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Inspiring seminar series: How can science combat SARS-CoV-2/Covid-19 misinformation?

How should scientists deal with the flood of information, but also with deliberately spread false reports? How can researchers keep their own knowledge and that of their fellow citizens up to date and correct in a committed and informed manner? A seminar series of the CPC Research School "Lung Biology and Disease" and the Research Training Group "Targets in Toxicology" (GRK 2338) during the winter semester 2020/21 was dedicated to this topical question.

© HMGU; Zeynep Ertüz and Ayse Yazgili

 

The initiator of the seminar series PD Dr. Claudia Staab-Weijnitz already made it clear in the announcement: "As researchers, it is our task to inform ourselves on the basis of reliable sources and to form a substantial counterweight to the countless contributions of dubious "experts", conspiracy theorists and extremists. We must not only become ambassadors of good coronavirus science, but also become ambassadors of the scientific process.”  In the context of a rapidly changing pandemic situation, where new findings, results, data and facts, but at the same time misconceptions and fake news emerge daily, this becomes an exceptionally challenging task. So how do scientists achieve this and how can we train early-career investigators to tackle this challenge?

 

For this purpose, PD Dr. Claudia Staab-Weijnitz, Prof. Matthias Wjst and Prof. Silke Meiners set up and facilitated a seminar series over eleven meetings that contained

  • (1) Informative lectures on the extent of the current infodemic (Staab-Weijnitz), the scientific method (Wjst), and basics of epidemiology (Wjst)
  • (2) Lectures by Ph.D. candidates from the CPC Research School and the Research Training Group GRK 2338 on current questions dealing with SARS-CoV2/Covid-19. Here, topics ranged from the origin of the virus, risk factors and disease manifestations for Covid-19 to current strategies for prevention and treatment. 
  • (3) Lectures by two expert guest speakers on the clinical situation (Dr. Thomas Voshaar) and areogenic spread of the virus (Dr. Gerhard Scheuch).

To start with, the participants discussed how to evaluate information sources, how to recognise their credibility, where to find reliable information, and what limitations there are, using youtube videos, and social media posts as examples. As a central part of the seminar series, Ph.D. candidates, in groups of two to three, were given the opportunity to directly apply that knowledge to controversial key issues of the pandemic with a focus on Covid-19-relevant pulmonary research, virology and immunology. Supported by the seminar’s facilitators, their task was to extract the relevant information on a certain topic from the peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed literature and present their key findings in a 45 min presentation followed by a discussion. In addition, they were asked to prepare a social media slide featuring their main messages for communication and dissemination via social media.

Both guest speakers are recognized experts and have received considerable media attention in and beyond Germany during the pandemic. Dr. Thomas Voshaar, head physician of the lung clinic at Bethanien Hospital in Moers, reported from the clinician's point of view on Covid-19 symptoms, the changing treatment methods and the associated complications. His provocative core statement: "Early mechanical ventilation is the biggest mistake in the fight against Corona". The second guest speaker was aerosol physicist Gerhard Scheuch, who had studied the aerogenic spread of SARS-CoV-2 viruses and addressed the recommendations for face masks derived from this. Both lectures resulted in much interactive discussion and were clear highlights of the seminar series.

Each lecture was started by a much appreciated summary on the latest “Corona news”, carefully compiled by Prof. Matthias Wjst. In the final wrap-up seminar given by all three facilitators, the impact of the social media slides were discussed, a poll for the best social media slide conducted, and the slide by Ph.D. candidates Zeynep Ertüz and Ayse Yazgili was selected as winning post. Congratulations to the two ambassadors for science who successfully illustrated currently pursued strategies in the combat of Covid-19! (see picture). Prof. Silke Meiners concluded with one of the key messages of the seminar series: “Good scientific communication involves trust, expert knowledge and careful wording that simplifies but does not tell anything wrong​”. Clearly a challenge, but – and the SARS-CoV2 pandemic has made this painfully clear - one of our most important tasks as scientists. All participants of the seminar series agreed: More of such inspiring events are welcome.