None of the people who bombard virologist Prof Dominic Dwyer with emails calling him a “traitor”, or who urge him to recommend unproven Covid-19 treatments, have his four decades of medical experience. Nor have they spoken to those most affected by the devastation of Covid.
In January, he visited Wuhan, China, with other experts, to investigate the origins of the pandemic and report back to the World Health Organization. Dwyer spoke to many people forever changed by the virus at a time before vaccinations were available.
“I had an experience in China talking to a doctor whose wife was also doctor,” Dwyer says.
“She died of Covid herself after looking after Covid patients, and he was left behind with their two-year-old baby. To see the hurt in his eyes makes you think, ‘This is not just numbers and cases’. It’s about people.”
Dwyer’s desire to help people has led to him working long hours with his colleagues at NSW Health’s Pathology West to sequence the virus and understand its mutations – and how those mutations might impact vaccines and treatments.
He finds it baffling that some of the people who email him think he is hiding the “truth” about Covid and its treatments.
A study published in the journal BMJ Open on Thursday, led by the University of Sydney, documented the experiences of Australian health researchers, such as Dwyer, and science communicators, during the pandemic. It found a shared concern among these professionals that the spread of misinformation had become more intense.
“I’ve had heaps of them [misinformation emails], hundreds, particularly because of the work that I did in China,” Dwyer says. “I’ve never struck misinformation like this before. I’ve had unbelievable things said to me by all sorts of people writing to me often with criticisms, or with references to conspiracy theories, or to dangerous drug treatments, all sorts of stuff. It’s nonstop. It’s extraordinary. There was some of this sort of stuff around during the early Aids days, but because of social media now there is much more of it.
“Going to Wuhan led to me getting emails saying that I’m a traitor to my country. You think; ‘why would people write that?’. Is it racism? Are they phobic about something? I’m trying to do the right thing for my country and other people, I’m trying to do good. People are at you, and criticise you and so on, when all you’re trying to do is do your best.
“I try hard not to let it get me down.”
Lead author of the BMJ Open study, Dr Lisa Parker from the University of Sydney’s school of pharmacy, said she conducted interviews with Australian researchers and science communicators and asked for their views about flawed research and misinformation in the context of the pandemic, and more generally.
They shared concerns about long neglected issues in academia and media that led to misinformation, including the production of fraudulent or biased science research, pressures in research culture to constantly publish research papers, inadequate training in research misconduct, problems in the academic publishing system, and lack of public access to high quality research. They also said the loss of specialist journalists to explain and critically evaluable scientific studies, and lack of skilled science communicators, had played a part in the spread of misinformation.
Parker said a possible solution was to make academic publishing more transparent by removing paywalls for access to research, something long called for. Academic journals also needed to make comments from peer-reviewers – who scrutinise papers before they are published – public. Researchers should be mandated to register their studies including the study protocols, and should make any datasets that inform their findings public, Parker added.
“I think we as a science community also need to be willing to look at our own back yard as well, and acknowledge when we make a mistake,” she said.
“We can’t expect people just to take what we do as face value. And you can only hope that by standing up and exposing the junk, we are showing that we are here to promote high quality, trustworthy information. I would also encourage the public to really be careful about where they’re getting their news from and to try to seek out reputable sources.”
The chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, Prof Catherine Bennett, has dedicated much of the past two years to helping the media and public analyse much of the data that has emerged from the pandemic. Her public profile has led to her receiving hundreds of comments on her social media pages, linking her to questionable websites and videos that promote unproven treatments and conspiracy theories.
Her approach is to respond where possible, not because she thinks she will change the minds of those who peddle misinformation, but because she wants anyone who reads their comments to also see her considered and evidence-based replies.
“They often don’t understand the data, and if you ask them more questions, it actually draws out the faults in their thinking,” Bennett said. “Often, they actually don’t know how vaccines work. So you disarm them in a way, but you arm other readers by helping them to understand the flawed logic in some of this, which hopefully prevents innocent people from spreading it.”