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.