In winter, snakes sleep

coronavirus illustration
coronavirus il·lustració

Illustration published in January 2020 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing the morphology of the coronavirus: the outer surface has s sort of array of thorns that resemble the shape of a crown. / CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS

People once trusted the truthfulness of the news. It was hard to imagine the spread of deliberate disinformation beyond propaganda or sensationalism. Now we are used to the concepts of fake news and post-truth. In essence, murky motivations affecting the rigour of the message. Can we find this phenomenon interfering in scientific literature?

Let us look at the coronavirus outbreak in China. Dissemination of accurate and well-interpreted information is key in the early stages of an emerging outbreak. Regarding important data, the coronavirus genome sequence was made public on 10 January 2020, ten days after the outbreak was declared. This demonstration of efficiency and transparency was applauded by the scientific community, who thanks to this could analyse the data in real time.

The availability of the genome sequence on the Internet allowed experts to engineer specific reagents to detect the Wuhan coronavirus and to compare it with other coronavirus genomes to clarify the possible origin of the outbreak. Experts rightly determined that the closest relatives of the emerging coronavirus are bat-associated coronaviruses. Therefore, the emerging zoonotic outbreak could be originated directly from this host, or through another intermediary host animal.

But by mid-January, several media announced that, in order to contain the coronavirus outbreak, authorities in the city of Wuhan had banned the commercialisation of living wildlife in the markets, especially snakes. Newspapers, radio stations, and television channels around the world used the term «snake flu» to refer to the outbreak. It should be already clear that this is not a flu (that is just a poetic license). But how did the snake get there?

It seems that the need, pressure, or expected notoriety to publish is affecting research rigour. The media were properly informed. The suggestion that snakes may be involved in the origin of the outbreak was published in the Journal of Medical Virology, based on a comparative analysis of the use of codons (nucleotide triad that determines protein amino acids) by the Wuhan coronavirus and potential vertebrate hosts. In different circumstances, I do not believe that this article would have been published due to pure methodology inconsistency, leading to the final conclusion about snakes. But the editors forced an express review process within 24 hours and, given the seriousness of the public health situation, considered that failing to publish it while people were dying could be considered a criminal act.

«It seems that the need, pressure, or expected notoriety to publish is affecting research rigour»

The battle against this article was fought in Nature, in online specialised press outlets, and, in a passionate and sensible way, in the discussion forum Virological.org, and included data analysis, arguments, and indignation by leading researchers in virus evolution and molecular epidemiology.

Fortunately, this unlikely snake trail seems to have faded away. The editor-in-chief of the journal invites dissidents to respond to the article in the same publication, convinced that they are opening a scientific dialogue but do not want to lose their relevance.

In this case, I think the improvised extinction team against mediocre science was quick and alert. And they still have work to do, because other less rigorous scientific papers continue to appear. Correcting and denying others uses resources that could be invested in responsible science. We cannot lose confidence in it.

By the way: no coronaviruses have been described in cold-blooded animals so far. Only in mammals and birds. And in the northern winter, the snakes sleep.

© Mètode 2020 - 104. The plants of the future - Online only
FISABIO researcher, Genomics and Health Area (Valencia).