Takeaways of this article: The media has misrepresented the findings and efficacy of medications experimentally used to treat COVID-19. Researchers and the media must temper the message for the public by contextualizing results.
- Policymakers, patients, clinicians, and the public are eager for information on COVID-19. Simultaneously, study findings (preprints, news articles, journal articles) on the prognosis, treatment, and diagnosis of COVID-19 are being rapidly released.
- Study findings are often miscommunicated to the public by:
- Focus on a single study without couching the results in other scientific literature
- Overemphasis of results, specifically relative effects, without mentioning limitations
- Communications of incomplete reports of studies, and/or of studies that are not peer-reviewed
- Communications of studies of Remdesivir, dexamethasone, and hydroxychloroquine demonstrate some of these issues
- Media releases from the manufacturer of Remdesivir and the NIH suggests it yields clinical improvement. However, studies of Remdesivir had issues like small sample size, no placebo group, lack of causality, or overstating positive results.
- The WHO and New York Times reported that dexamethasone was a lifesaving drug, yet these statements were based on a university news release about a single study.
- An unblinded trial reported that 14 of 20 hydroxychloroquine-treated patients vs 2 of 16 control patients tested negative for COVID-19 on day 6 of treatment. The US president promoted use of the drug. At that time, other studies did not support efficacy. A subsequent observational study of 2541 reported the medication was associated with lower mortality. While the authors of that study spoke cautiously, the media did not share the same message.
- Recommendations to News Reports:
- Reports of single studies should be factual, report main outcomes and absolute risks, include patient population, and highlight limitations. They should include the caveat that single studies are rarely conclusive.
- Include opinions from experts in the field and compare the findings to similar studies.
- Share complexities, such as how treatment is different based on disease severity.
Saitz R, Schwitzer G. Communicating Science in the Time of a Pandemic. JAMA. Published online July 13, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.12535