The LA Times fumbles its coverage of the scary new Coronavirus strain

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A new, not very well understood strain of coronavirus is circulating in California. In its article about it, the LA Times did a very good job of combining fear and uncertainty into a confusing mix that creates more heat than light.

Given the amount of misinformation spreading about the virus from conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers, clarity in legitimate reporting is essential. And yes, writing about scientific and medical topics in a general newspaper is difficult, especially when experts don’t have a single, simple story to tell.

The right way to deal with this is to state facts as clearly as possible, including the sources of uncertainty and where it exists.

The wrong way is to state the scariest possible scenario, qualify it with “could” to make it easy to write off, and scatter difficult-to-parse and seemingly contradictory information through the article. That’s what I just read.

Deconstructing the LA Times article on the new strain

The LA Times published Melissa Healy’s article “California’s coronavirus strain looks increasingly dangerous: ‘The devil is already here’” yesterday. Healy is a 30-year veteran writer on the health beat.

Here’s the lead:

A coronavirus variant that probably emerged in May and surged to become the dominant strain in California not only spreads more readily than its predecessors but also evades antibodies generated by COVID-19 vaccines or prior infection and is associated with severe illness and death, researchers said.

Terrifying. Read that, and you certainly would be eager to hear more. But now let’s examine the bits and pieces of contradictory information scattered throughout the article.

Start with the name of the new strain. What is it? Here are excerpts from different parts of the article.

“The devil is already here,” said Chiu, who led a team of geneticists, epidemiologists, statisticians and other scientists in a wide-ranging analysis of the new variant, which they call B.1.427/B.1.429.

. . . the California strain, which is sometimes referred to as 20C/L452R . . .

B.1.427/B.1.429’s genome includes three mutations that affect the crucial spike protein, which the virus uses to sneak into human cells and convert them into factories for its own production. One of those three mutations, dubbed L452R, affects the so-called receptor binding domain, helping the virus attach more firmly to target cells.

The most notable quality of this article is its use of qualifiers like “probably” and “could” to connote uncertainty. I know the medical facts are uncertain here, but these qualified statements create more fear than knowledge. The archetypal formulation is “a terrifying thing might be happening” — what are we, the reader, supposed to do with that information? Here are some examples with the qualifiers shown in bold.

A coronavirus variant that probably emerged in May . . .

. . . a rival strain that is probably just as worrisome has already settled in . . .

. . . the likelihood that they could circulate in the same population raises the specter of a return to spiking infections and deaths, Chiu said. It also opens the door to a “nightmare scenario”: That the two viruses will meet in a single person, swap their mutations and create an even more dangerous strain . . .

The new evidence that the California variant could make people sicker, and vaccines less effective . . .

. . . the new strain seems to have an enhanced ability to spread, Chiu said.

Exactly how much more transmissible the California strain is remains an open question, he added.

A survival-of-the-fittest contest between the U.K. and California variants could accelerate the spread of the strain that’s best able to elude the effects of COVID-19 vaccines, 

That probably made the new viral variant a contributor — albeit one among many — to the surge that dogged the state through the fall and early winter. 

Ominously, the new study also suggested the California variant could have the added impact of greater virulence.

That observation is based on the medical charts of 324 patients hospitalized at UCSF, a relatively small sample. . . . The number of deaths in both groups was very small, however, so this finding will need to be checked against larger data sets . . .

Chiu also cautioned that this increased risk of death may not be a sign that the variant is inherently more lethal. 

Dr. Marc Suchard, an expert on infectious disease tracking at UCLA, said that some of the team’s findings would probably be refined as more virus samples were genetically sequenced 

Now let’s move on to some key facts I really wanted to know.

Does it spread more rapidly? How much? That information is spread throughout the text in multiple places, making it a lot harder to develop a coherent point of view on the transmissibility. (Some of this text includes the qualifiers described earlier.)

Californians . . . should know that a rival strain that is probably just as worrisome has already settled in, and will probably account for 90% of the state’s infections by the end of next month, said Dr. Charles Chiu, an infectious diseases researcher and physician at UCSF.

. . . the California variant could make people sicker, and vaccines less effective . . .

The new findings do not show that the homegrown strain was the principal driver of California’s dramatic run-up in infections and deaths during the fall and early winter, Chiu cautioned. . . . But scientists said B.1.427/B.1.429 certainly wasn’t blameless. It’s hard to disentangle all the different factors that contribute to spread,” including travel, holiday gatherings and restaurant dining, said Dr. Bruce Walker, an immunologist and founding director of the Ragon Institute in Boston. Still, it’s fair to conclude that “they all contribute to some extent,” he added.

Over five months starting on Sept. 1, the California strain . . . rose from complete obscurity to account for more than 50% of all coronavirus samples that were subjected to genetic analysis in the state. Compared with strains that were most prominent here in early fall, the new strain seems to have an enhanced ability to spread, Chiu said.

Exactly how much more transmissible the California strain is remains an open question, he added. But the evidence that it’s more contagious comes from several sources.

Samples collected from a range of counties, and using a variety of collection methods, suggest the variant is 19% to 24% more transmissible. 

Is it deadlier? That’s a good solid maybe.

Ominously, the new study also suggested the California variant could have the added impact of greater virulence.

