Fact-Checking Your Coronavirus News Feed

16:57 minutes

a blue paint circle badge with words in white that say "best of 2020"This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

a screen recording of a twitter newsfeed scrolling through stories about the coronavirus
Do your news feed look like this? Taken on March 19, 2020. Credit: Lauren Young/Science Friday

As new cases of coronavirus pop up across the United States, and as millions of people must self-isolate from family and friends at home, one place many are turning to for comfort and information is their news feed. But our regular media diet of politics, sports, and entertainment has been replaced by 24/7 coverage of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly every outlet is covering the pandemic in some way—celebrities live streaming their self-quarantine, restaurants rolling out new health practices and food delivery options, educators and parents finding ways to teach kids at home. There’s an overwhelming number of ways the media has covered the virus. But on top of that, there’s also blatant misinformation about the virus distracting us from the useful facts. It’s all appearing in one big blur on Facebook or Twitter feeds. And it doesn’t help that nearly every few hours we’re getting important, and often urgent, updates to the evolving story.

This week, guest host John Dankosky speaks with two scientists who can help fact-check your news feed. Angela Rasmussen, assistant research scientist and virologist at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunology at the Yale University School of Medicine give us a clearer picture of the coronavirus news this week.

For more fact-checking, we’ve created a handy guide with health safety tips from scientists and health experts we’ve interviewed. They’ve answered your frequently asked questions about hand washing, protective masks, hand sanitizer, vaccine development, and more.

Further Reading

  • A recent study on remdesivir, an antiviral candidate that failed to work on Ebola but had some success with MERS/SARS, recently took headlines. However, researchers question the drug’s success as STAT reports.
  • Researchers recently conducted a study about how long the coronavirus can persist in the air and on surfaces, which appears to be backed with accurate available data. It was published in The New England Journal of Medicine
  • “Herd immunity” is a theory that was in the news in the U.K., and researchers have been questioning the debacle, as reported in The Atlantic. 
  • Find more facts and health practice tips from scientists we’ve interviewed in our coronavirus guide.

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Segment Guests

Angela Rasmussen

Angela Rasmussen is a research scientist at VIDO-InterVac, the University of Saskatchewan’s vaccine research institute in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Akiko Iwasaki

Akiko Iwasaki is a professor of Immunobiology at the Yale Medical School in New Haven, Connecticut.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky.

It is pretty overwhelming right now. All of my social media feeds, all my news alerts, all my casual conversations are all about coronavirus. And they’re all funneling me a constant stream of stories and theories and charts and graphs and speculation. Even right now we’re getting reports that Illinois is about to issue a shelter in place order for the entire state, effective the Saturday.

This is way too much to keep straight. And I’m sure you’re probably experiencing something like this, too, and you’re feeling the information overload, like Laura on Twitter, who said to us, I feel like the real fake news proclamations are giving me whiplash. Is there really evidence to support avoiding ibuprofen with this?

Thanks for tweeting at us, Lauren. We’ll answer that and a few other questions from our listeners this hour. And we want to let you know that over the next few weeks on Science Friday, we’ve talked to a lot of experts about coronavirus. And we’ve compiled all their tips and advice for staying healthy and a handy guide on our website sciencefriday.com/coronavirusfacts. This is a place for answers to some of the questions our listeners have been asking to help you figure out what to trust, what not to trust, and what we don’t know enough about yet.

Well, we’ve invited two experts to talk us through some of these biggest headlines. Akiko Iwasaki is Professor of Immunology at Yale University School of Medicine. Dr. Iwasaki, welcome back to Science Friday. Thanks for joining us.

AKIKO IWASAKI: Thank you for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And Angela Rasmussen is Assistant Research Scientist and Virologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. Welcome, Dr. Rasmussen. Thanks so much for being here.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Thanks for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And again, you can tweet at us @SciFri if you’ve got some questions. And I’ve got so many questions here for our guests.

Dr. Rasmussen, I’ll start with you. As I mentioned in the intro, almost every news outlet is covering coronavirus right now exclusively, even ones that don’t normally cover science or health. What is your general impression about the way the media is covering this pandemic? Are they sensationalizing it? Are they getting most of the stuff right?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: I think that it really depends on who is covering it. There are a number of excellent science journalists who have made a living communicating information about this pandemic as well as other public health crises very effectively in a way that the public can access and understand.

I think the problem comes down to either media outlets that tend to sensationalize news or just don’t have very much experience talking about things like viral infections. Our field of study is filled with jargon. And sometimes some of the facts and charts and figures that come out can be easily misinterpreted. And I think that much of the misinterpretation that has occurred is just the fact that people aren’t accustomed to looking at epidemiological data or biological data or clinical data, and sometimes miscommunications happen.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, and even with all of these studies coming out right now, a lot of them are small. Many of them haven’t been peer reviewed. I mean, how should we judge some of these studies that are coming out, even the ones that seemingly are reputable?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: So that’s one thing that has been both wonderful and difficult about this pandemic. One thing that we have now that we didn’t have, for example, during the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic are these preprint servers. And preprint servers are a great way for scientists to get their manuscripts and their data out to the public prior to undergoing peer review, which can be a lengthy process.

