How to Check Sources on Coronavirus Claims

Coronavirus particles (orange) emerging from a cell in culture.

Along with the coronavirus pandemic has come an avalanche of data, facts, news, advice, rumors, and just plain falsehoods. With so much information coming from so many directions, it can be difficult to figure out which is worth paying attention to or passing along to others. But there are a few strategies and numerous resources you can use to help you decide.

Just Because a Friend Posted It Doesn’t Mean It’s True

Anyone with a social media account, or even an email account, has almost certainly read or received a number of posts that refer to a friend of a friend, or a relative of a friend, often stipulated to be a medical professional of some sort, and typically anonymous. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, when there wasn’t much generally available information, much of that was quite helpful.

However, some of it flew in the face of established science, touting quirky theories about how the virus spreads, or numerous homeopathic approaches to help keep you from getting it or reducing its effect. Some of these are a definite gray area. We know so little about COVID-19 that it isn’t impossible that Zinc or vitamin supplements are a good idea — and they’re pretty low-risk. But before following advice that does carry a significant risk or cost, you’ll really want to track down the original source of the claim and whatever data they have to back it up.

While mortality is higher among older people, those of any age can get COVID-19

While mortality is higher among older people, those of any age can get COVID-19. (Credit: WHO)

Medical Studies Aren’t What They Used to Be: Wait Until the Other Shoe Drops

In the rush to get information about COVID-19 out into the hands of doctors, researchers, and the general public, much of the normal care taken in performing and reporting on medical studies has been thrown out the window. The traditional “gold standard” study is one where the subjects are chosen with great deliberation so that the results can be generalized, and then performed carefully so that researchers can get a good estimate of the effect, and any side effects, of the treatment being tested compared with a placebo group. That data is then peer-reviewed, and only if it passes muster is it published.

Even with all those precautions, issues that have been researched for decades, like the effect of fat, or alcohol, or coffee in our diets, still result in plenty of different conclusions from a variety of studies. But now, the literature and the press are filled with hot-off-the-press COVID-19-related “pre-prints,” where researchers throw their conclusions up on the web and into the media mere days after the data has been collected. Headlines from these often spread instantly, are politicized quickly, and only slowly are the cautionary footnotes trotted out. A limited French study on the efficacy of using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 and a Stanford survey estimating COVID-19 prevalence in Santa Clara County were both examples of headlines traveling much faster and farther than caveats.

The obvious lesson in cases like this is to read behind the headlines, see what data was actually gathered, and how it was gathered, and then be patient enough to see what the reaction of other experts, and the results from other studies, are. In the case of hydroxychloroquine, for example, several subsequent studies have unfortunately not found it effective, and have confirmed that it has dangerous side effects — although there are additional studies underway.

Fortunately, Coronavirus Has Also Spawned a Dedicated Fact-Checking Database

Before relying on something you’ve read from a source you can’t verify, it’s worth checking to see if it is a known falsehood. One way to do that is through the Coronavirus Facts database. Traditionally, a lot of us use Snopes, but the misinformation is flying fast and furious in this case, so it helps to have a site that pulls together the best available information from around the world.

A quick search for 'bleach' on the Coronavirus fact checking site showed these false stories floating around the web, among others.

A quick search for ‘bleach’ on the coronavirus fact-checking site showed these false stories floating around the web, among others.

You can filter results by any of the 70 countries in which the organization has fact-checkers, and they look for posts and articles in 40 languages. Of course, clicking through to the actual analysis will give you a much better sense of the details than just looking at the true/false rating for a claim.

Build a Set of Data Sources You Can Rely On

Without getting into the politics of COVID-19, a lot of news sources have a particular “angle” and will be more eager to rush to publish information that fits their world view. In my book, simply reading a headline or sound byte from one of those sites and sharing it might feel good, but isn’t really helpful. What is more helpful is to track down where they got the story, and see if you can track it back to a truly independent and credible source.

To do the above, it helps to have a set of sources that you can mostly rely on (although of course, no source is perfect). We’ve put together a starter list of sites that are worth checking, although we recommend looking at more than one because even these sites have their own shortcomings and bias:

CDC: In the US,  the CDC is considered a near-gold standard for current best practices and overall medical advice. That certainly doesn’t mean they know everything, or that they are always right, but they tend to err on the side of caution. They provide extensive information on protecting yourself, symptoms to watch for, and general suggestions on what to do if you’re sick.

WHO: Globally, it would be great to say the same thing about the WHO. Unfortunately, while the WHO has a lot of really important information about what’s going on in the world’s nearly 200 countries, it didn’t do itself any favors with its early public statements on how China handled the situation. The WHO even maintains a dedicated myth-busters page that debunks some of the odd ideas floating around the web related to COVID-19. If you’ve given up on the WHO, MedicalNewsToday also has a myth debunking article it has been updating.

Johns Hopkins: Best known for its detailed and colorful maps of COVID-19, the main JHU COVID-19 site offers a variety of other useful information about the underlying virus and the pandemic.

IHME: Known for its aggressive, forward-looking model of the hospital resources needed and projected deaths by state, this Research Center located at the University of Washington also offers various other articles and news coverage.

COVID Tracking Project: A volunteer organization launched from The Atlantic, this site collects all the data available from each state. Not a “what to do” site, but the quickest way to get a look at the numbers being reported.

State and County Health Departments: Reporting and updates vary by state and county, but by and large they have done an impressive job of pulling together COVID-19 dashboards and providing updates from county health officers. Because the virus is affecting different parts of the country in radically different ways, sometimes your local health officials are the best ones to rely on for best practices.

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