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July 13, 2020

Communicating Science in the Time of a Pandemic

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Community Health Sciences, Boston University School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 2Clinical Addiction Research and Education Unit, Section of General Internal Medicine, Grayken Center for Addiction, Boston Medical Center, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 3Associate Editor, JAMA
  • 4Publisher, HealthNewsReview.org
  • 5University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Minneapolis
JAMA. 2020;324(5):443-444. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.12535

During the global SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) pandemic, disseminating study findings (such as by preprints, news releases, news stories, or social media) and publishing the results of studies of testing and treatment in scientific journals increased quickly. As of July 6, a PubMed search for COVID-19 yielded almost 30 000 reports.

In the context of a rapid increase in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019), clinicians, patients, policy makers, and the public at large are understandably eager for results of studies of prognosis, diagnosis, and treatment. Because of the urgency to implement the findings of research to stem the pandemic and its effects, clear and complete communication of study results is even more important than usual.

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    1 Comment for this article
    Informed Consent on COVID-19
    Michael McAleer, PhD (Econometrics), Queen's | Asia University, Taiwan
    Informed consent by a possibly confused patient of proposed treatments and therapy, including medication and surgery, involves the clear communication, explanation, and dissemination of complex information and knowledge by healthcare providers regarding the risks, benefits, and alternative medical options that might be available.

    it is incumbent upon the healthcare provider to ensure that the patient is fully aware of the procedure to be undertaken, the associated risks and benefits, any viable options that might be available, and their associated risks and benefits. 

    It is in this context that two medical experts provide a comprehensive and illuminating discussion of how
    to communicate science during a pandemic, such as COVID-19.

    Information can be distributed through a variety of outlets, including scientific journals and social media, even though the ever-present "fake news" is always ready to pander to the uninformed and ill-informed, including academics in medical and related disciplines.

    This excellent Viewpoint highlights several areas of scientific miscommunication, including communication flaws and failures based on incomplete and inadequate scientific trials and experiments, especially studies involving the highly topical remdesivir, dexamethasone, and hydroxychloroquine, for which safety and efficacy are presently unknown. 

    Causality between treatment and outcome is difficult to prove, even based on numerous large and systematic clinical trials, so it will be insufficient, misdirected and misleading based on a small number of such trials that appear in news releases rather than being published in leading peer-reviewed academic journals.

    It is easy to be cynical when some international research teams announce through news releases that they have "discovered" a novel treatment of COVID-19, possibly in search of research funds, when the purported findings are based on, say, a small number of patients in ICUs and on ventilators who do not represent the typical patient who is infected with COVID-19.

    This is made even worse when leading administration officials around the globe announce they are using unproven treatments to guard against possible infection from COVID-19, when caution is needed to protect the unwary, which refers to most individuals, with the possible exception of healthcare workers.

    While technically not "fake news", such announcements do an extreme disservice to scientific communication, which needs to stay well ahead of the (mis-)information curve.