The pace of the news is constant. The United Kingdom announced last week that 200,000 deaths had been caused by the virus. As the current wave of infections, mostly fueled by the Omicron BA.5 variant, starts to diminish, fears have been building up that a worse variant may be on the way.
The public imagination has been captured by a scientific topic for a long time. Over the past two years, a large amount of news articles have been dedicated to the swine flu. It is one of the most talked about topics on social media, with people from all walks of life taking part in heated debates about the meaning of the latest scientific publication.
The interest shown by the public in Covid-19 science is one of the few positives to come out of the Pandemic. The iterative, slow progress of science has been put under a lot of stress. It's hard to accept that a published finding may be false. Science can't keep up with the news coverage.
It has been covered in the news and shared by millions on social media before an article is published. The publications that attract the most attention are those that report unexpected, extreme results, which are more likely to be false positives.
Each time a statistical test is performed, there is a small chance it will pick up a pattern even when there is none
There are a lot of Covid articles. There are more than five million publications on Covid. Any imaginable claim about Covid-19 is supported by a scientific article. It allows anyone to make the most bizarre claims and back them up with published scientific evidence, which is a serious problem for productive discourse on social media.
The Covid-19 news and social media cycle is fueled by a mix of scientific facts, misunderstandings and genuine scientific observations that are often irrelevant outside a wider body of evidence. There is a misconception that the science is a set of facts. Science is a process of trial and error.
Many scientific publications are false because they rely on inadequate data or analyses, but more often the results are just false positives, picking up a statistically significant association when they shouldn't. There is a small chance that a statistical test will pick up a pattern even when there isn't one. Studies with small sample sizes are more likely to have false positives.
Positive findings are more likely to be written up and made public. Those who fail to detect a statistically significant effect tend to stay out of the public eye. A pattern known as the "winner's curse" is when publications report false-positive results.
Several times during the Pandemic, the first studies pointed to results that could not be duplicated in other studies. The anti-parasite drug ivermectin was one of the examples. Many people believed that it was a miracle cure for Covid-19 after several early studies showed promising results. It was only after large clinical trials that ivermectin could be ruled out as a useful drug.
A preprint reported that current Omicron lineages in circulation may have reverted to a level of virulence similar to the previous Delta variant. The early results caused a lot of alarm, but could not be duplicated in other hamster experiments. Many countries show no increase in hospitalisation or death rates for infections caused by current strains in circulation.
Few did in fact sweep the world because of the Covid-19 variant that was anticipated. The Alpha and Delta variant were more transmissible and associated with higher death rates than any other lineage. The Omicron variant spread quickly due to its ability to circumvent existing population immunity, but luckily, it's not as bad as the early Pandemic lineages or any subsequent variant.
It's next to impossible to know how the next variant of sars-coV-2 will look around the world. It is probably more likely to fail than be it. It's difficult to hit the right note between caution and public reassurance because of the massive uncertainty.
There are no easy solutions to these problems. We haven't fully communicated how science is an inherently slow and self-correcting process. I don't blame the public, it's understandable that they want certainty and conviction, but science can't deliver on that.
A society where science is performed in the open is fundamentally a better educated, more democratic society. One aspect we scientists have failed to convey to the public is that science is more about dealing with uncertainty than it is about truth.
It's not possible to follow the science. The science to tend towards the truth is the best you can hope for.