Investigating COVID articles of faith
Two great stories highlight the role of medical journalism
First, I have an article in The Atlantic this week on the FDA’s new, relaxed policy toward blood donation by gay and bisexual men. I look at the proposal’s justification and data, and conclude that this change is still homophobic.
Twitter has been an important venue for doctors, patients, activists, and citizens to discuss the pandemic. As public interest in COVID has waned, however, online discussion has become more fractured and extreme. Among the most COVID-cautious, it is now accepted internet doctrine that even mild SARS-CoV-2 infections lead to disruption of your immune system. Among conservatives who always doubted the reality of the pandemic and liberals who finally wish to move on, there is a pernicious idea that many or even most official COVID deaths are “fake.”
I’m not convinced that social media is a good place to source your story ideas, but it’s a widespread part of journalistic practice now. (I am as guilty as anyone.) Still, it can lead to some excellent reporting. I want to highlight two thoughtful, nuanced articles on these topics by journalists I admire.
In Slate, Tim Requarth takes on the idea that SARS-CoV-2 is an immune-destroying virus. I think there is also a larger lesson about how easy it is for the public to be misled by small, early laboratory studies. This isn’t the public’s fault. Scholarly publishing incentives lead researchers to consistently write up their reports in an overconfident manner.
In the New York Times, David Wallace-Wells asks why so many people are dying in the US. If the answer susprises you, that’s because too many pundits have been sowing politicized doubt. It’s fine to have sincere political beliefs, but we should keep our mind open to interesting or uncomfortable data points. I am as skeptical as anyone about death classification, overtesting, and overdiagnosis. So I looked into the research hoping to dispute it. But it turns out that it’s quite clear COVID deaths are systematically undercounted. This doesn’t mean a forever pandemic. Policy choices don’t flow naturally from facts. But forcing ourselves to see the dead is the least we can do to honor them.
A few other interesting articles:
“The Internet Loves an Extremophile.” Helen Lewis, The Atlantic.
“Battling bureaucracy.” John Launer, The BMJ.
“Functional disorders: one of medicine’s biggest failures.” Richard Smith, The BMJ.
“Nobody Has My Condition But Me.” Beverly Gage, New Yorker.
“Use of Recalled Devices in New Device Authorizations Under the US Food and Drug Administration’s 510(k) Pathway and Risk of Subsequent Recalls.” Kadakia, et al. JAMA. Many recalled medical devices justified their FDA approval based on older devices that had themselves been recalled.
“COVID-19 Vaccines in Young Children—Reassuring Evidence for Parents.” Paul Offit, JAMA Pediatrics.
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Is it possible to briefly explain how it is that SARS2 deaths are being undercounted? I can understand undercounted deaths from the early portions of the pandemic, but not sure how that might happen now.