As the coronavirus pandemic began to grip countries around the world, forcing shutdowns and filling hospitals, the scientific community sprung into action.
However, as scientists worked directly under the public’s watchful eye while people anxiously awaited a miracle cure that would make things normal again, all sorts of studies started receiving media attention – and not all of them made sense.
One article claimed that people with Neanderthal ancestors could find themselves more at-risk for severe outcomes from the virus. But just a month later, another article claimed humans who boast the Neanderthal gene may actually be better protected from the virus — directly contradicting the previous report.
Meanwhile, an article noticed that parts of the world where populations filled their plates with fermented vegetables and cabbage saw lower mortality rates — but faster than people could say ‘sauerkraut,’ fact checkers pointed out that study needed a whole lot more research.
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But just because the science moves quickly and some early findings end up being disproved, doesn’t mean science can’t be trusted. This is all a part of the normal scientific process, experts say, which requires floating and testing new — and sometimes wrong — ideas.
“From an infectious disease and from a medical standpoint, obviously (COVID-19 is) one of the biggest events of the past decade,” said Dr. Zain Chagla.
“There is such an interest in the research here — many research groups have pivoted their research towards COVID-19. Grants are being rewarded. The ability to publish if you put COVID-19 in the title has emerged as an incentive.”
Part of the force driving the appetite for COVID-19 research is the sheer scope of the virus. To date, more than 1.8 million people have died from the virus globally and another 82 million people have contracted it.
In Canada alone, there have been over 580,000 cases and over 15,500 deaths.
This worldwide push for answers has led to solid scientific developments emerging at light speed, such as the safe and effective coronavirus vaccines.
But not all of the emerging science has been reliable as the data backing vaccines — and some of these emerging ideas may receive media coverage before they’ve been through a rigorous scientific review.
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Chagla said one early example of the damage these conflicting studies can do related to findings about how COVID-19 binds to ACE2 receptors. Doctors began to worry that blood pressure drugs, which affect the same receptors, could impact the body’s response to COVID-19 — for better or for worse.
Studies flip-flopped on whether these drugs helped or hurt the body’s coronavirus response.
“At the end of the day, people were deciding whether or not to put people (on) or take people off medications they had been on for years and years,” Chagla said.
“So that was one right at the beginning that confused many people.”
A factor that adds to the issue is the existence of preprints, which are research papers shared before they receive a full peer review. While they can help authors to get credit, visibility and feedback on their findings, these papers can also do harm to the public’s understanding of an issue as these potentially flawed publications gather traction.
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Dr. Rob Kozak, a scientist and clinical microbiologist, was part of a Canadian team that isolated the COVID-19 virus.
He said that while these preprints can be a huge help for researchers, they can also help harmful misinformation to proliferate if their sometimes controversial findings are later disproven.
“It’s a double edged sword because on one hand, preprints are great. We’re seeing information released far quicker than we than we did in the pre-COVID era,” Kozak said.
“But at the same time, too, I often worry because without that benefit of a scientific peer review…you don’t know the quality of it.”
Despite these concerns, in the right hands, research that pointed in the wrong scientific direction can still sometimes help to send researchers on the right track.
“One of the things that that is kind of nice about these preprints and the stuff is that the information gets out there, which really, when it’s good science, it’s great because it kind of helps guide us,” Kozak said.
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He said that even the seemingly conflicting studies about the impact of the Neanderthal gene on the body’s response to COVID-19 helped researchers to learn more about the virus.
“For those of us that are studying the immune response to COVID, it’s one more piece of information that says they’ve found something. Let’s see if we can reproduce it,” he explained.
“So…you’re fishing and now all of a sudden, I know I’ve got a better chance of catching something because someone’s already said, ‘hey, go look for this, see if you get the same thing that we do.’”
Still, the reality is that these fishing expeditions are now happening under more of a spotlight than ever. And for people who don’t understand that science involves the exploration of theories that may ultimately prove to be incorrect, flip-flopping advice can hurt their trust in medical professionals.
“When the science evolves and people start practicing differently based on better information, unfortunately, it does create distrust,” Chagla said.
“It’s unfounded,” he added, “if we had all the answers for COVID-19…in February, then clearly we would have not been in this scenario.”
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He pointed to the guidance on masks as an example of this shift. As the scientific community learned more about how this virus spreads, Canada’s public health officers moved from advising against mask wearing to mandating it.
“As much as it creates distrust this is…how it actually works in reality. Experimentation, evidence, hypothesis generation and integrating that into future activity,” Chagla said.
Still, these feelings of mistrust can create fertile minds for the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation. The issue has escalated to the point that Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam has had to take steps to stamp out misleading information about the virus.
“We’ve been working on various fronts, including looking at social media platforms in terms of combating mis- and disinformation,” Tam said, speaking in a press conference in October.
She added that the country needed to “immunize the population” against misinformation as vaccines — a key subject of misinformation — begin to be rolled out.
“We as a collective public health system, have tried through various means to provide information like these press briefings are web websites, guidance, et cetera. But we are aware, of course, that misinformation, this information exists,” Tam said.
In addition to the steps governments are taking, there are also ways that individuals can better navigate this complex world of scientific findings and misinformation.
“What I recommend to my friends and family is, first off, to look for things from reputable sources. So, you know, if it’s published in a scientific journal (it) is obviously better than something which is a comment posted on the Internet,” Kozak said.
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He noted that it’s also good to search whether others have been able to replicate the findings — as opposed to just a one-off finding. And, when in doubt, listen to local public health advice.
“Local public health authorities, so Public Health Ontario, the Public Health Agency of Canada, they’ve tried to do their best to really translate what the state of literature is,” Chagla said.
Finally, Chagla has one rule to keep front of mind.
“Not everything on the internet is completely true.”
And as Canadians work to immunize their minds from misinformation, the actual COVID-19 immunization effort is underway — prompting hope that the end of this pandemic is on the horizon.
Manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna have both received regulatory approval for their jabs to be used in Canada, and multiple other vaccine candidates are currently being reviewed. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which was approved in the U.K. this week, is among those candidates.
More than 87,000 people across the country have already received their first dose of the approved vaccines, and Canada is on track to receive 1.2 million doses by the end of next month.
Should Canada decide to approve the two-dose Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, it would set in motion the agreement Canada signed with the company for up to 20 million vaccine doses. The deal would also be in addition to the 60 million doses Canada is already set to receive from Pfizer and Moderna by September.
That means that Canada would have enough doses in its arsenal to vaccinate 40 million Canadians next year — which is more than Canada’s population of 38 million.
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