As the coronavirus tears across the globe, the world's anxiety is at a fever-pitch, and we're all craving information to stay on top of the crisis.
But turning to the Internet for credible updates isn't as simple as it sounds, since we have an invisible foe spreading as quickly as the virus itself: misinformation. From wild conspiracy theories to baseless rumors, an infodemic is in full swing.
For the latest official information, you should follow the CDC, WHO, and FDA, in addition to your local public health department. But it's also helpful to pay attention to the scientists, doctors, public health experts and journalists who are sharing their perspectives in real time as new developments unfold. Here's a handy guide to get you started:
Dr. Trevor Bedford/@trvrb: Scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center studying viruses, evolution and immunity.
Dr. Benhur Lee/@VirusWhisperer: Professor of microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Dr. Angela Rasmussen/@angie_rasmussen: Virologist and associate research scientist at Columbia University
Dr. Florian Krammer/@florian_krammer: Professor of Microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Dr. Alice Sim/@alicesim: Infectious disease epidemiologist and consultant at the World Health Organization
Dr. Tara C. Smith/@aetiology: Infectious disease specialist and professor at Kent State University
Dr. Caitlin Rivers/@cmyeaton: Epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Dr. Michael Mina/@michaelmina_lab: Physician and Assistant Professor of Epidemiology & Immunology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health
Dr. Nahid Bhadelia/@BhadeliaMD: Infectious diseases physician and the medical director of Special Pathogens Unit at Boston University School of Medicine
Dr. Paul Sax/@PaulSaxMD: Clinical Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital
Dr. Priya Sampathkumar/@PsampathkumarMD: Infectious Disease Specialist at the Mayo Clinic
Dr. Krutika Kuppalli/@KrutikaKuppalli: Medical doctor and Infectious Disease Specialist based in Palo Alto, CA
Dr. Syra Madad/@syramadad: Senior Director, System-wide Special Pathogens Program at New York City Health + Hospitals
Dr Sylvie Briand/@SCBriand: Director of Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases Department at the World Health Organization
Jeremy Konyndyk/@JeremyKonyndyk: Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development
Amesh Adalja/@AmeshAA: Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security
Scott Becker/@scottjbecker: CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories
Dr. Scott Gottlieb/@ScottGottliebMD: Physician, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration
APHA Public Health Nursing/@APHAPHN: Public Health Nursing Section of the American Public Health Association
Dr. Tom Inglesby/@T_Inglesby: Director of the Johns Hopkins SPH Center for Health Security
Dr. Nancy Messonnier/@DrNancyM_CDC: Director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)
Dr. Arthur Caplan/@ArthurCaplan: Professor of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center
Laura Helmuth/@laurahelmuth: Incoming Editor in Chief of Scientific American
Helen Branswell/@HelenBranswell: Infectious disease and public health reporter at STAT
Sharon Begley/@sxbegle: Senior writer at STAT
Carolyn Johnson/@carolynyjohnson: Science reporter at the Washington Post
Amy Maxmen/@amymaxmen: Science writer and senior reporter at Nature
Laurie Garrett/@Laurie_Garrett: Pulitzer-prize winning science journalist, author of The Coming Plague, former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations
Soumya Karlamangla/@skarlamangla: Health writer at the Los Angeles Times
André Picard/@picardonhealth: Health Columnist, The Globe and Mail
Caroline Chen/@CarolineYLChen: Healthcare reporter at ProPublica
Andrew Jacobs/@AndrewJacobsNYT: Science reporter at the New York Times
Meg Tirrell/@megtirrell: Biotech and pharma reporter for CNBC
On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.
The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.
Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.
