OPINION: Over the past decade I’ve tried to balance scientific research with getting out of the university “ivory tower” and engaging with people about that research. All my experiments are funded by the public, either through their taxes or donations to my lab. That means people have a right to know what I do with their money.
But I also believe that an important part of my job as a university professor is to translate scientific studies or explain important events worldwide that relate to my specialist area – infectious diseases. I’ve played this role several times: When Germany experienced the world’s worst outbreak of E coli food-poisoning back in 2011; the Fonterra botulism scare; the West African Ebola outbreak; and Zika virus.
And now Covid-19. In mid-January when journalists started asking me about a mysterious virus, I looked for any information I could find. There wasn’t much. All we knew was that the Chinese had alerted the WHO of an unknown virus causing an unusual pneumonia in Wuhan. There were no reports of healthcare workers getting sick, which would have been a worrying sign.
Within weeks, it was clear the virus was more serious than anyone first thought, although there were still huge amounts unknown. By the end of January I was urging New Zealander’s not to panic but to think about postponing travel, to isolate themselves if they felt unwell, to wash their hands frequently, and to practice good sneeze and cough hygiene.
By the end of February, I was asking people to stay calm and prepare themselves for the arrival of Covid-19 here. That meant understanding how to minimise the chances of getting infected or infecting others. I suggested businesses think about how their staff could work remotely if possible. In early March, I released a Pandemic Preparedness Plan that anyone could adapt to fit their families and workplaces.
With this pandemic, everyone is learning what all scientists know – there are always gaps in our knowledge. Sometimes that’s because the experiments needed to answer our questions are almost impossible to do. But in this case, it’s because the world is tackling a virus and disease we’ve never encountered before. And we are doing that on the back of decades of underfunding of infectious diseases research, both locally and globally.
Now researchers around the world are trying to fill in as many of those gaps as they can. The results of their studies are appearing online in their thousands at a speed never seen before. Some of those papers describe really well thought out experiments or analysis of available data. Others are what can only be described as bad science.
It’s been my job, and the job of many others – clinicians, epidemiologists, public health experts, microbiologists, mathematicians – to understand and evaluate these papers. To make judgements and recommendations based on our values and the evidence at hand. And one of our most important jobs? To be prepared to change our minds as new evidence comes in.
Dr Siouxsie Wiles MNZM is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland and a Deputy Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence.