Viral particles of SARS-CoV-2, seen under a transmission electron microscope in a sample taken from a person.
Viral particles of SARS-CoV-2, seen under a transmission electron microscope in a sample taken from a person.
Image: C.S. Goldsmith and A. Tamin (CDC)

With new information about the novel coronavirus seemingly arriving every hour on the hour, it’s perfectly understandable to feel confused and discombobulated. With that in mind, here’s a mantra I’ve held close to my hopefully healthy lungs for almost three months now: The things we think we know about covid-19 are going to keep changing, and that’s okay.

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If I had to summarize at least some expert assumptions about the novel coronavirus, known officially as SARS-CoV-2, held between January and early March of this year, this would be my short list:

  • The virus came from a snake.
  • It can’t spread easily from someone without symptoms.
  • Wearing a face mask (if you’re not a health care worker) isn’t very helpful.
  • Young people aren’t likely to be hurt by it.
  • The virus is suspiciously similar to the HIV virus, and may have even come from a lab.
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By now, those ideas are decidedly not in vogue. The early study that linked the virus to a snakeborne origin was quickly criticized by other researchers. Several studies have now made it clear that people who don’t feel sick or aren’t sick yet can spread the virus and may even be the major driver of outbreaks. Given that reality, it’s certainly possible that the widespread wearing of face masks by people in places like Hong Kong helped prevent outbreaks there from spiraling out of control. Meanwhile, in Italy, France, and the U.S., a substantial percentage of serious hospitalized cases involve people between the ages of 20 to 55, and some children have now died from it. And no, HIV and SARS-CoV-2 don’t have anything uniquely in common with each other, and this new virus does not appear to be a bioweapon.

These shifting theories aren’t a failure of science or a grand media conspiracy. Even when a deadly new virus isn’t throwing society into chaos, medical science is a messy, sometimes painfully slow process of finding answers to specific questions, such as, “Will this drug safely treat a headache?” or “Does vaping cause cancer?” Often, the early data ends up being ambiguous. Right now, in the midst of this unprecedented crisis, we’re seeing this process incredibly sped up, as hundreds of research papers on covid-19 are being quickly produced and released to the public, usually before they’ve gone through peer review (of course, even a peer review doesn’t guarantee a paper’s findings are accurate).

Sometimes, an individual study’s conclusion turns out to be wrong. More rarely, many studies supporting that same conclusion turn out to be wrong. Other times, the sentiment might be right, but the messaging is harmful—the problem with people hoarding masks right now, if you live in the U.S. at least, isn’t that they don’t work but that our hospitals and health care workers need them more than the public does.

All this uncertainty is naturally stressful—people want to know how contagious and deadly this virus is, who is most at risk, how it can be treated, and when there will be a vaccine, and they want to know now. When scientists say they aren’t sure about something, people may turn to scammers or other bad actors who claim they do have concrete answers.

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The solution isn’t to dismiss all expert viewpoints or to cherry-pick the data that most suits your own opinions. Rather, you should keep an open mind about any one bit of research, while knowing that what seems to be true now can change as more data comes in. You can also remember that the more studies there are that tell us the same thing, the more likely that thing is to be true.

If nothing else, it’s usually better to err on the side of caution. Can the coronavirus linger in the air and remain infectious for up to a half hour? Maybe, maybe not. But that uncertainty is all the more reason to practice social distancing, as many experts say we must do for the foreseeable future.

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Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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