review in a rush to publish.
Preprints – papers that are posted online before they are reviewed and published – have also become a popular practice during the pandemic.
While preprints can be useful for scientific discourse, some dubious material has been posted, such as claims that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was engineered in a lab, or that stem cells can be used to treat COVID-19 or that people with certain blood types have more severe symptoms.
Worse yet, these claims have received widespread media coverage, and fuelled conspiracy theories. The retractions and corrections never get as much attention.
Traditional media outlets, and social media in particular, have also given undue attention to unverified claims and self-serving bumpf, fuelling the troubling “science by press release” phenomenon.
When U.S. biotech company Moderna issued a statement claiming that eight of 45 people in the early stages of a vaccine trial had developed antibodies, its stock price soared by 30 per cent in the days after, and its senior executives earned millions from stock sales.
Similarly, when the University of Oxford’s RECOVERY (randomized evaluation of COVID-19 therapy) trial issued a press release saying the steroid dexamethasone cut the death rate of patients by one-third, it was touted as a “game changer” on news broadcasts around the world, even without the data and caveats being published.
Avid readers of coronavirus news will know this is the third “game changer” drug after hydroxychloroquine (now seen as having more risks than benefits) and remdesivir (now viewed as having a modest benefit for a small subset of COVID-19 patients).
Masks are the latest items to be touted with religious fervour, but the evidence of any benefits is still modest.
Hype is not helpful. Science is messy and takes time, even during a pandemic.
Still, the publication of research findings, even preliminary ones, is important. But how we interpret and use the data matters, too. The mistake we make too often is generalizing – taking small glimmers of hope and assuming there is a cure-all.
Of the many lessons that have emerged from this pandemic, one is that the way in which scientific discourse takes place is changing.
COVID-19 has shown that science, and scientific research, are more important than ever. But the science also has to be well communicated and trusted, and that’s a challenge that can’t be solved in the lab – it has to be tackled in society more broadly.