The headlines tell two vastly different tales.
“Scientists say a now-dominant strain of the coronavirus could be more contagious than original,” said the paper from the west coast.
“Researchers hypothesize that a highly contagious strain of the coronavirus is spreading, but other experts remain skeptical,” read the headline in the paper from the east coast.
Both of those headlines topped stories about the exact same research, a paper posted on a pre-print server April 30 by scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory outlining their research on coronavirus mutations. In it, researchers identified a particular mutation that was appearing with increasing frequency in many countries, relative to the original Wuhan virus.
The authors speculated that that increased frequency of appearance was due to “a fitness advantage relative to the original Wuhan strain that enables more rapid spread.”
The paper was posted on a pre-print server, which meant it was not peer-reviewed, the gold standard by which the science community verifies studies by having other scientists look over the research. In a normal, pre-epidemic course of events, that paper would likely not have been released to the general public without having gone through such a review.
In this case, however, two different media sources had two different takes on the research: “ … more contagious than original …” versus “ … experts remain skeptical …”
Too often, this dichotomy exemplifies the plight of the lay public in trying to decipher the bombardment of facts, figures, truths and conspiracy theories that surround the coronavirus.
Small wonder that they get frustrated. More information is available on the coronavirus than has ever been available for any public emergency, yet people find themselves drowning in that flood of information.
From where they sit, it seems that what we know about the coronavirus and the advice they get from their public health officials are constantly in flux. But what is important to understand is that science typically builds one body of knowledge on the foundation of prior knowledge.
So scientists will say they are certain about one thing, and not certain about a second thing. Public health officials acting on that information might say, for example, that people don’t need to wear a mask while out in public.
Later as more data becomes available, scientists will say they are also pretty certain about that second thing; public health officials, acting on that new information, tell people they should wear masks in public.
To the general public, that seems like they’ve been told two contrary things; in reality it’s an adjustment to what we know as more data comes in.
One of the main problems is the public’s understanding of how science gets done, said virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen, of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York.
“This virus is so new — we didn’t know about it until December of last year — that there really has not been very much time at all to try to answer some of even the most fundamental research questions about it,” she said.
“And so we can try to make some educated guesses based on what is known about other coronaviruses, or other respiratory viruses or other pandemic or epidemic emerging viruses.”
Generally speaking, those educated guesses would form the basis for hypotheses, which would be turned into a study involving data collection and analysis. That data and analysis would be reported in a paper, which would usually be peer-reviewed before being published in a journal for public consumption.
In the midst of the current epidemic, however, researchers across the globe have been trying to find ways to share their findings faster.
Many science publications have taken to prioritizing coronavirus-related research and fast-tracking the peer-review process, usually by tightening the time frames in which they ask scientists to examine their colleagues’ research.
The release of pre-print papers has become commonplace, too. Papers posted on pre-print servers carry the caveat that they have not been peer-reviewed, but those servers are open to the public and the media, who may not, perhaps, be as skeptical as scientists.
Sometimes, research bypasses even this step; in some cases information comes from press conferences, which many will consider with the same weight as a scientific paper.
And interwoven through all of this is omnipresent social media, where scientists and the public alike struggle to separate useful information from the white noise. For every useful bit of information, there is a deluge of misinformation — occasionally from scientists, yes, but also from laypersons, conspiracy theorists and, most notably, from those holding high political office.
“I think it’s been really difficult not just for the lay public, but also for scientists sometimes to keep up with the flow of information and to really discern what is a really good conclusive breakthrough, versus something that’s incremental or maybe still needs a lot more study,” said Rasmussen.
“That L.A. Times article (on the frightening-sounding mutation) is actually a great example of this. That study was a pre-print, meaning it hasn’t gone through peer review. And I suspect when it goes through peer review, probably some of the language that the authors used in that original study will be softened a bit.”
While the study’s report that a particular mutation of the coronavirus seems to be dominating in places where it had been introduced is an important observation, said Rasmussen, the research did not conclusively show that that particular mutation made the virus more transmissible.
“That nuance was really lost in the way that the L.A. Times article reported it. It presented that study as though that link between the mutation and transmission was absolutely settled 100 per cent, and this is kind of the danger in trying to present these sorts of complex, nuanced scientific topics to the general public in a way that’s accessible to them and where they can understand the significance of it.”
