The New York Times on Thursday published an article about the spread of a possible new COVID variant in New York City. After the article was picked up widely by other mainstream media outlets, scientists and public health officials were quick to condemn what they said was the “potentially premature release of unfinished research.”
The Times cited studies from two teams of researchers. One study, posted online Tuesday, was led by a group of researchers at the California Institute of Technology. The other study, which had been obtained by the Times but not yet made public, came from a group of researchers at Columbia University.
Neither study had been peer reviewed, published in a scientific journal or shared with public officials before being published by the Times, according to NBC New York.
CNN, which also received a copy of the Columbia study, ran with the Times’ story that researchers had found a worrying new variant in New York City that was “alarming,” “surging” and might be “more contagious” and cause more “severe disease.”
CNN did admit that the research was in its very early stages, had not been published or peer reviewed and needed “more work.”
“To be quite clear, I think neither of us did anything wrong,” said the author of the article, Apoorva Mandavilli, in a tweet. “It is our job to report and bring information to light. Sometimes that’s at the pace of science, but sometimes not.”
Two different journalists at the NYT wrote about two different variants.
One was a white male, the other was me. Guess who got grief and who didn’t?
— Apoorva Mandavilli (@apoorva_nyc) February 25, 2021
However, scientists and health officials criticized the premature release of unfinished research, arguing that there was no evidence that the new variant has contributed to the case trajectory and that it was not currently a cause for public health concern.
Commenting on the controversy, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., chairman of Children’s Health Defense, said:
“This is yet another example of the New York Time’s double standard and hypocrisy on all things vaccine. The Times regularly bashes me for promoting vaccine ‘misinformation’ even though I religiously cite all of my published posts to published, peer-reviewed sources or government databases. Yet here we have the Times promoting panic by citing an article that is neither peer reviewed nor published and that has none of the indicia of accuracy or credibility.”
When Eric Topol, physician, scientist, professor of molecular medicine and founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute asked on Twitter why academic groups were forwarding “preprints” that are not posted directly to the media without the biomedical community having a chance to review, Nathan Grubaugh, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health responded:
“This wasn’t even a ‘pre-print’ – I was asked to provide comment on someone’s draft manuscript that still had tracked changes and didn’t include the figures. Based on this, the NYT wrote a story. This is an absolute mess.”
This wasn’t even a “pre-print” – I was asked to provide comment on someone’s draft manuscript that still had tracked changes and didn’t include the figures. Based on this, the NYT wrote a story. This is an absolute mess. https://t.co/COG7SS5ROX
— Nathan Grubaugh (@NathanGrubaugh) February 25, 2021
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokesperson, Bill Neidhardt tweeted that it’s great Columbia and others are locking into COVID variants, but “please, please for the love of all that is holy share the data with public health officials before you publicize pre-writes that still have track changes with the NY Times. That’s all.”
It’s great that Columbia and other academics are looking into COVID variants. But please, please for the love of all that is holy share the data with public health officials before you publicize pre-writes that still have track changes with the NY Times. That’s all. https://t.co/XR3QWNewnr
— Bill Neidhardt (@BNeidhardt) February 25, 2021
One of de Blasio’s senior public health advisors, Dr. Jay Varma called the reporting “pathogen porn” that was not helpful to public health. He tweeted a plea to academics to “review high-impact studies with government health departments before marketing it to the media.”
Why are academic groups forwarding “preprints” that are not posted directly to the media without the biomedical community having a chance to review? Isn’t a preprint enough? is this a new pre-pre-print trend? Concerning.
— Eric Topol (@EricTopol) February 25, 2021
Some variants are variants of interest and some variants are a public health concern. “As far as the Columbia report,” Varma said during the mayor’s daily coronavirus briefing, “we need to just consider this a variant of interest — something that is interesting that we need to follow and track.” Varma encouraged New Yorkers to be a “little skeptical” with what they read.
Viruses mutate all the time, including the virus behind COVID-19. Virus mutations, which are random errors that occur when a virus reproduces, appear frequently due to the number of viruses replicating in a short period of time when transmission is extensive, according to Quanta Magazine.
After 15 months of evolution, SARS-CoV-2 has sequenced more than 600,000 times, said Topol citing The Economist. The new variant called B.1.526 first appeared in November but has become the latest addition to a growing number of viral variants that have arisen in the U.S.
Dr. Dave Chokshi, New York’s health commissioner, said there was no evidence to suggest the variant identified in the Columbia report had contributed to case numbers, which have continued to decrease since the holiday spike.
According to NBC New York, when Topol took to Twitter to question why the Times report on a possible “scariant” had been published without biomedical review, author Apoorva Mandavilli said she wanted readers to see both lines of evidence at once and everyone quoted in the article had seen the manuscript and thought it looked legit.
“It [referring to the Columbia study, which also cited pre-publication data from Caltech] should be out soon!”
Two New York Times journalists wrote about viral variants, and only the other journalist had used entirely unpublished data, tweeted Mandavilli. She said he [the other journalist] didn’t get grief because he was a white male, though she thinks neither of them did anything wrong.
Although the preprint by Columbia is now available online, it has not been certified by peer review — a process by which a journal’s editors take advice from various experts who assess the paper and identify weaknesses in its assumptions, methods and conclusions.
According to medRxiv, an online archive and distribution server for complete but unpublished manuscripts (preprints) in the medical, clinical and related health sciences, preprints like the Columbia study should not be relied on to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in news media as established information, as it might contain errors, has not been finalized by the authors and may contain information not endorsed by the scientific or medical community.
Journalists are urged to emphasize the preprint has yet to be evaluated by the medical community and that the information presented may be erroneous.
Though New York City leaders said there is currently no cause for public concern, vaccine makers like Moderna are already examining whether current vaccines are effective against the new variants and are poised to expand production and conduct clinicals trials with modified vaccines, boosters, and combination vaccines.