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ResourcesHuman Research Ethics(COVID-19) Underpromise, overdeliver – Science (Editorial – H. Holden Thorp | March 2020)

Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

(COVID-19) Underpromise, overdeliver – Science (Editorial – H. Holden Thorp | March 2020)


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The majority of crises that most of us have lived through have not looked to science for immediate answers. In many cases, much of the scientific analysis came after the fact—the effects of climate change on extreme weather events; the causes of nuclear accidents; and the virology of outbreaks that were contained such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002–2003 or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012. Now, science is being asked to provide a rapid solution to a problem that is not completely described.

Rather than being just being for the COVID-19 work that is currently very much in the public’s eye at the moment, we suggest this maxim is useful for all media commentary by researchers about their research.

I am worried that science may end up overpromising on what can be delivered in response to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). This isn’t because I think the scientific community has bad intentions or will purposefully overhype anything, but because of what science can report in real time. It is difficult to share progress with adequate caveats about how long things might take or whether they will work at all. The scientific method is a very deliberate process that has been honed over time: Basic research, which describes the problem, is followed by applied research that builds on that understanding. Now, scientists are trying to do both at the same time. This is not just fixing a plane while it’s flying—it’s fixing a plane that’s flying while its blueprints are still being drawn.

On the testing side, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology is allowing folks to know quickly whether they are infected with SARS coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the cause of COVID-19. However, a negative PCR test result may lead a person to erroneously conclude that they’re in the clear, which is a danger to controlling the spread. We urgently need serology tests that show whether someone has had the infection and recovered. And we must be able to identify individuals who have some immunity to SARS-CoV-2 because understanding their biology may contribute to helping the world recover.

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