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The science says what?

The frustrating pendulum of COVID-19 pronouncements

A physician interviews a COVID-19 patient last month in Gallup, N.M. Associated Press/Photo by Morgan Lee

The science says what?

Riding the ups and downs of conflicting scientific studies and expert advice about the coronavirus pandemic can leave anyone with a bad case of motion sickness. Within the past week, contradictory information surfaced about the treatment and the transmission of COVID-19.

On Monday, a World Health Organization epidemiologist told reporters at a news conference that people who test positive for the disease but experience no symptoms rarely infect another person. Detailed contact tracing in numerous countries found no such transmission, according to Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove. Fears about asymptomatic transmission led to many of the social distancing and face mask rules around the world, but Van Kerkhove’s statement seemed to indicate those measures might not have been necessary.

A study published on June 3 in the Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed data from 16 groups of COVID-19 patients worldwide and determined that 30 to 45 percent of all cases were traced to people who do not show any symptoms.

Appalled scientists pointed out the contradiction almost immediately.

“Communicating preliminary data about key aspects of the coronavirus without much context can have tremendous negative impact on how the public and policymakers respond to the pandemic,” scientists at the Harvard Global Health Institute said in a statement released on Tuesday.

Van Kerkhove backtracked the same day. She called the discrepancy a misunderstanding, noting she based the assertion on two or three studies and that the estimates came mostly from models, which are not always accurate.

The confusion extends to COVID-19 treatments, as well, particularly regarding the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine. Shortly after the coronavirus started spreading in the United States, anecdotal evidence surfaced suggesting that the drug could be a cost-efficient, readily accessible treatment. Physicians such as Vladimir Zelenko, a general practitioner in New York, began to report promising results in patients. He told Reuters that, as of April 6, the drug helped to lessen the severity of the illness in 200 of his patients, none of whom required hospitalization. Stories like that one spurred doctors to prescribe and patients to request hydroxychloroquine.

But anecdotal evidence needs rigorous scientific study on a drug’s safety and effectiveness to back it up. So numerous researchers began to test hydroxychloroquine. A study published on May 22 in The Lancet indicated the medication not only did not help hospitalized patients but also gave them a nearly 24 percent higher risk of death due to irregular heart rhythms. Within days, experts in the United States and Europe abruptly halted numerous hydroxychloroquine studies, and the WHO paused recruitment for its trials.

Many experts thought halting the research so quickly was an overreaction.

“This is a drug that has been used for decades,” noted Miguel Hernán, a Harvard epidemiologist and researcher in an ongoing trial of hydroxychloroquine in Spain and Latin America. “It’s not like we know nothing about its safety.”

The Lancet study, which used hospital records gathered by a little-known data analytics company, Surgisphere, came under rigorous scientific scrutiny. More than 100 scientists and other experts raised concerns about the researchers’ methods and the legitimacy of Surgisphere and the data it reported. The number of patients involved in the study, their demographics, and the doses prescribed seemed impossible, said Nicholas White, a malaria researcher at Mahidol University in Bangkok: “It began to stretch and stretch and stretch credulity.” The Lancet retracted the study last week.

The use of hydroxychloroquine also got tangled up in politics after President Donald Trump promoted it as a COVID-19 treatment and later said he was taking it as a preventive measure. Before the retraction, former Vice President Joe Biden cited The Lancet’s hydroxychloroquine studies to criticize Trump.

“This is absolutely irresponsible,” the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said on a Yahoo News virtual town hall. “Look at the studies that have been done. It does much more harm than good.”

The WHO announced on June 3 it would resume its study of hydroxychloroquine. But researchers question whether they can recruit enough patients to restart the studies now that headlines have convinced many people that the drug is toxic.

“The problem is, we are left with all the damage that has been done,” White told Science Magazine.

Some studies proceeded despite the controversy. The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute chose to press on after its safety monitoring board reviewed data and found no issues, said Matthew Semler, a critical care physician at Vanderbilt University and a co-researcher of the study.

In the crossfire of political opponents and the dizzying back-and-forth of scientific studies, how can the average person know how to respond to the pandemic? The best option at this point is to pray for guidance, then take sensible precautions and follow the recommendations of a trusted physician who knows your health history.

A nurse prepares to check on a COVID-19 patient in Lakin, Kan.

A nurse prepares to check on a COVID-19 patient in Lakin, Kan. Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Riedel (file)

Side effects

A recent study uncovered possible links between COVID-19 and strokes. The researchers compiled data from four New York City medical centers and found indications the coronavirus may cause strokes in younger patients without preexisting risk factors.

A stroke occurs when something like a blood clot hinders the flow of blood to the brain, and some patients with COVID-19 have exhibited an increased tendency to develop blood clots. This new study, along with other research in Europe and China, also found stroke patients received delayed treatment more often during the pandemic compared to the same period last year, and there were fewer hospitalizations for strokes. That means people are at higher risk for strokes but less likely to seek care for them, potentially leading to more deaths.

“Some of these patients were in professions putting them at higher risks like law enforcement or healthcare workers,” said Ambooj Tiwari, a New York neurologist who focuses on vascular and interventional neurology.

He worked on a study of strokes in 10 coronavirus patients in several New York hospitals, at least three of whom were under the age of 50. He said the strokes are another aftershock of COVID-19 and may contribute to increased risk of death or disability. —Emmanuel Nwachukwu

A nurse prepares to check on a COVID-19 patient in Lakin, Kan.

A nurse prepares to check on a COVID-19 patient in Lakin, Kan. Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Riedel (file)

Bots gone bad

Automated computer programs, often referred to as “bots,” accounted for about 37 percent of internet traffic in 2019, according to Imperva. The cybersecurity company in April released its seventh annual Bad Bot Report, which found that malicious bots represent about 24 percent of such activity. That’s an 18 percent increase from 2018 and the highest percentage since Imperva started tracking the data.

Corporations use bots to extract information, monitor websites, and move website data to mobile applications. But hackers and those trying to defraud others can use them to spread misinformation, impersonate legitimate users, and gain unauthorized access to data.

Bad bots serve as forerunners for hackers, paving the way for a breach. Small businesses are especially vulnerable due to limited technological resources. Verizon reports that 28 percent of breaches target small businesses.

The malicious programs can infiltrate church websites, as well. Matt Morrison, founder of a company that creates and maintains church sites, said in a YouTube interview that a pastor once asked him to create a new website right away because hackers had linked the current one to a lewd site.

Morrison said the problem happens often not only because of bad bots, but also because open source software such as WordPress, which is popular among organizations with a tight budget, makes websites more vulnerable. —Seth Johnson

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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