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Politicians, investors and worried citizens are looking to scientists for the fastest way out of the coronavirus crisis. It’s a demand that researchers can’t meet, even when they’re moving at maximum velocity.
U.S. President Donald Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson are jumping into the vacuum, rushing to conclusions that haven’t always been scientifically vetted. Some researchers are relying on modeling of the pandemic’s spread that bypass the profession’s usual checks and balances.
The risk is that hype and hysteria blow the potential for tests, treatments or vaccines out of proportion before sparking a wave of disappointment when reality kicks in. Meanwhile hundreds of millions of people face weeks or months of additional lockdowns.
“Politicians are desperate for the current situation not to be as bad as it appears and to be able to relax what leading epidemiologists believe are the minimum restrictions necessary,” said Tim Colbourn, associate professor of global health epidemiology and evaluation at University College London.
Research on the severity of the pandemic is all over the map. In the U.K., for example, official data show 9,529 confirmed cases, and 463 deaths — an alarming rate of nearly 5%. Yet a study by Oxford University researchers made headlines earlier this week by hazarding a guess that as much as half the population may already have been infected, with most of them unaware because symptoms were mild or non-existent.
If that were the case, the mortality rate would be far lower — perhaps no higher than that of the seasonal flu. If more than 30 million Britons had already been exposed to the virus and fought it off, there’d potentially be no need for a lockdown that’s disrupted society, tanked financial markets and added to concern about a deep global recession.
The study seemed to offer a riposte to separate work from Imperial College London’s Neil Ferguson, which suggested that the virus could cause 250,000 deaths in the U.K. without strong measures to arrest its spread. Johnson is said to have relied on those findings when he ordered the quarantine that began earlier this week. Imperial researchers said Thursday that the virus could have infected 7 billion people worldwide and killed 40 million if left unchecked.
Obscured by the headlines about the Oxford study were some crucial points: It was just a draft that hadn’t been reviewed by peers, the normal process that occurs before scientific papers see the light of day. Other studies have also appeared on websites posting preprint documents that allow scientists to rush out unreviewed findings before being edited for publication as they would be in esteemed journals like the Lancet, Science, the New England Journal of Medicine and Nature.
“The usual caveats apply,” said Fiona Fox, the chief executive officer of the London-based Science Media Centre, which links scientists and journalists. “Something that hasn’t been peer-reviewed and published in a journal is to be treated with more caution.”
What’s more, epidemiologists are having to make adjustments to their conclusions in public view. The Oxford research was a modeling exercise that assumed only one in 1,000 infected with the virus will need hospitalization. That finding isn’t backed by any hard numbers. In Italy’s Lombardy region, more than one in 1,000 people has had to be hospitalized.
One of the Oxford researchers, Sunetra Gupta, defended the study as a modeling exercise with a range of assumptions, given the uncertainty over how many people will need hospitalization.
“I don’t believe the general public are ill-equipped to take on board the message of this paper,” said Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology.
At the root of the problem is this paradox: Despite the flood of information and speculation about the virus, we still lack accurate data on its spread.
“Processing the amount of information isn’t the challenge,” said Dmitry Kuzmin, managing partner at 4BIO Capital, a London-based venture capital firm. “The challenge is the quality of the information.”
Incomplete testing has clouded the picture. It’s been hampered by a shortage of kits as well as different implementation, with countries like South Korea doing it more widely than the U.K. and the U.S. And while tests for active infections were available quickly, a broader assay that identifies anyone who’s ever been exposed is still not on the market.
The broader tests, which spot antibodies against the coronavirus, have also been the subject of ambitious pronouncements, with Johnson touting them as a “game changer” though they not yet been approved for use. A U.K. health official said Wednesday that the government has ordered 3.5 million of them, but Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty later dampened optimism that they could be available within days.
“This is a crisis, unlike most others we’ve been through, where science is being looked to to provide the answer,” said Holden Thorp, editor and chief of the Science family of journals. “Testing, drugs and a vaccine are all things that we need people who hold pipettes and look at data for a living to figure out for us.”
Potential virus treatments have also been subject to hyperbole. Trump seized on preliminary findings from a study that hinted at potential promise in treating coronavirus with drugs normally used to treat malaria, a parasitic infection. That led to a run on the drugs that prompted the government of India to ban exports. A man died after taking the drug, called chloroquine, inappropriately.
Therapies need to go through painstaking studies before they’re shown to be both safe and effective in a given area.
“The track record on rushing drugs to market isn’t good,” said Alistair Campbell, a Liberum Capital analyst, in an email. “Half of drugs fail for safety issues and without rigorous clinical trials there is a real danger drugs get pushed to market and have serious side effects.”
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