The appearance of Omicron as the newest variant of COVID-19 is likely to further increase the divide in an already polarized country and will drive anti-vaxxers even further into their corners. This will delay the recovery from this pandemic. To overcome the ongoing fear and hesitancy, the public needs a deeper understanding of the nature and structure of scientific knowledge and the process by which it is developed.
What made COVID-19 so lethal before the vaccines was that it was a novel coronavirus, which means humans had never developed an immune response to fight COVID-19. Fortunately, vaccines help humans overcome this novelty barrier by providing vaccinated individuals with antibodies against COVID-19. Although Omicron seems to be more contagious than Delta, we have yet to find out the lethality caused by Omicron. In general, a virus that aims to infect the highest number of individuals needs to do so at the expense of being less lethal. Will Omicron cause the perfect storm of a very lethal and very contagious virus all in one? Although it is too early to tell, that probably is less likely, given that for vaccinated individuals, COVID-19 is not a novel coronavirus anymore.
Because scientific information is ever-changing, at times it seems to be misleading. We live in a society that expects immediate information, especially as it currently relates to COVID-19. Science typically works under a different timeline, but the pandemic has altered this timeline. Because of the global devastation of COVID-19, the desire for immediate information is understandable as people want to be empowered to make decisions about their health. For this reason, scientific information regarding COVID-19 is being disseminated at a pace never experienced by the scientific community.
Perhaps the most confusing aspect of following the daily science behind COVID-19 are the seemingly contradictory findings that are regularly published. For the general public, this might appear to be specific to COVID-19, but this is just part of how science works. The different possibilities in biology are vast, and contradictory results from different studies are a common denominator whether the topic is a viral infection or climate change. Early in my career, I attended a conference where two well-respected scientists presented their findings one after the other. To my surprise as an early scientist-in-training, the scientists presented data that contradicted each other’s conclusions. Was one of them lying or trying to deceive us? Did one of them do the experiments wrong? Years later, the field realized that both scientists were correct but under different circumstances. Discrepancy in results arise as part of the scientific endeavor because biological events may respond differently in different organisms under different circumstances. A similar effect takes place when looking at the science behind COVID-19.
When independent and individual scientists explore different scientific directions, it benefits research. Once the scientific community accepts certain principles as the most likely explanation for a biological phenomenon based on data gathered, it tends to move collectively in a particular direction. After several laboratories around the world start to reproduce and expand on previous findings by performing rigorous, well-controlled experiments, the scientific community starts to embrace those findings and starts to feel comfortable presenting more sound conclusions and recommendations. This process is normally a lengthy endeavor that takes place over several years. Due to the urgent nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists don’t have the luxury of time. This has resulted in a myriad of results or recommendations that seem to contradict each other. However, these recommendations should be considered within the context of current knowledge and available resources that will continue to evolve as more information is obtained.
Fortunately, in science we are definitely standing on the shoulders of giants, and previous knowledge feeds current hypotheses and future scientific knowledge. It is this prior knowledge that has allowed for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine based on over 20 years of research. This year, the Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award (also known as America’s Nobel Prize) was given to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for work that started in the 70s following the discovery of messenger RNA (mRNA) in the 60s. They discovered how to instruct cells to produce a desired protein without affecting the genome. This technology was used in the development of mRNA vaccines. Thus, even though science takes long to reach a consensus, science continuously generates useful knowledge that at a given time can generate groundbreaking findings that are capable of benefitting society at large.
Therefore, science is not lying to us; science is telling us what it knows at a given moment based on current and previous knowledge. Current scientific findings are part of a compendium that also encompasses what has been previously discovered. Moreover, we are fortunate as a society that when it comes down to the critical scientific knowledge needed to deal with the pandemic, science has delivered to us an important tool to combat the devastation caused by COVID-19 in many fronts.
Dr. Juan Pablo de Rivero Vaccari is a Research Associate Professor of Neurosurgery at The University of Miami and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.