Corona and Science

After five months of Corona virus crisis, there is no indication that the pandemic is letting up, and maybe the opposite is true. The number of new patients is again rising very steeply and with that also the confusion and uncertainty.

No doubt that the behavior of the Israeli government is a major source of the confusion. The big farce surrounding the testing, both testing to identify new patients as well as the epidemiological testing that should have started months ago. The politics involved in decision-making, from lenient behavior towards Haredi populations to perceived benefits for Netanyahu and his upcoming trials, to the (never clearly stated) decision that at this stage of the outbreak, the economy will come before the lives that maybe lost by insufficient action.

Of course, knowing who sits in this government, expectations that anything serious or organized would be undertaken were low from the start.

A much more worrisome, and disappointing reason for the confusion under the population, is the behavior of the scientific community, both here and abroad.

From the start of this pandemic, it was clear that we are dealing here with a new, unknown virus and that there is no way of knowing what it will do, how it will behave or when it will disappear if at all.

It is clear that science will and must play a very major part here in overcoming this crisis, develop a vaccine and/or a cure, gain insight in what we may expect this coming winter and the next,  understand if this will become a seasonal disease like the flu or does an infection result in life-long immunity.

And we may expect the scientific community to do just that, using established and novel scientific techniques to find a solution that will save the lives of many. But we may also expect that this huge endeavor, while urgent and crucial, will be carried out under the strict rules of scientific research, the important guidelines regarding publication and the presentation of results.

Here is where the scientific community is failing badly. Being only a simple chemist, I am not able to judge or evaluate the results that are obtained, but the abandonment of scientific integrity is clear for all to see.

Since the beginning of the crisis, hardly a day has go by without a professor from somewhere, anywhere, discussing the virus on television, on radio of in the newspaper. We were inundated with theories and assumptions, statements that are sometimes heavy weight, and will have significant impact on the thoughts, state of mind and anxiety of the viewer or listener, but that cannot or only very skimpily be backed up by scientific facts. And, often at the same time, on a competing TV channel, there would be a distinguished colleague, saying completely different things.

To exacerbate the problem and increase the confusion, the scientific community involved in the hunt for a cure and/or vaccine, cannot wait until they have reliable, verified data in hand and a wave of publications, from non-peer reviewed internet publications to simple newspaper articles is being thrown at us. From vaccine development to side-effects, to the miracle cure.  It is all out there. Ibuprofen is dangerous for corona patients; ibuprofen does not affect corona patients; severe corona can damage the brain; vitamin D helps against corona; sunlight will kill 90% of the virus; the list is endless and if you add to that such important advice like inject disinfectant, it is clear that the simple consumer is going to be confused, scared and will loose any confidence he still had in the system that is supposed to protect him.

Why does the scientific community behave this way? It is understandable (but not without problems either) that pharmaceutical companies that are in the race for the vaccine, will want to report on any real or imaginary progress since billions of dollars are involved in this and no one wants to loose out.

But the scientific world? Is it so important to have your name in the paper or on the news, that you are willing to say a lot while knowing very little? Or to publish something that you know is not ready, not fully investigated and may be completely wrong? Maybe the scientific institutions that employ these scientists are so eager to be mentioned that they are pushing people to lose their scientific integrity?

It is high time they pull their act together and write and say only those things that they can stand behind and have the courage to say: “I don’t know”. Because that still needs to be the answer to most questions regarding this virus and while it may not be pleasant or encouraging to hear, it is way better than the speculations we are being fed today.

Of course on the government side it is also long overdue for them to pull their act together, but that I am afraid is too much to ask for.    

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