Don't jump the gun

NCSE Director of Teacher Support Lin Andrews reminds us to be skeptical and vigilant when confronted with science-related news about COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus.


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Should we all wear masks? Will anti-malarial drugs be the cure we so desperately seek? And what about those poor pangolins?

We are in unprecedented times. "Normal" is a condition we will not experience again anytime soon. However, humans are highly adaptable organisms—we will overcome COVID-19 and move forward stronger and (hopefully) smarter. During these uncertain times, science and its research are also undergoing many changes. The scientific enterprise has more people actively invested in the discovery process than we have seen since the space race. Scientists all across the world want to solve the riddle that is the novel coronavirus and be the first to bring much-needed hope to humans everywhere by manufacturing a vaccine or a medical therapy to decrease the loss of life that is increasing every day.

One unfortunate side effect of having an audience so desperate for scientific information, however, is that media sources continue to release whatever scrap of information they can about ongoing research. But, as any good science teacher knows, discovery may be quick, but verification takes time—time as well as resources such as experimental subjects and funding. The pressure on epidemiologists and microbiologists and every other engaged scientist at this time is immense. Mistakes will be made, false positives will provoke hope in what turns out to be a dead end, and scam artists will multiply. Conflicting evidence will begin to abound, generating ups and downs in the economy, unprecedented demand for certain products, and lack of trust in our scientific community and its leaders. 

In fact, there are already numerous examples of the media running stories before enough evidence has been gathered and replicated appropriately. We discussed one example already—blaming the pangolin as the likely source of COVID-19. I’ve been tracking developments of this story, and the poor pholidota keeps making appearances in the media (see here and here) even months after the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China. A recent news clip from an ABC affiliate in Utah discussed bats and pangolins being used in research at a local university. Unfortunately, the news channel showed footage of four different species of bats in the clip, including the vampire bat. Only one group of bats has been linked to COVID-19 at this time: Chinese horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus sinicus). By sharing images of numerous bat species just to make the story more interesting, the media could end up misrepresenting all bat species as a threat as pandemic fears continue to grow.

Another example of potentially putting too much hope in anecdotal studies and findings was discussed in a New York Times article that examines how doctors are beginning to prescribe the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine (and its sister drug, chloroquine) as a possible treatment for COVID-19 patients. Indeed, not only a few doctors but also a handful of members of the federal government are touting this therapy. The problem is that the study cited for the efficacy of the therapy hasn't been published in the peer-reviewed research literature. Instead, it was uploaded to medRxiv, an online depository for unpublished, non-peer-reviewed journal articles. The therapy was used only in mild cases with a very small sample size of 62 patients, all approximately in their mid-40s, and the study did not have proper controls in place to ensure that it is truly reliable.

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Despite the limits of the study, doctors all over the US have begun to add these drugs to the daily treatment regimens for COVID-19 patients after the FDA authorized the anti-malaria drugs for use in the latest emergency coronavirus response plan. Additionally, many doctors and nurses have begun taking the drugs and sharing them with family members and loved ones in a prophylactic effort to stay healthy. While one can certainly empathize with front-line healthcare workers' willingness to try anything to stay healthy, the resultant hoarding is causing shortages of the drugs nationwide, leading some pharmacies to enact policies to prevent this behavior. Another unfortunate effect of this hoarding is that an additional group of patients—those with autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis—who commonly use hydroxychloroquine to combat inflammation will have difficulties getting the drugs they need.

When even credible experts are divided, the science is not yet clear enough for the news media to begin sharing its opinion.

Finally, there are conflicting reports as to whether members of the public should wear masks or not. Since December 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have repeatedly said that wearing masks is essential for those infected with the virus and for healthcare workers, but unnecessary for the healthy. However, thanks to more and more opinion-based pieces, news stories, and articles from other countries, the hoarding of masks could be the next great shortage—which is ironic when they are almost impossible to find. According to NPR, the CDC is reconsidering its official position on wearing masks, but even if it doesn't end up recommending masks for the general public, the damage is already under way: Americans are starting to look for N95s and surgical masks for personal use at a time when our healthcare workers, EMTs, and police need them so much more.

Can we definitively answer the question of whether we should wear masks or not at this time? Unfortunately, no. When even credible experts are divided, the science is not yet clear enough for the news media to begin sharing its opinion. It's not at all clear right now whether 1) asymptomatic carriers are genuinely responsible for accelerating the spread and 2) wearing minimal masks (with inevitably poor actual compliance with proper usage) would do anything to stop that spread. It is worth noting how many times "may," "could," and "possibly" litter articles about this idea. 

What’s the take-home message? Be appropriately cautious about jumping to conclusions and especially wary of quickly accepting a new finding because you desperately want it to be true or because it's emotionally resonant (whether scary or reassuring). Even if the CDC does change its recommendations, I would still caution you to wait for the actual data backing up its statement. And bear in mind that even if scientists come to agree that wearing masks could significantly help stop the spread of COVID-19, social distancing is still the most important CDC recommendation you could use to help “flatten the curve.” This fact is supported by the entire scientific community and not up for debate. Wearing a mask does not suddenly make it okay to leave the house and be social again: wearing masks could engender a false sense of security that would ultimately end up hurting more people than it helps.

My final thought: Practice what we preach to our students. Make sure you understand the evidence. Make sure there is evidence to start with in the first place. Don’t help spread more uncertainty by grasping at straws. Remain vigilant. Be skeptical. Stay calm and don’t jump the gun.

NCSE Director of Teacher Support Lin Andrews
Short Bio

Lin Andrews is NCSE Director of Eduation.