The need for impartial and independent information
I’ll start with a disclosure - I am an academic, researcher and a water engineer working for a non-profit research institute, by no means an infectious diseases expert.
If you are anything like me, you have also been waking up every morning for the last couple of weeks and searching for the latest news on the Internet on the spread of coronavirus. This also includes checking various social media feeds for yet another piece of information that may shed some light on the nature of the outbreak and how to behave to avoid the increased risk of getting infected.
Like most of you, I have my personal reasons for being a bit anxious about the situation: my wife is asthmatic and we both have elderly mothers living on their own away from us in two different countries (the United Kingdom and Serbia), while we live in the Netherlands.
However, news outlets and social media feeds are all filled with conflicting information about the outbreak and the necessary steps to minimize the virus’s spread. With mixed messages, people’s trust is undermined and they tend to fall back into their stereotypical beliefs, often leading to panic or denial. Where do we look then for impartial, independent and fact-based information?
Why competence is not enough
The simple answer is – look for independent scientific advice coming from scientists based at public, not-for-profit institutions who don’t have vested interest in pushing their own agenda, product or service.
How do you recognise whether somebody has a vested interest in promoting only a particular view or a side? My advice is to do a bit of detective work and identify those institutions with proven competence and ethical behaviour.
Competence – being good at what you do – is important but on its own is not enough to earn our trust. What is also essential is a strong record of doing the right thing, working to improve society and providing sound advice in times of crisis.
In other words, those institutions and individuals that have a history of using proven scientific analyses, publish their results in high-quality scientific and professional journals, put their knowledge at the service of wider society and engage with the media and policymakers.
Providing sound advice in times of crisis
Call me a sceptic but while I firmly believe in a market-oriented economy, you’ll forgive me if I do not fully trust the for-profit sector to provide public-service advice in times of crisis.
I’ve been taught to exercise caution by the experience of the global financial crisis in 2008 caused by the very banking industry itself running out of control, by tobacco companies developing elaborate strategies over many decades to deny the harmful effects of smoking and by the evidence of the fossil fuel industry funding campaigns aimed at delaying action on climate change.
As a counter example, one can take heart from the recent story of the 3D-printer company in Italy that has designed and printed 100 life-saving respirator valves in 24 hours for a hospital that had run out of them, or from the news that distilleries in the US are making hand sanitizer with their in-house alcohol and giving it out for free to combat coronavirus.
Sewage surveillance of the new coronavirus
An example that comes to mind is the city of Flint (Michigan, USA). The loss of trust in public service led to KWR Water Research Institute, as an independent organisation, being involved in the investigation whether the 2014-2015 epidemic of Legionnaires’ disease was linked to the public water supply of Flint.
The findings of the independent research study were then communicated publicly including in a recent peer-reviewed open access science article.
At this very moment of course, my colleagues and I also look if we could do something to help control the spread of the virus. Having expertise on viruses in sewage and on wastewater-based surveillance of drugs, we thought to put these two together: sewage surveillance of the new coronavirus. This could create an image of the circulation of the virus in the community and complement the testing that the health authorities are doing. Many people have mild symptoms and are not tested, so we only see the tip of the iceberg.
Therefore, we have taken the initiative to launch sewage surveillance to get a better handle on the presence of the virus in our communities. We are working with water authorities and wastewater treatment operators to collect samples of wastewater at eight cities and process and test them in our lab for SARS-CoV-2.
That requires development of appropriate methods and controls ‘on-the-fly’. We are processing the samples as I write this, so too early to tell, but in any case, there is some way we may contribute.
With similar situations, such as climate change, ‘forever chemicals’ in our environment or the current coronavirus outbreak, we need to know who to trust as a go-to source of information to help us make important personal and societal decisions.
My suggestion is to do your own research into competence, ethics, motivation and history of those offering their advice in these challenging times and stay safe!
Professor of Hydroinformatics
University of Exeter
Chief Executive Officer
KWR Water Research Institute