National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

The science of keeping up with COVID-19 science

By Robert Lawrence, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Sep. 4, 2020 at 2:02 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — SARS-CoV-2 is the seventh human coronavirus to emerge in the last 500 years or so, and the third to emerge this century. But unlike SARS, MERS or any other coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 has colloquially become "the coronavirus."

This title seems justified until the next coronavirus emerges. Due to the COVID-19 illness caused by SARS-CoV-2, more research on coronaviruses has been published so far this year than in the previous 40 years combined. It’s a flood of new information, and the interpretation of it can get muddled downstream in the currents of public discourse where there is much at stake and much still unknown.

At the source of all these research studies are scientists who are understandably busier than usual, and not necessarily proficient in communicating their expertise directly to the public. But some are trying.

Here are a few creative ways the experts are working to get the latest COVID-19 science out to the public:

The podcast about viruses

Vincent Racaniello has been running his virology research lab at Columbia University since 1982. "I absolutely love viruses, I have a passion for them that few people have," Racaniello told students in one of his virology lectures earlier this year. These same lectures he uploads to YouTube, where the Ivy League tuition is not required for viewing.

Since 2008, Racaniello has hosted This Week in Virology (or, TWiV), "the podcast about viruses." Racaniello is joined on TWiV by a panel of regular co-hosts from virology, immunology and related fields, and a science communicator to help put things in laymen’s terms. Researchers, physicians and epidemiologists of good repute often join as guests to hash out the latest virus news and respond to listener questions.

The TWiV audience includes scientists and nonscientists alike, and it has grown during the pandemic. "Our listeners have gone up 25-fold since January," Racaniello said in a recent interview. "And I get over 100 email questions a day now steadily from all kinds of people."

The perils and power of social media in a pandemic

Misinformation can be contagious on any social media platform, and this pandemic has not been immune to it. What users share on social media is largely dependent on who they trust.

Scientists who are broadly trusted in fields like virology, immunology and epidemiology often use Twitter to discuss, debate and disseminate the latest COVID-19 research.

One of them is Stephen Goldstein, a virologist who has worked with MERS in the past and is now doing postdoctoral research on virus evolution at the University of Utah. "I have a particular expertise with coronaviruses, so it seemed like a useful thing to do for public communications," Goldstein told KSL.com. "Twitter has also been really good for talking to other scientists I wouldn’t otherwise get to interact with."

A few of those other scientists might include names like, Trevor Bedford, Caitlin Rivers, Kristian Andersen, Ian Mackay, Florian Krammer, Akiko Iwasaki, Timothy Sheahan, Peter Daszak, Angela Rasmussen and Michael Mina, who are active on Twitter when not in the lab working on things related to the pandemic.

Science meets journalism

During this pandemic, some science journalists have done remarkably well at keeping up with the research. In this regard, "Certain reporters are just as good as many of the scientists," Goldstein said, citing examples such as Roxanne Khamsi, Ed Yong, Amy Maxmen and Helen Branswell.

Branswell, for instance, sent out a tweet on New Year’s Eve of 2019 about a cluster of unexplained pneumonia cases that were reminiscent of her experience covering SARS. Four days later she published an article for STAT News about it, which turned out to be one of the first reports in U.S. media about COVID-19.

STAT News journalists like Branswell are entirely focused on science-based health and medicine reporting. Because of this, they continue to be ahead of the media curve on their coronavirus reporting, which includes informative videos, podcasts, interviews and trackers.

Another useful media resource is the Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker and the Coronavirus Drug and Treatment Tracker produced by a science journalism team at The New York Times. These two trackers keep tabs on the progress of more than 165 vaccine candidates and 20 drugs or treatments in development, and present that information with reader-friendly graphics and explainers.

Your local epidemiologist

As described by one group of researchers, the coronavirus pandemic is "a complex problem in a complex system." At this intersection of complexity, local health departments are positioned to communicate the most relevant science to the public.

This responsibility is familiar to Sam Lefevre, who is the interim director for the Bureau of Epidemiology with the Utah Department of Health. Lefevre has worked in public health since 1983 and has been involved in the response to emerging public health threats such as HIV, hantavirus, West Nile virus, H1N1 influenza and the Zika virus. "Each of those experiences brought new capabilities to the state for responding to COVID," Lefevre said.

Because the scientific process is always in flux, guidance from health departments must adjust to keep up with new information as it becomes available. Lefevre told KSL.com this applies to his bureau’s approach to things like protective masks, which are supported by more scientific evidence now than eight months ago. "Our scientists review and evaluate the literature on their scientific strengths," Lefevre said of masks. "Then after evaluating and weighing the evidence make recommendations for what messages we should be making."

Those messages are distributed by a team of public information communicators through all avenues of social media and official webpages like coronavirus.utah.gov.

With new studies coming out every day, keeping up with the latest science is a constant battle. "As one old general once said, we are always training for the last war," Lefevre recounted. "The new one has a few surprises."


About the Author: Robert Lawrence

Robert Lawrence works in research development at a public university in New York and writes about science. His previous experience includes five years as a postdoctoral researcher in a coronavirus lab, and also as a public health scientist at a state lab. You can find more of his work at: www.robertlawrencephd.com

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