The problem with that is that so many papers are being posted on preprint servers that it’s very difficult to know which of those papers are good quality science and which of them needs some more work or are just generally bad. And there have been several examples of that.

For example, the study that suggested that this coronavirus emerged from snakes was based on a very flawed analysis. But because it was posted on a preprint server, it had the appearance of a legitimate scientific manuscript. And that is one of the troubles of people who are not as experienced with reporting on scientific issues being able to distinguish papers such as that one from other really excellent papers that have come out on preprint servers.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And I know it’s hard to tell, but is there any basic guideline you can give people on what to pay attention to and what not to, because it is so hard to determine.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Well, of course, people should pay attention to the CDC and the WHO. But also, when people are looking through Twitter, for example, or they’re reading articles, look to see who is being interviewed. Look to see what their experience is. You can Google them and find a list of their scientific papers. If you Google me, you can find out that I’ve worked on MERS, Coronavirus, and Ebola, and so forth. You can see that I have an appointment at Columbia University. Therefore, I might be a more trusted source to ask about virology than somebody who has a different area of subject matter expertise.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So let’s walk through some of these studies and news headlines that have come out recently, and some things that have been in the news. Maybe you can help us understand some context.

Dr. Iwasaki, John McDonald on Twitter says, we’re hearing lots of different stories about the virus surviving on surfaces, even in the air. Should I be sanitizing all the mail that arrives in my mailbox? There’s a good question. There was a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that looked at that this week. Could you tell us a bit more about what the study actually showed?

AKIKO IWASAKI: Yes. So there was a very informative study that was published by Vincent Munster’s group at the NIH, where they actually compared the stability of the virus on different surfaces as well as in the air. So they compared the ability of the virus to stay viable, meaning that they’re still infectious. And on stainless steel and plastic, the half life, which means the time that it takes for half the virus just to go away, was about five to six hours, whereas on cardboard, was about 3.5 hours. And copper was less than an hour. And these were done to examine how much of the virus that’s on the surface can stay viable for these time periods.

And one kind of surprising or potentially threatening aspect that they found was that even in the aerosol, these small particles that the viruses can survive in the air, they found about half life of one hour, meaning that the virus can stay in the air suspended for an hour, and half the viruses that are still alive and infectious.

And just to add a little more context to this, the humidity and the temperature of these experiments are critical. So they did these experiments on the surface at 40% relative humidity, whereas the one for the aerosol was done at 65% humidity, which is quite high, especially considering the winter months, which means that these air particles that contain the viruses can stay alive for at least an hour at such a high humidity.

But in our households right now, the humidity of the air is quite low, around 20% relative humidity. So it’s expect that these viral particles that are in the air can survive for even a longer time period than an hour.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I mean, you talk about humidity. As I was driving into New York City today, it was raining. If it’s raining, does that cut down on the possibility that the droplets or the airborne particles are going to stay in the air longer?

AKIKO IWASAKI: That’s correct. So the higher the humidity, less stable these viruses become. And also, they accumulate water droplet on the surface, and they tend to kind of drop down on the surfaces. So the air stability really depends on the amount of humidity in the air.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Dr. Rasmussen, can we take these numbers that we just heard– 24 hours on cardboard, three days on plastic or steel– and is that fact right now? Is that something we should take to the bank?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: So it is and it isn’t. It’s completely dependent on the conditions that those experiments were done in. So as Dr. Iwasaki was just saying, those apply to specific temperature and humidity conditions. What we don’t know right now is how other temperature or humidity conditions would affect those things.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. So let’s move on to another study covered in the news this week about viral shedding. One example headline says, “Coronavirus can live in patients for five weeks after contagion,” suggesting people are still infectious even after they’ve recovered. Dr. Rasmussen, is that true?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: So it’s a very complicated thing to explain to the public that the test does not actually test for infectious virus. It tests for the virus’s genetic material. And so what that means is that those patients who have tested positive repeatedly after recovering from their symptoms have the virus’s genetic material in their cells. But that does not mean that they are producing infectious virus.

So right now, as far as I’m aware, it has not been studied whether those patients are actually shedding infectious virus that could infect another person, be transmitted to other people.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Could you just explain the term shedding just so we understand exactly what it means?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Sure. Shedding is when you, through mucus or saliva or respiratory droplets, are putting out into the environment infectious virus that could be transmitted to another person.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Why do you think public health professionals aren’t testing to see if people are really still infectious or not? I mean, what are the barriers there? Obviously, we’ve found quite a few in the public health realm. But it seems pretty important to know.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: It is very important to know. But unfortunately, those tests take a lot longer. We look for infectious virus in the lab by doing something called a plaque assay or a TCID50 assay. And what that means is we take a sample, we put it on cells in culture, and we wait to see if those cells become infected, produce more virus, and die.

