During the university lockdown caused by the pandemic, an initiative to promote the spread of pertinent information regarding COVID-19 was started by immunology students at UTSG. Graduate students in the Department of Immunology created educational pamphlets on important topics regarding COVID-19, including disease pathogenesis, current therapies, and the process of vaccine development.

As a current student in the Master of Science in Applied Immunology program, I was motivated to get involved and helped contribute to the creation of the vaccine development infosheet. The rationale behind this initiative was to generate scientifically accurate pamphlets that members of the general public can easily access in order to educate themselves and mitigate the spread of misleading information.

Remaining vigilant, maintaining hope

As of late July, Ontario had entered Stage 3, allowing businesses and services to reopen to promote the long-term restart and recovery of the economy. Although this provides a return to normalcy, it certainly does not mean the pandemic is over. Therefore, the information contained in the pamphlets continues to be valuable.

Despite the restrictions easing, this is a time to be more cautious, not more lenient. Currently, progress toward developing a safe and effective vaccine is still ongoing. It is imperative that the public remains vigilant in performing safety precautions to ensure their well-being and that of others.

It may be perceived that this gradual reopening signifies that the pandemic is no longer a threat of the same magnitude as it was earlier in the year, but COVID-19 is still very much a public health risk. This is reflected in the number of reported cases. According to Public Health Ontario there were more than 850 new cases in Ontario in the last week of August. Outbreaks are still occurring.

After the August long weekend, there was an outbreak at the Deerhurst Resort in Muskoka due to individuals reportedly not following physical distancing and social bubble guidelines. The Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit had entered Stage 3 a month earlier on July 17.

However, remaining cautious does not mean we should not be hopeful. Clinical trials are underway to generate a safe and efficacious vaccine, but it is important to acknowledge that this process takes time. Vaccine development occurs in several stages, including research of the virus, pre-clinical experimentation in animal models, and human clinical trial phases that test the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

The pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and Oxford University recently tested a vaccine candidate called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, which has demonstrated safety in humans and an ability to generate neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19. ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 is undergoing phase three of clinical trials.

The information problem

During the 2016 outbreak of the Zika virus, a study found an increased usage of Twitter, Google search engine, Google News, YouTube, and Wikipedia pages to acquire Zika-related content. Although social media platforms and search engines allow for the spread of information in a timely manner, they can also be harmful due to the amount of false information being spread by unqualified users.

This is problematic as accurate information is often drowned out by misleading information. Additionally, certain users might see this information and be confused as to what is factual and what is not.

During the early stages of COVID-19, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus referred to the spread of false and misleading COVID-19 information as an “infodemic.” He expressed that, like a virus, false information spreads rapidly and should be considered dangerous. Therefore, controlling the spread of misinformation on social media and online platforms is vital to ensure the public is receiving accurate knowledge.

It is understandably hard for platforms to manage information due to the number of social media users. Thus, the responsibility is put heavily on the internet user to ensure that they are accessing credible sources to acquire information. Accessibility to accurate information can be promoted by providing easy-to-read online documents and interesting graphics created by the government, academic institutions, and scientists.

Although vaccine development is underway, it is still important that we follow public health guidelines, stay informed via accurate sources, and take preventive measures to avoid a potential second wave of the virus.