COVID-19 Day 42: We’re all COVID experts

It’s funny how many of us have turned into amateur epidemiologists, virologists, and statisticians in this pandemic. But don’t feel bad about being an armchair scientist or in our case, house-arrest scientist (see what I did there?) Evolutionary biologists, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying (PhDs in Biology) said during their science podcast, SARS2 is a novel virus and COVID-19 is so unprecedented in its effects on humans, that even the “experts” have no better understanding of how to deal with this pandemic than you or me.

I’m no scientist. I’m a copywriter and designer by trade but I have a bit more science knowledge than the average bloke. I once majored in Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, before changing schools to major in Design and Creative Writing. I spent 8 of my 20-year MadMan career, working in Pharmaceutical Advertising in New York City.

Much of my job revolved around working with clinical studies of new drugs. Documents recounting experiments, blind trials, oncology research, etc. written in technical language used by scientists for other scientists. My job was to translate dry graphs and charts into something more appealing to laymen and healthcare professionals. I’ve found this prior experience helpful in diving into scientific papers on COVID-19.

At this moment, lives are being lost and every minute someone new is infected with coronavirus. This mortal sense of urgency has driven scientists to share their research early. Their hope is that their insights may help find a breakthrough. This need for speed has circumvented the usual slow academic process of scholarly peer-review in prestigious publications like NEJM, JAMA, and Nature.

In the “normal” process, scientific papers would be submitted and discretely reviewed by a select group of expert ‘peers’ in a scientific field. Based on the reviews, the journals would ask the paper’s authors for corrections and further information before the paper was ‘published’ in the journal. More often than not, most papers are rejected because they weren’t deemed significant or ‘up to standards.’ While the reviews are meant to be impartial, the academic world is very small, and personal allegiances and cliques often bias reviews or acceptance. Even without the personal politics, review papers stack up in busy professors in-boxes, so these peer reviews can take months.

In the midst of a worldwide emergency, this slow formal process has been eschewed for ‘pre-press’ servers hosted by universities or online publishing sites. Here, papers are free to be viewed and commented on by anybody with a Twitter account or other public venue to cite the paper and voice their opinion. For many in academia, this is a breath of fresh air allowing them to get feedback on early research outside of ivory-tower journals.

Pre-Press papers have also lead to some poorly conducted research being shared as facts or outright pseudoscience. A theory posted on Medium proposed that COVID-19 pneumonia symptoms were being misunderstood; that SARS2 virus was also attacking red blood cells and rendering them unable to hold oxygen. This theory was debunked by molecular biologists and virologists as having no basis in actual research. In fact, SARS2 coronavirus has never been detected in the bloodstream and red blood cells lack the internal components to replicate viruses. That paper has since been removed but the internet never forgets and this paper continues to be re-posted elsewhere and cited.

These pre-press papers have also lead to visible online feuds more often seen from rappers than academics. A recent paper posted by a Stanford research group, suggesting that 50x more Californians have recovered from COVID-19 than previously estimated, was quickly picked up by the mainstream press. But in academic circles, some biologists questioned the accuracy of the serology testing kits used in the study. Other less polite comments came from statisticians, one tweeting, “Seriously, I might use this as an example in my class to show how NOT to do statistics.”

In the past, these debates would be hidden on university message boards seen only by scientists and students, not on Twitter. Witnessing academic smackdowns out in the open is great. Not just because rigorous debate is the lifeblood of science but because it reminds us how human scientists are.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. That is true for ideas and viruses.

 

 


SOURCES

Claim that SARS-CoV-2 binds to hemoglobin in red blood cells unsupported and implausible

https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.14.20062463v1

Feud over Stanford coronavirus study: ‘The authors owe us all an apology’

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