Posted: October 19, 2020

Misinformation about COVID-19 can have deadly consequences. Through a weekly video series, infectious disease experts are helping to set the record straight.

Image by Daniel Garcia/The Ispot

Image by Daniel Garcia/The Ispot

In January, when news of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China appeared, my friends and family began to ask me questions. How should they prepare? What kinds of masks should they buy? Would the virus be able to travel through the mail? Their questions were an attempt to make sense of the often-inaccurate information they were hearing in the news, on social media, and from co-workers, friends, and family.

Meanwhile, my colleague Nita Bharti, assistant professor of biology, was also being peppered with questions. So, we decided to formalize our explanations through a weekly video series at We solicited questions from the public about COVID-19 via Each week, we comb the email inbox for common and timely questions. We also monitor the news for misinformation that we can correct in our videos, and we incorporate recommendations from leaders in the field of infectious disease, including our own Penn State colleagues.

Misinformation in this epidemic has been widespread and can have deadly consequences. With our expertise in biology, access to the latest scientific evidence, and experience as educators, Nita and I have a unique capacity to help inform the public about what scientists are learning. And because our knowledge of this new virus is still unfolding, we take care to highlight our knowledge gaps and how scientists are attempting to close them.

The speed of scientific publication on COVID-19 has been astronomical, with research groups in related fields rapidly refocusing the might of their teams to address the pandemic. At Penn State alone, we have more than 50 research groups working on this virus. Agreements like the one led by the Wellcome Trust, to which Penn State is a signatory, encourage the rapid sharing of results. Each day, hundreds of new studies are posted on preprint servers prior to their publication in peer-reviewed journals. Keeping up with these papers is a monumental task, but Twitter conversations among scientists have become a useful means for identifying the most influential and controversial studies. Many of these papers have held answers to the questions posed by our viewers: How long can viruses live on surfaces? Can our pets become infected? What is the evidence that certain drugs might work?

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened a window into the scientific community for the public. They have been watching in real time how science is done--how evidence is properly gathered, how answers evolve with new information, and how scientists sometimes disagree. I hope they have learned that scientists, particularly those in public health, have only two goals: to find the truth and to protect the health of as many people as possible. In a polarized world, the public needs to be reminded that science should exist independent of politics.

I am heartened by the public's interest and willingness to learn about epidemiology. Like many other nonscientists, my sister can explain what "flatten the curve" means, and she can locate and read the latest statistics and graphs on the epidemic curve for her state. And just before the shutdown, as I sat down in my hairstylist's chair, she said, "So, I am reading that R0 is roughly 2.2, what do you think?"

In the midst of this shared global tragedy the beauty of our humanity is clear--from our willingness to social distance for each another, to the dedication of our medical personnel and frontline workers who maintain our supply chains. Also evident is the growing mutual respect between scientists and the public as we confront the unknowns of this pandemic together. I'd like to think this relationship will continue and have far-reaching benefits beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Elizabeth McGraw

Elizabeth McGraw is a professor of entomology and the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.