Quirks & Quarks

COVID-19 and scientific confusion — What we don't know and why we don't know it

Scientists around the world are working on COVID. So why don’t we have more answers?

Scientists around the world are working on COVID. So why don’t we have more answers?

A scientist prepares a sample at Pecs University, in Pecs, Hungary during their diagnostic activity to locate the nature of the virus strain and the connection to novel coronavirus COVID-19. (KAROLY ARVAI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Listen17:57

As scientists around the world hunker down to study both the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, they're faced with a panicked public, hungry for answers. 

But scientists warn that to paint a full picture of COVID-19, they need time and patience from the general public.

"One of the things that's really frustrating is that because everyone is really hungry for answers there's this sort of tendency to kind of pounce on the first information that becomes available," said Ellie Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University. "And not only can we really not be confident about things right now, the actual truth of the situation is just continuously evolving and it's going to be changing for quite some time too.

Since the pandemic began, scientists have published a staggering 7500 papers about COVID-19. Many of these papers are pre-prints, meaning they haven't been peer-reviewed, which is a lengthy process where other scientists look over the work. Instead, scientists are releasing these preliminary findings just to get the information out to other scientists as quickly as possible to add to the collective knowledge about the disease.

"It's almost like a collective kumbaya moment where everybody's trying to hold hands as best they can, saying yeah, this is a huge problem, let's all work together to figure it out," researcher Chad Roy told Quirks & Quarks producer Amanda Buckiewicz.

But the public's tendency to jump on these preliminary findings, without knowing how to properly translate it to real world experiences, is leading to a lot of confusion about what science can say — and can't say — about COVID-19.

Studies as small pieces of a very large puzzle

Roy knows first hand how this confusion can lead to problems in communicating science to the public. 

As the director of infectious disease aerobiology at the Tulane National Primate Research Center with Tulane University, he has been studying the aerosol properties of SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19. In a recent study, he found that the virus could last as an aerosol for up to 16 hours.

We want to make sure we do a complete job... That collective data has to be so strong.- Dr. Chad Roy

That may seem like a terrifying piece of information, and indeed his research made headlines around the world. But Roy cautioned that his study in very controlled conditions wasn't exactly reflective of how the virus behaves in real life.

"It's like, oh boy I hope people don't presume too much," he said. "Our stuff is just a piece of the bigger picture out there, and so we're three or four steps away — or more — from real world, and making conclusions about it."

Andressa Parreiras and Larissa Vuitika work in a laboratory during the extraction of the coronavirus genetic material in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. (Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

The attention the study received was unusual for preliminary results. But still, Roy is glad to have that small piece of the puzzle out there to add to the collective understanding of the disease, though he cautions that it will take many many more studies like his in order to paint a full picture.

"We want to make sure we do a complete job," he said. "That collective data has to be so strong." 

Different approaches to be sure to find the best one 

Biophysicist Michael Woodside is also keenly aware of the pressure to find solutions.

In his lab at the University of Alberta, he is currently working to develop a treatment for COVID-19, searching for a drug that will prevent the virus from replicating in the human body.

"One of the reasons why everything takes so long is that figuring out what questions to answer is actually really hard," he said. "And while you're answering that first question you realize, oh, there's like four other questions."

A group of scientists work to validate rapid IgM/IgG antibody tests of COVID-19 samples from recovered patients in New York City. (Misha Friedman/Getty Images)

While Woodside is in the beginning stages of a two-year project to develop a new drug from scratch, his colleagues are looking at the effects of existing drugs on the disease. And while existing drugs, like remdesivir, may show some effect on the disease, from what's been seen so far, they aren't effective enough to be considered a successful treatment.

"Yes it has an effect, but it's minimal," he said. "So we will continue looking, because we may find that there's something that needs more development as a drug but that has a much stronger effect."

The process of developing treatments and vaccines is generally a lengthy one, and for good reason — because they need to try many different approaches, and test them vigorously, to make sure they work.

Almost all of the world's scientific and medical focus right now is on understanding this disease.- Dr. Ellie Murray

"We have to try as many things as possible because we just don't know which approach is going to end up being most successful," said Woodside. "There's a danger if we try and move too fast, which is that you end up with a lot of data that are not as solid as you'd like. And then the conclusions that are drawn from that are also not solid."

It takes time to collect solid data

As we exit the first wave of this pandemic and countries look at how to emerge from their lockdowns, scientists have only just begun the process of understanding how this virus works. 

"Almost all of the world's scientific and medical focus right now is on understanding this disease. And so we're really digging into everything we can possibly learn about it," said Murray. "It's because we really care about trying to solve this problem. This is a problem that affects everyone. And we want to help get things back to normal."

Ultimately, scientists just need patience from the public to let them do their jobs well, so that they can build that collective knowledge of the disease, and be sure that the answers they're putting forward are the correct ones.

"At least everybody that I talk to in the scientific world, we're doing our best, and going as fast as we can," said Roy. 

"We'll be OK. It just takes time." 


Written and produced by Amanda Buckiewicz

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