13.04.2020 change 13.04.2020
Marek Matacz
Marek Matacz

SARS-CoV-2 Research Wave Flooding the World

Laboratory in Nicosia (Cyprus) April 3, 2020. Credit: PAP/EPA / KATIA CHRISTODOULOU Laboratory in Nicosia (Cyprus) April 3, 2020. Credit: PAP/EPA / KATIA CHRISTODOULOU

On average, every 9 minutes there is a new publication about the new coronavirus. Professor Piotr Tryjanowski from the Poznań University of Life Sciences talks about the importance of science and medicine and how specialists are dealing with the flood of data. The professor's research interests include zoonoses and tropical animals.

Science in Poland: How much do scientists already know about SARS-CoV-2? Has the time since the beginning of the epidemic been sufficient to understand the virus? Is it not the case that a lot of information is contradictory and sometimes even specialists find it difficult to navigate it?

Professor Piotr Tryjanowski from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Poznań University of Life Sciences: We know a lot, probably nobody expected such dynamics of research. The flow of new papers is amazing. The well-known database of medical articles published by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) PubMed indexes papers on coronaviruses on a specially dedicated site LitCovid. The traffic there is simply unprecedented and larger from week to week. I will give the most recent example: in the first 6 days of April 6, 985 papers on the topic of interest to us were published. This means that on average there is a new paper every 9 minutes! How to critically evaluate it? I really don't know. Specialists can't keep up, reviews are brief, and journalists looking for sensation appear to often read only the title and one-sentence summary.

SiP: Which areas of virus research give rise to the most controversy?

P.T.: There are basically no uncontroversial issues, everything is happening very quickly. But I would point to two things: firstly, the emergence of the virus - where comes from and how people got infected with it. Secondly, the actual mortality it causes depending on the diversity of the population (sex, age, health status). I suspect that over time there will be arguments about which of the pandemic fight models is most effective. Finally, I expect a flood of papers on the topic 'what comes next'. Researchers will use their imaginations, and the world will say: call. I hope that it will happen soon.

SiP: Where do these contradictions come from? Is this the typical result of a lot of information? Probably not only due to research errors...

P.T.: Both, and there is also the time factor. There are beautiful declarations of international cooperation and solidarity, but probably every team really wants to make a groundbreaking discovery. And if you hurry, errors will happen. The procedure of restrictive reviews has been practically limited and many researchers deposit papers in the so-called reprint databases before they formally publish them in prestigious journals. Later, the published papers no longer have such an optimistic language, and the conclusions drawn from the research are less clear-cut. Journal reviewers are (and should be!) simply much more critical than authors. The Bible says 'first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye'; that also works well in science.

SiP:But certainly the more data, the better? This avoids erroneous conclusions.

P.T.: Yes, to some extent. But at some point chaos arises and it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. After all, it's not just about the amount of data, but about good quality data. We have a really serious problem with this. We also need to be patient and wait for someone who finally prepares a review work, performs a formal meta-analysis, weighs various arguments and shows where the obvious deficiencies are. This stage of reflection has not yet taken place.

SiP: To what extent this huge amount of data and discrepancies are unusual, and to what extent it this the general situation in the world, unrelated to the epidemic? What is the situation in other areas?

P.T.: In fact, every dynamically developing corner of science involves discrepancies and struggles of various positions. The difference, however, is that the enormity of papers written on virtually every other topic is a matter of several, at least a few years, and not just a few weeks. A longer period, on the one hand, allows to dig larger trenches between some of the most competitive teams, on the other, it offers more time to present arguments, perform further observations, experiments, analyses and syntheses.

SiP: Is it getting harder for scientists to keep up with the development of knowledge?

P.T.: It certainly is. The time of Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas, who could grasp the then known universe, is definitely over. But we have a solution for this: accumulation of knowledge not only in the minds of outstanding individuals, but in libraries, both traditional and digital ones. And finally - cooperation between scientists, both within their own field and beyond the areas of their own specialization. In the event of an epidemic, the latter condition is simply necessary to succeed.

SiP: Which areas are the most difficult in this respect?

PT: I admit that I can't give a clear answer. Probably those where research dynamics is really great, resources and competition huge. I would bet on the medical research sector, but even there everything is done within narrow, ever narrower specializations.

SiP: How do specialists handle that?

P.T.: In various ways. The simplest is that usually - by practicing a discipline - you just know who is who in your field. Who deals with the topic, whether they have published earlier, or maybe they are new and want to make a quick jump into deep waters. Part of the knowledge is transferred not only in the form of a standard publication, but in a systematic and systematic way, for example in the form of workshops and conferences. People get to know each other, establish cooperation and get information about themselves, their own intellectual and technical capabilities.

SiP: In medicine, artificial intelligence (AI) tests are conducted, e.g. the Watson IBM system, which analyses research work and is to support doctors. Will reading scientific papers be given to computers, which will then advise scientists? If so, what would it look like?

P.T.: W could do that, but what would be the point? The effects are not perfect. AI systems work as a support. But they do not make decisions. Knowledge is not the same as wisdom and common sense. Nothing can replace the researcher's creative reflection. Sometimes what counts - in scientific discovery and in therapy alike - is a crazy, non-standard idea, maybe even one from the borderline of art.

SiP: Do you see any other possible solutions?

P.T.: I am generally optimistic and repeat proven recommendations: read not only novelties, but the classics too. Once, while taking a break with sheep and birds, which can be very relaxing I might add, we coined the saying with my friends: take advantage of opportunities, avoid ambushes and be at home before 6:00 PM. It doesn't always work out, but more or less means that you should simply like your job. And what about the current pandemic? Time will tell. Maybe it will be a lesson for the future for both scientists and decision makers?

PAP - Science in Poland, Marek Matacz

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