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How To Create A Pan(dem)ic Using Science

During a pandemic, it is essential that both popular news outlets and the general public approach science with nuance and contextual awareness instead of indulging in sensationalism and creating hysteria.

Apr 4, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated major news channels and social media platforms, fostering a global addiction to the abundant data being collected through ongoing scientific research. While journalists are aware that we are paying acute attention to their reporting, it is time to pause and ask: what kind of “science” are we paying attention to?
Media provides a key interface for the general public to engage with the unprecedented level of information that scientists are generating during this time. The insights gained from this information support personal risk assessments and decision making in order to ensure health and safety. However, some newspaper articles relay emerging scientific research poorly, making it sensationalist and misleading.
According to a Reuters analysis, as of March 24, there have been 153 research articles published about COVID-19, ranging from the virus’ genetic sequence to vaccine testing on rodents. For comparison, this quantity of articles was only generated for SARS one and a half years after the outbreak began. The interpretation of this research by some news outlets has been remarkably skewed or incomplete, generating fear among the public, who may never read and evaluate the original research for themselves.
The Daily Mail, the third-highest circulated newspaper in Britain, has been guilty of this selective interpretation of scientific data. On March 18, the newspaper published an article addressing whether pets—more specifically dogs—could transmit coronavirus. This question was raised after a 17 year old Pomeranian in Hong Kong tested “weak positive” for coronavirus. The panic triggered by this incident caused many pet owners in China and around the world to [abandon their pets] out of the fear that pets can transmit Covid-19 to them. In contrast, some pet owners started to don masks on their furry companions, which, while well-intentioned, exacerbates mask shortages.
This article dramatizes the death of the dog, which was not actually linked to Covid-19. In fact, after subsequent testing, the dog tested negative and never exhibited symptoms. It is key to recognize that this was a case study of one animal and is not representative of the entire pet population. Further analyses of pets of Covid-19 patients revealed that most of these pets tested negative. Even if pets tested positive for the virus, there has still been {no evidence]( that these pets infect humans. Nevertheless, pets can have virus particles on their fur just like other surfaces, but proper hand hygiene and animal grooming limits this problem.
The next panic that ensued was catalyzed by news articles that reported on a study investigating whether coronavirus could be airborne. An airborne virus would completely change our response to the virus as it would be more transmissible than anticipated. Yet, reading the study helps mitigate fears. This study was published on medrxiv (pronounced Med Archive), which means it has not passed through the peer review process of a journal. There are also many caveats to the results of this study, which the authors themselves admit in their discussion section.
While a Fox News article, titled, Coronavirus could be airborne, paints the harrowing scene of a threatening wind dispersing coronavirus particles, there is a need to clarify what airborne actually means. What the study found from sampling the air in patients’ rooms is that the virus particles detected are actually in small droplets, suspended in the air after a patient coughs or sneezes. Sometimes droplets may be small enough to remain suspended in the air for a long time after a cough or sneeze. Very small droplets can also travel further. For example, the measles virus can remain in the air for up to 2 hours after a cough or sneeze. However, owing to the lack of consistent, compelling evidence, scientists still disagree on whether droplets from patients are small enough for this to occur and whether such small droplets could realistically infect cells. What is apparent is that surfaces still remain the major source of infection as virus particles can live for several days on some household surfaces.
These nuances and contextualization were lost in the article. It is worth noting that there are some news outlets getting their reporting right by highlighting these results as preliminary or not peer-reviewed, offering evidence from contradicting research that has diverse sample sizes and cautioning readers against making conclusions from this rapidly developing information. Just as any piece of information, science must be scrutinized by assessing the methods, statistical validity and competing theories. News agencies that don’t engage in this process are doing a disservice to their readership by stirring unnecessary emotional turmoil in these already challenging times. Understandably, sometimes scientific articles are complex and difficult to digest, but this is when partnerships between researchers and journalists must be realized to ensure accurate interpretations of studies are conveyed.
It is clear that the news is striving to keep everyone up to date but in some cases, they struggle to get it right, causing responses that are difficult to control. Some medical professionals argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing, as a little fear can prompt enhanced caution in the general public that they would otherwise not show if the science was put into question. In other words, putting it bluntly and potentially causing panic is more effective than underplaying the situation. This assumes that preparedness is synonymous with panic and neglects consequences such as the mass abandonment of pets or the permanent stigmatization of large swathes of recovering populations, all of which will have to be dealt with long after we survive the peak of the corona crisis. Perhaps it is overly optimistic, but teaching both journalists and the public how they can enhance their scientific literacy and be patient for additional information can encourage caution without causing mayhem.
Vongai Mlambo is a contributing writer. Email her at
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