That process usually takes a couple days. It also requires work in a lab that has higher biocontainment standards than most clinical diagnostic laboratories and hospitals. So you need to do that work in a BSL3 lab, where there are specific requirements for personal protective equipment, as well as engineered controls to make sure that the virus stays in the lab where it’s supposed to be and doesn’t infect any of the people working with it.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So as important as that is, I mean, if we’re having trouble with more basic tests, that seems like a test that’s far too complicated and far too complex to be doing at a large scale right now.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Correct. That that’s why those types of tests are not used for clinical diagnostics. The quantitative RT-PCR test that is used is much safer, and it’s much faster and it’s much easier to distribute to a wide variety of clinical laboratories.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Dr. Iwasaki, we saw a lot of news reports covering the UK’s herd immunity strategy for dealing with COVID 19. Some scientists there expressed outrage over that plan. Can you remind us about what herd immunity is and how it’s been used to control viral outbreaks in the past?

AKIKO IWASAKI: Oh, yes. Sure. So herd immunity describes an indirect protection from an infectious disease when sufficient percentage of the people within a community is immune to the pathogen. So imagine if 90% of the people are already immune to a particular virus, even an unimmunized person can become protected because of the virus transmission is halted by the immune population.

So it’s very important to achieve herd immunity to prevent the spread of infectious disease. And this is usually done by vaccination. Even though infectious agents can cause herd immunity, the safest way to achieve herd immunity is through vaccination.

JOHN DANKOSKY: But this strategy that the UK was considering, at least, would be with a live virus, not a vaccine, and that is substantially different, right?

AKIKO IWASAKI: Yeah. I was pretty shocked when I first heard about this strategy because trying to achieve herd immunity using a live and deadly infectious agent, in this case, is a very dangerous proposition because even if you were to quarantine the high risk individual, the so-called low risk individuals who are a more younger population, some of them will become critically ill and end up dying of this disease.

So I think they are kind of modifying this strategy to make sure that people are actually staying home and practicing social distancing.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. We’re fact checking some coronavirus news with Akiko Iwasaki from Yale University School of Medicine and Angela Rasmussen from Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

There another report from the UK this week, a study from Imperial College London. Heather on Twitter says there’s been a lot of debate about this report and reports on this report. What’s true and how much does it matter? The conclusion, basically, Dr. Rasmussen, is we may need to isolate for something like 18 months. Can you give us your take on that?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Yes. So that conclusion is based on not having any interventions at all. If we did nothing and allowed the virus to spread freely throughout the population, then we would have 2.2 million deaths in the United States, according to that study. The caveat is that it’s a model, and it’s using the available data that we have to predict what the outcome would be.

According to that model, the only way to minimize the number of deaths and severe cases in the United States– also deaths that would be caused by overwhelming the hospital system, so severely ill patients that would not necessarily die, but in this case they’re dying because they don’t have access to the type of care, such as ventilators. And we’ve heard a lot about those shortages in the news.

18 months is the time frame in which we would be able to develop a vaccine. And that report suggests that the only way we have now, with what we know now, is to continue doing this social distancing, except a more extreme version with much more limited mobility and travel for the next 18 months, which, personally, I don’t think is actually sustainable for our society or our economy.

One thing that could change that is the development of an effective antiviral. If we had a way to treat patients prior to them becoming severely ill, in particular, that would reduce some of the road on the health care system and the hospital system, and that would change the predictions that that model is making.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So there’s a lot more stories we want to get to. We’re running low on time. So Dr. Iwasaki, I want to ask you, some news outlets are reporting that coronavirus might go away as the temperature warms up. Are we expecting this to be seasonal in some way?

AKIKO IWASAKI: Well, so the other kinds of coronaviruses that usually circulate in humans that cause common cold, they are usually seasonal, and they only occur during the winter months. However, this new COVID 19 virus is just newly emerging, and it’s really hard to predict whether it would also follow this seasonal pattern.

However, our research has shown that raising the humidity to about 40% to 60% will allow the clearance of the virus from the respiratory tract better than if we were at a 20% humidity. So I think there is an intervention that we can do, which is to humidifier homes or offices or hospitals in order to reduce the impact of the disease within the human population.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Very quickly, if this is a seasonal virus, does it come back next year, maybe in a different strain? Is that possible?

AKIKO IWASAKI: Yeah, it’s entirely possible. We’ll have to see what happens next year. But it’s possible.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Oh, my goodness. So much more to talk about. We’ll have to continue this conversation. Akiko Iwasaki is Professor of Immunology at the Yale University School of Medicine. Angela Rasmussen is Assistant Research Scientist and Virologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Katie Feather

Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.

About John Dankosky

John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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