The Rise and Fall of Public Trust<p>When the polio vaccine was released in 1955, "we were nearing an all-time high point in public trust," says Matt Baum, Harvard Kennedy School professor and lead author of <a href="http://www.kateto.net/covid19/COVID19%20CONSORTIUM%20REPORT%2013%20TRUST%20SEP%202020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>several</u></a> <a href="https://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/COVID19-CONSORTIUM-REPORT-14-MISINFO-SEP-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>reports</u></a> measuring public trust and vaccine confidence. Baum explains that the U.S. was experiencing a post-war boom following the Allied triumph in WWII, a popular Roosevelt presidency, and the rapid innovation that elevated the country to an international superpower.</p><p> The 1950s witnessed the emergence of nuclear technology, a space program, and unprecedented medical breakthroughs, adds Emily Brunson, Texas State University anthropologist and co-chair of the Working Group on Readying Populations for COVID-19 Vaccine. "Antibiotics were a game changer," she states. While before, people got sick with pneumonia for a month, suddenly they had access to pills that accelerated recovery. </p><p>During this period, science seemed to hold all the answers; people embraced the idea that we could "come to know the world with an absolute truth," Brunson explains. Doctors were portrayed as unquestioned gods, so Americans were primed to trust experts who told them the polio vaccine was safe. </p>
The Shift in How We Consume Information<p>In the 1950s, the media created an informational consensus. The fundamental ideas the public consumed about the state of the world were unified. "People argued about the best solutions, but didn't fundamentally disagree on the factual baseline," says Baum. Indeed, the messaging around the polio vaccine was centralized and consistent, led by President Roosevelt's successful <a href="https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ978264.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>March of Dimes crusade</u></a>. People of lower socioeconomic status with limited access to this information were <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1551508/?page=3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>less likely to have confidence</u></a> in the vaccine, but most people consumed <a href="https://www.c-span.org/video/?506891-1/a-special-report-polio" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>media that assured them</u></a> of the vaccine's safety and <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-salk-polio-vaccine-greatest-public-health-experiment-in-history/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized them</u></a> to receive it. </p><p>Today, the information we consume is no longer centralized—in fact, just the opposite. "When you take that away, it's hard for people to know what to trust and what not to trust," Baum explains. We've witnessed an increase in polarization and the technology that makes it easier to give people what they want to hear, reinforcing the human tendencies to vilify the other side and reinforce our preexisting ideas. When information is engineered to further an agenda, each choice and risk calculation made while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-science.html?referringSource=articleShare" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>is deeply politicized</u></a>. </p><p>This polarization maps onto a rise in socioeconomic inequality and economic uncertainty. These factors, associated with a sense of lost control, prime people to embrace misinformation, explains Baum, especially when the situation is difficult to comprehend. "The beauty of conspiratorial thinking is that it provides answers to all these questions," he says. Today's insidious fragmentation of news media accelerates the circulation of mis- and disinformation, reaching more people faster, regardless of veracity or motivation. In the case of vaccines, skepticism around their origin, safety, and motivation is intensified. </p><p>Alongside the rise in polarization, Pinker says "the emotional tone of the news has gone downward since the 1940s, and journalists consider it a professional responsibility to cover the negative." Relentless focus on everything that goes wrong further erodes public trust and paints a picture of the world getting worse. "Life saved is not a news story," says Pinker, but perhaps it should be, he continues. "If people were more aware of how much better life was generally, they might be more receptive to improvements that will continue to make life better. These improvements don't happen by themselves."</p>
The Future Depends on Vaccine Confidence<p>So far, the U.S. has been unable to mitigate the catastrophic effects of the pandemic through social distancing, testing, and contact tracing. President Trump has <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/bob-woodward-rage-book-trump/2020/09/09/0368fe3c-efd2-11ea-b4bc-3a2098fc73d4_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>downplayed the effects and threat of the virus</u></a>, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/14/cdc-directors-trump-politics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>censored experts and scientists</u></a>, <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/06/america-giving-up-on-pandemic/612796/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>given up on containing the spread</u></a>, and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/world/covid-coronavirus.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized his base to protest masks</u></a>. The Trump Administration failed to devise a national plan, so our national plan has defaulted to hoping for the <a href="https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/26/nation-of-miracles-pence-coronavirus-vaccine-rnc-402949" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>"miracle" of a vaccine</u></a>. And they are "something of a miracle," Pinker says, describing vaccines as "the most benevolent invention in the history of our species." In record-breaking time, three vaccines have arrived. But their impact will be weakened unless we achieve mass vaccination. As Brunson notes, "The technology isn't the fix; it's people taking the technology."</p><p> Significant challenges remain, including facilitating widespread access and supporting on-the-ground efforts to allay concerns and build trust with <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/african-american-resistance-to-the-covid-19-vaccine-reflects-a-broader-problem" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>specific populations with historic reasons for distrust</u></a>, says Brunson. Baum predicts continuing delays as well as deaths from other causes that will be linked to the vaccine. </p><p> Still, there's every reason for hope. The new administration "has its eyes wide open to these challenges. These are the kind of problems that are amenable to policy solutions if we have the will," Baum says. He forecasts widespread vaccination by late summer and a bounce back from the economic damage, a "Good News Story" that will bolster vaccine acceptance in the future. And Pinker reminds us that science, medicine, and public health have greatly extended our lives in the last few decades, a trend that can only continue if we're willing to roll up our sleeves. </p>
Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.
Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.
This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.
Biochemist David Baker, pictured in his lab at the University of Washington.