Coronavirus Science Is Not Binary


Why reducing pandemic research and response to yes-or-no outcomes is harming public health.

At some point in the near future, one of the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) vaccine candidates will break from the pack, achieve US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorization, and become available to the public.

That much is as certain as the reality that such an event will be riddled with debate on the merit and validity of vaccines themselves.

Such arguments have come to engross every major practice, protocol, advisory, drug, or development to come into play during this pandemic—the arguments where one entire opinion must be right, and another must be wrong.

And the issue with these debates is that science is not resolved by ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers; everything falls onto a spectrum in preventive and public health, and swinging to either polar opposite end can negate the best outcome.

In the next segment of an interview with Contagion®, Angela Rasmussen, PhD, a virologist with Columbia Public Health, discussed the “false dichotomies” that have come to characterize the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Rasmussen noted, most elements of medicine and science—vaccines included—are not categorical or binary. They exist in a continuum. Risk reduction, as it pertains to individual COVID-19 infection and potential spread, is on a spectrum.

“It really is important, especially with vaccines, to understand that even partial protections—that’s like the flu shot—that’s a public health benefit,” Rasmussen said.

That said, she concedes fault for this great issue falls partly on sciences, who are prone to poor communication and limited translation of their work to non-experts.

Along the way, Rasmussen also gave context to the learning process that researchers themselves undergo with newly uncovered infections including SARS-CoV-2, as well as how mainstream news reporting of published research has vaunted public perception of the academic process.

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