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Shoddy Coronavirus Studies Are Going Viral And Stoking Panic


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Scientists are rapidly posting findings about the new coronavirus outbreak online, accelerating the speed of scientific discoveries -- and of misinformation. From a report: Last Friday morning, after a week in which the coronavirus outbreak had been declared a global public health emergency, a group of scientists from India posted a paper online. A handful of genetic sequences in the new coronavirus matched those found in HIV, they reported, suggesting that this "uncanny similarity" meant the two diseases were linked. A scientist in India blasted out the provocative finding to his more than 200,000 Twitter followers: "They hint at the possibility that this Chinese virus was designed ['not fortuitous']. Scary if true." A Harvard researcher with tens of thousands of followers called it "very intriguing." The official-looking, highly technical paper whipped dozens of onlookers into a frenzy, declaring on Twitter and at least one blog that it showed the virus was "man-made" and "not natural" and "prob. not random." But that day and throughout the weekend, an army of scientists also tore apart its claims and pointed out there was no proof the matches were anything but a meaningless coincidence. For the second time in as many weeks, a segment of social media was tfreaking out over a coronavirus study that hadn't been reviewed by experts or published in a journal. It was a "preprint," or a preliminary draft, published on BioRxiv (pronounced "bio-archive"), a free repository that hosts thousands of unvetted papers about the biological sciences. Preprint servers bypass the long, arduous timelines of traditional, peer-reviewed scientific publishing, and can lead to lightning-speed information sharing during outbreaks like this one. But the coronavirus is also bringing to light the pitfalls of this new system for the first time, as everyone from bad actors to naive ones grasp for new information in a panic-driven climate. The "uncanny" paper was withdrawn by its authors on Sunday, putting an end to an undeniably messy situation that spread misinformation about a little-understood virus that has so far sickened upward of 20,600 people and killed more than 420, the vast majority near the outbreak's epicenter in Wuhan, China.

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