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A guide to making sense of coronavirus studies

Tom Avril, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

Here at The Inquirer's Health & Science desk, we often are asked how we decide what to write about. My answer always includes this statement:

A huge part of the job is deciding what not to write about.

That is true even for the coronavirus, a topic for which people seem to have an insatiable appetite, no matter how small the development. We sift through all kinds of studies, analyses, and announcements of new drugs or products -- and in many cases, we take a pass.

That doesn't necessarily mean the information lacks value. It just means we don't think it is worth presenting to a general audience. Science is often incremental -- one step forward, two steps backward, and maybe three or four in an entirely new direction. The findings might be preliminary. Or they might not be relevant to treating the disease. Maybe there are unanswered questions, conflicts of interest, or other red flags.

As you read through news coverage of scientific studies -- or, if you feel comfortable with jargon and math, the studies themselves -- keep in mind these potential pitfalls:

Science by press release. In May, Moderna Inc. announced preliminary results from testing its coronavirus vaccine. In April, Anthony Fauci, the chief infectious disease scientist for the National Institutes of Health, heralded early findings from a trial of the antiviral drug remdesivir. In each case, the announcements were not accompanied by a formal write-up, leading critics to describe them as "science by press release."

 

That in itself is not bad. If a press release is issued by a publicly traded company, it cannot, by law, contain fabrications. But the information might be incomplete, or some of the details might be couched in a way that only an insider could understand. Maybe there is a passing reference to "adverse events" in some volunteers who took a drug.

In the case of the Moderna vaccine, the company said three participants who received the highest dose experienced "grade 3 systemic symptoms," with no additional description. That term generally means the symptoms were not life-threatening, but nevertheless no picnic. In fact, Ian Haydon, one of the three participants, later said he had spiked a fever above 103 degrees and fainted.

Haydon -- a scientist by training who wrote for The Inquirer in the summer of 2018 through a fellowship from the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science -- is fine. What's more, the dose he received was far higher than what eventually would be administered to the public. But when reading news coverage of studies, look to see whether someone pressed the company for those kinds of details.

Likewise, on April 29, Fauci announced that remdesivir, a drug originally designed to treat Ebola, could "block" the coronavirus, shortening a patient's recovery time by four days. Breathless headlines ensued. The complete study came out in May, and while the results were essentially as Fauci described, a few details were less promising. The drug did not appear to hasten recovery for patients on ventilators, for example.

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