Unlike previous epidemics, people today are used to getting their information in a torrent. In reality, however, science usually proceeds in a series of drips, one drop building upon another until you have a puddle, the sum of everything you know with certainty on the subject.
Even with the fast-tracking of research increasing those drips into a trickle, that leaves people short of the torrent of information to which they are accustomed. So they fill that gap with whatever information is available.
“What we’re facing now that we haven’t faced in the past is basically instantaneous, or nearly instantaneous release of data to the general public, as well as to the broader scientific community without having any sort of peer review or prior analysis to look at things like context, validity, reliability, all these things,” said Jason Kindrachuk, assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba.
One notorious example is a paper published by researchers from New Delhi as a pre-print in the early days of the epidemic. In it, they talked about there potentially being genetic sequences in the virus similar to HIV. The science community lambasted the paper as horribly flawed research, and it was retracted by its authors.
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That was prime fuel for the conspiracy theorists.
They maintained that not only did the research offer proof that the coronavirus was manufactured in a Wuhan lab, but also, the fact that the science community “forced” a withdrawal proved a conspiracy to suppress the research.
Those theories gained enough traction that not only were they repeated by significant portions of the public, but they were parroted at some of the highest levels of government.
“This is a perfect example,” said Kindrachuk. “Even months after that paper was absolutely torn apart by scientific folks from across the globe, I’m still getting emails questioning why I think of this as a conspiracy theory and why I don’t think that this is an engineered virus.
“That’s the current state of research, and we were not used to that as scientists. So we’re definitely learning in real time how to how to counteract some of these things.”
Governments are learning, too. People are receiving more current, detailed and frequent information from public health officials. But that, like other informational changes in the wake of the epidemic, can be a double-edged sword.
In October 2003, in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic, Health Canada put out a report titled “Learning from SARS.” Chief among the lessons learned, stated the report, was the need for “ … better coordination among the various levels of government and institutions for outbreak containment, improved public communications strategies … ”
Following the 2009 H1N1 epidemic, a similar post-mortem was performed.
“One of the things that was learned was that it’s best for the public to learn as they go, and to be engaged in the process and engaged in the communication, as opposed to saying, ‘Just believe us, we’ll tell you when we know everything,’ ” said Scott Halperin, professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
As a result, in the early stages of the pandemic’s sweep across Canada, the prime minister and many of the premiers held daily briefings along with their chief public health officers to update citizens.
That, said Halperin, reduced the conspiracy theories floating around.
“I think that Public Health has learned more to engage the public in the conversation and to let them know that it’s a changing situation,” said Halperin.
But the flip side is that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing; what the public hears one day might be different from a week down the line as more information becomes available.
That’s confusing, but again, that’s how science works. Each piece of solid information becomes a foundation block on which other blocks are placed. Suspect or uncertain blocks are omitted until they can be verified for fear of weakening the structure.
Many of the questions that scientists would like to have answered — whether a patient has immunity to the virus after an infection, and how long that immunity would last, for example — can only be answered with sufficient time, and data. And currently, on that particular question, scientists only have about four months of potential data to work from.
That said, consensus in the scientific community is that in the limited time that researchers have been studying the coronavirus, progress has been remarkable.
“I think it’s unprecedented, how much we’ve learned about this virus that we’ve only known has existed for five months,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at University of Toronto.
High on that list, scientists have learned a lot about how the virus is transmitted. They’ve learned about the risk factors for severe disease. They’ve learned about the spectrum of illness, running anywhere from asymptomatic to critically ill individuals.
Researchers have a good handle on how and where the virus replicates in the body, and they’ve recognized that its mutation rate is relatively low compared to other RNA viruses.
There are positive early results from some of the treatment drugs being tested on the virus. And there are scores of groups studying possible vaccines. Groups in China and in the U.K. are already looking at doing large-scale tests on potential vaccines.
“By all means, we have learned a lot about this infection in a very short amount of time,” said Bogoch.
“Why? Number one, of course, it’s captured … the globe. Everyone on earth recognizes the significance of this infection. Number two: it’s completely impacting our entire way of life, no matter where you are.
“When you factor in having the brightest minds and infinite resources, and then sprinkle in a little bit of time, you’re going to be able to answer a lot of these pressing questions, and do so in a great in a very reliable way.
“It’s pretty impressive to watch this happen.”