Best of times, worst of times… That’s science in the age of Covid | Francois Balloux

Jhe pace of the news cycle around the Covid-19 pandemic is relentless. Just last week, the UK announced that the grim milestone of 200,000 virus-related deaths had been reached. And as the current wave of infections, largely fueled by the Omicron BA.5 variant, begins to recede, fears have been mounting that a worse variant of Sars-CoV-2 may be on the horizon, in the form from BA.2.75.

There is probably no precedent for a science topic to capture the public imagination so much – and for so long. Indeed, a significant proportion of everything of press articles published in the last two years have been devoted to the pandemic. It’s also one of the most discussed topics on social media, with people from all walks of life taking part in heated, and sometimes even toxic and confusing, debates over what exactly the latest scientific publication means.

The massive public interest in the science of Covid-19 is one of the few silver linings of the pandemic. However, the iterative and slow progress of science, through the replication or, on the contrary, the refutation of previous discoveries, has been severely tested. Many people find it hard to accept that a published finding could be wrong. The self-correcting mechanism of science simply cannot keep up with the life cycle of media coverage.

Before an article has been read, digested and dissected by experts in the field, it has often been widely covered in the news and shared by millions of people on social media. And the posts that get massive attention are usually the ones that report unexpectedly extreme results, which are also the most likely to be false positives.

Just look at the sheer number of Covid articles that have been written. It’s now almost 5000000 publications on the Covid recorded on the Google Scholar Database. There is a scientific paper backing up basically every conceivable claim and story about Covid-19, however implausible or outlandish. This allows anyone to make the most outlandish claims and back them up with published scientific evidence, which has become a serious problem for productive discourse on social media.

It also means that the Covid-19 news and social media cycle is fueled by a mixture of scientific facts, inaccuracies and misunderstandings, as well as genuine scientific observations that are often largely irrelevant outside of a larger body of evidence. A common misunderstanding is that “science” is a set of absolute, immutable, indisputable and verifiable facts. On the contrary, science is a messy process that eventually converges on truth in a process of trial and error.

Many scientific publications are false – because they relied on inadequate data or analysis, but more often than not the results are just false positives, picking up a statistically significant association when they shouldn’t. This is because whenever a statistical test is performed, there is a small chance that it will detect a trend even when there is none. Such false positive results are particularly likely to occur in studies with small sample sizes, as these are inherently noisier.

The problem is compounded because studies reporting positive results are more likely to be written up and made public. (Those that fail to detect a statistically significant effect often tend not to be published.) Publications reporting false positive results are also more common among early studies, a pattern known as the “winner’s curse.” .

There have been several instances during the pandemic where early studies indicated results that could not be replicated by other, often larger, studies. An example was the ivermectin antiparasitic drug. Several early studies in small numbers of patients reported promising results, leading many to believe it was a miracle cure for Covid-19. It was not until data from large clinical trials became available that ivermectin could be confidently ruled out as a useful drug against the virus.

More recently, a reported preprint that the current circulating Omicron lines (BA.1.12, BA.4 and BA.5) may have returned to a level of virulence comparable to the previous Delta variant, primarily based on experimental infections in hamsters. These early results caused considerable concern, but could not be replicated in other hamster experiments. They also disagreed with the huge body of real-world evidence from many countries showing no increase in hospitalization or death rates for infections caused by the current strains in circulation.

Of the myriad doomsday variants of Covid-19 that were anticipated based on early and often poor evidence, few have actually swept the world. Although some have: Alpha and Delta variants were both more transmissible and associated with higher hospitalization and mortality rates than any circulating lineage before them. And the Omicron variant spread very quickly around the world, mainly because it could largely circumvent the existing immunity of the population conferred by vaccines and previous infections, but fortunately its severity is much lower than that of the first pandemic lineages and any subsequent variants.

The truth is that it remains almost impossible to predict what the next variant of Sars-CoV-2 to spread around the world will look like. BA.2.75 might be, although it’s probably more likely to collapse. This massive uncertainty, combined with the high stakes of correctly predicting the next variant of Sars-CoV-2, makes it difficult to strike the right note between caution and public reassurance.

There is no easy solution to these problems. Regardless of the immense efforts of the scientific community during the pandemic, we have failed to fully explain how science is an inherently slow and self-correcting process. I don’t blame the public – it’s understandable that they, the media and policy makers all yearn for certainty and conviction, but that’s not something that science can usually deliver.

A society where science is practiced in the open, with engagement and under public scrutiny, is fundamentally a better educated, fairer and more democratic society. While another aspect that we scientists have largely failed to convey to the public during the pandemic is that science is mostly about dealing with uncertainty rather than providing absolute, immutable truths.

You just can’t “follow the science”. The best you can hope for is for science to move towards the truth, although this process can be complicated and sometimes erratic.

François Balloux is the director of the Institute of Genetics at University College London

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