That observation is based on the medical charts of 324 patients hospitalized at UCSF, a relatively small sample. Still, the researchers found that the 21% of these patients who contracted B.1.427/B.1.429 were more likely than their counterparts to have been admitted to the ICU, and they were 11 times more likely to die. That finding held up even after researchers adjusted for differences in the patients’ age, gender and ethnicity.

The number of deaths in both groups was very small, however, so this finding will need to be checked against larger data sets as those become available.

Chiu also cautioned that this increased risk of death may not be a sign that the variant is inherently more lethal. Rather, it might simply be a reflection that its greater transmissibility caused hospitals to become so overwhelmed and healthcare resources to be stretched so thin that more deaths were the result — especially in Southern California.

Finally, and most importantly, what should we do about it? Will being vaccinated protect you or not? Read this and tell me if you can figure it out (again, these recommendations are scattered throughout the article):

The new evidence that the California variant could make people sicker, and vaccines less effective, should spur more intensive efforts to drive down infections, Chiu said. Those should include both public health measures, such as masking and limits on public activities, and a campaign of rapid vaccinations, he added.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, [said a] survival-of-the-fittest contest between the U.K. and California variants could accelerate the spread of the strain that’s best able to elude the effects of COVID-19 vaccines, he said. The best way to prevent this, he added, is to stop the spread of either variant by getting vaccinated, wearing masks and limiting exposure to others.

In the lab, the California strain also revealed itself to be more resistant to neutralizing antibodies generated in response to COVID-19 vaccines as well as by a previous coronavirus infection.

Compared with existing variants, the reduction in protection was “moderate … but significant,” the researchers said.

“I do anticipate over time it is going to have an effect on vaccination,” Chiu said. Though the magnitude of the effect varied from sample to sample and was less pronounced than with the South Africa strain, “it still is concerning,” he said.

So, basically, everybody should get vaccinated, but the vaccine may be less effective. (This actually makes sense if you learn more: vaccinated individuals have some protection, which slows the spread, even if a vaccine may be less effective against the new strain. But this is a subtle point that the article fails to make clear.)

Clarity matters

Writing is not just a question of pulling things together with transitions. It is also an organized way to transmit information. When that information includes uncertainty — and especially when it concerns broad risks to readers’ health — there is an added urgency to making the information easy to consume and understand.

I am not advocating that the author of an article like this should omit viewpoints that include uncertainty and whitewash the facts.

I am suggesting that it would be better to organize the analysis into sections that cover discrete topics and to be as clear as possible about what is known and how to interpret it.

Finally, when an article this includes recommendations, they must be clear, and clearly backed up.

The forces of disinformation are now on the rise. Journalists are our best defense. And clarity is their ultimate weapon.

7 responses to “The LA Times fumbles its coverage of the scary new Coronavirus strain

  1. I read that article last night and couldn’t reconcile the “devil is already here” dramatic statement with the meanderings in the rest of the article. As a result, I dismissed it as more hype. This is why we have a subset of Californians dismissive of clear facts because so much has been overblown. The other subset is like my vaccinated mother who is still terrified to leave the house because of the “variants”…

  2. Thank you for doing this. The article deserves criticism.

    1. Patrick Soon-Shiong owns the LA Times and understands the science. What does he think of this article?

    2. There is no discussion of the dramatic drop in cases in the last month. How does that square with points of the article?

    3. The paragraph “Dr. Anthony Fauci . . . raised further concern in an interview with the The Times.” When was this interview? Has Dr. Fauci read Dr. Chiu’s analysis? Or was Dr. Fauci just saying the variants that elude the vaccines by definition are more successful than the variants that don’t.

    4. Dr. Bruce Walker of the Ragon Institute in Boston is quoted. Has he read Dr. Chiu’s analysis? What is the point of quoting him in the middle of the article.

    5. The statement towards the end that Dr. Chiu’s analysis is based “on a relatively small sample” should have been in the first paragraph of the story. Also, Dr. Chiu’s observations are based on the medical charts of 324 hospitalized patients at UCSF. Is that scientifically valid? Have others reviewed these charts? When were the hospitalizations? How does looking at the charts of hospitalized patients tell you about transmission? How many of these 324 people died and why?

  3. I believe CDC was supposed to mean Communicate, Don’t Confuse, but they have come to mean Confuse, Don’t Communicate and this strain spread to many other organizations.

  4. Excellent post! Journalism has been going downhill in quality for a while now, adding in more fear, hype, and opinions to generate clicks. Truth focused transparent stories providing facts and sources are needed now more than ever. Journalists are supposed to lead the charge in seeking out truth to keep us accurately informed on important events. Thank you for encouraging that focus.

  5. In my experience, “science-ish” reporting has been lacking for decades. In fact, for most stories in a newspaper or magazine, if anyone reads either of those anymore, one can easily trace the story back to an original Press Release or a story a few years back in another rag.

    Journalists have a tough job. They need to report about subjects they have little knowledge about (almost by definition; how can you know about lots of stuff, especially new stuff?) and identify sources and sort through opposing and conflicting views to present something digestible to the audience, who is also ignorant (by definition, who reads about things that they know?).

    And then there are the scientists or other “experts,” they have little to no training on communication and it appears the scientific method. Hence you see the coffee-is-good-fer-ya versus coffee-causes-cancer stories. Turns out, neither are likely correct, but there are Press Releases that beg to differ.

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