How to recognize credible information on COVID-19
By Angela S. Moss, Ph.D
As a microbiologist and professor, I have suddenly become the person my close friends and family go to for answers regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. As much as I enjoy fielding their questions and being able to (finally!) talk science with loved ones as well as colleagues, I have to remind them, and myself, that I am not an expert in all things COVID-19.
The complexity of this pandemic is so far reaching that no one could conceivably know everything there is to know about SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), how to stop it, how to protect our families, and how long it will be before we see ourselves going back to a more normal way of life. This is why, when seeking out advice or answers to our questions, we must look to credible sources for information – but where do we go, and who are we to trust?
We can start with the scientists and physicians specializing in fields relevant to this pandemic. Such individuals include (but are not limited to) epidemiologists, virologists, infectious disease specialists, public health specialists, biostatisticians, and phylogeneticists. Luckily, social media platforms like Twitter make access to these scientists easier than ever and many of them are happy to provide followers with easy-to-understand threads written in mostly laymen’s terms. Some of my favorite Twitter-official accounts include:
Dr. Natalie Dean is a biostatistician and professor at University of Florida. She specializes in emerging infectious disease and vaccine design. She weighs in on articles published in the mainstream media as well as papers published for peer-review.
Dr. Tom Inglesby is the director of the Center for Public Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. His area of expertise is public health preparedness, pandemics, infectious disease, biological threats, and biosecurity.
Dr. Ian Mackay is a virologist and professor at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is meticulous when it comes to reporting only factual information from reputable sources.
Dr. Angela Rasmussen is a virologist and research scientist at the Center of Infection and Immunity at Columbia University School of Public Health. She tweets on a wide range of topics pertaining to public health. I have seen her interviewed on multiple media outlets concerning COVID-19.
If social media isn’t your thing and you prefer to see a neatly written article in the style of the popular press, you may want to look to the COVID-19 news and opinions sections of Nature (Nature Research) or Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science). Both are multidisciplinary science journals and widely regarded as being among the world’s top academic journals. In addition to publishing highly technical, peer-reviewed research, both journals also publish news articles and commentaries that are geared toward scientists in a wide range of fields as well as the science-minded public.
Finally, if you are educated in the field of science, or just find that you really enjoy highly
technical research papers, I encourage you to look to the peer-reviewed literature. The peer review process is an essential tool used by the editorial boards of journals to determine the quality of a manuscript submitted for consideration. During this process, scientists in the relevant field will examine the manuscript and the scientific methods used to decide if the body of research is valid, original, and appropriate for the scope of the journal. High-impact journals that are regularly publishing good-quality COVID-19 papers include The Lancet, Cell, The New England Journal of Medicine, the aforementioned Nature and Science, and the COVID-19 Research Registry curated by the American Society for Microbiology.
I would also like to mention that anything you might come across regarding COVID-19 and the virus that causes it (SARS-CoV-2) should be viewed carefully and with consideration before you decide to pass it along. Take the time to evaluate the source and consider the claims presented. If the source is reputable (i.e., you were able to trace it to a peer-reviewed journal website, it was written by an established specialist in that field or a veteran science writer for a credible press organization) and the majority of the scientific community is in agreement, it is likely to be accurate information. Fact-checking websites like the Mythbusters page for the WHO and the COVID-19 Verification Hub curated by AFP are good places to start for debunking memes and forwards you receive through social media. Another useful tool is the Canadian Government-funded COVID19MisInfo.org Portal. This portal is a part of a larger two-year research initiative with the purpose of addressing and correcting coronavirus misinformation.
This is a scary and uncertain time. A virus, one-tenth the size of the average bacterium, and not even considered to be a living organism, has successfully caused world-wide economic distress and widespread closures ranging from offices to amusement parks to schools. It has given us all a very different way of going about our daily lives, at least for the time being. However, I find it somewhat comforting to know that there are thousands of scientists coming together and working around the clock to find safe and effective strategies to end this pandemic. I believe every one of us has a role to play, and we can start by arming ourselves with credible information and halting the spread of the infodemic.