'Panicky pandemic publishing' of COVID-19 research erodes trust in science: report

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OTTAWA — Publishing weak, careless and sometimes fake research on the novel coronavirus is eroding trust in science, leading people to ignore public health advice, a new report from the Royal Society of Canada warns.

The society's COVID-19 task force report says scientists, public health officials, governments and journalists all must do better, and not allow the sense of urgency created by the pandemic to undermine long-held standards and ethics in their respected professions.

The Royal Society is an elite body of about 2,000 scholars and public intellectuals, meant to recognize and promote leading-edge research and the best thinking on important problems.

"One of the fastest ways to create confusion and lose public trust is to publish and publicize weak, careless or, worse, fraudulent research," the report says.

The report warns that the "panicky pandemic publishing" of research on COVID-19 is harmful when it takes shortcuts around the tried-and-true safeguards to ensure published science is both peer-reviewed and accurately portrayed.

And it is happening more frequently in the pandemic, with one review finding circulation of COVID-19-related research before peer-review is complete — known as pre-prints — is happening 15 times more often than with non-pandemic related research.

Before the pandemic, the average time between a researcher's submitting work and its being published was more than 100 days, but since the COVID-19 pandemic began, that period has shrunk to just six days.

These published reports are often being used by public health agencies and politicians to guide their advice to the public, and overhyped news releases are enticing media to cover them heavily. It leads to confusing messaging when the reports contradict each other or are later debunked.

The well-known case of hydroxychloroquine is one of the most egregious examples, the report found. The drug, used often to treat malaria and autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, was tested by French researchers on COVID-19 patients, and a pre-print was produced declaring it to show some positive impacts. The study was immediately widely criticized as flawed.

Still it has been cited over 1,700 times, spurred millions of dollars in further research into the drug, and was picked up by celebrities like U.S. President Donald Trump and Tesla founder Elon Musk, driving further media and public interest.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late March issued an emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine to be used for COVID-19.

A subsequent study published in The Lancet, one of the most respected medical journals in the world, that found hydroxychloroquine could be harmful instead of helpful, was also later debunked and retracted.

But the harm from the reckless use of the science was profound, causing everything from shortages of the drug for patients who actually needed it to doctors overprescribing it.

A New York Times investigation found prescriptions for the drug went up 2,000 per cent in March compared to the same month in 2019.

It also appears the confluence of events had tragic consequences.

Hydroxychloroquine is known to cause heart arrhythmias, and as adverse events piled up and evidence against its benefits for COVID-19 mounted, the FDA first clarified its approval and then revoked it. 

An analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration database shows more than 100 Americans died in the first half of 2020 after taking hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 reasons.

The Royal Society report also says science is always evolving but in the pandemic, the public is paying more attention and seeing that evolution happen in real-time. That too, is causing confusion, as public health advice is based on the best available evidence.

When that advice changes — as it did in Canada for the use of non-medical face masks — it can make the public skeptical and reluctant to follow the advice.

They said public health officials need to be as honest as possible about the weakness of evidence that is guiding their current decisions.

Researchers also must be careful not to overhype their findings, and to follow the conversations about their research in the media and the public and correct misinterpretations they see.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2020.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press