A recent animation that made the rounds on social media illustrates how COVID-19 is impacting scientific research.

By Renee Cherry
April 10, 2020
Loop Images/Chris Reeve/Getty Images

As coronavirus headlines continue to come at you hard and fast, you may have recently scrolled past a video on Twitter showing rainbow dots flowing from someone's mouth to another person. The simulation appears to show how respiratory droplets can travel from one person to another, suggesting that walking or running beside someone is "safer" than walking single-file, which is denoted as "less safe."

If you're trying to uphold social distancing best practices amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, you might be wondering whether the post has any basis or is fake news.

The simulation comes from a team of engineers at the Eindhoven University of Technology, who have attracted backlash since sharing the video. The animation—which was initially shared by the team's lead researcher, Bert Blocken, without accompanying peer-reviewed research to back it up—quickly made the rounds on social media, alarming many people who interpreted it as evidence that running outside, even in non-crowded areas, may increase the risk of spreading (and/or becoming infected with) the coronavirus. Refresher: Peer review means that someone's work and research has been heavily vetted and scrutinized by other experts in the same field to ensure the work is valid for publication.

So far, Blocken has since shared a link to a preprint of the study in addition to the original video. (While it gives more context, a preprint hasn't yet gone through the peer review process.) The gist is that the researchers used computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software to understand how viral micro-droplets might travel from someone who's standing, walking, or running to a nearby person. The researchers modeled people moving single-file and side-by-side, about 5 feet apart, and one staggered behind (diagonal from) another, about 10 feet apart. In the single-file model, the second runner was exposed to respiratory droplets left in the leading person's wake. The researchers concluded that the simulation "leads to the tentative advice" that walkers, runners, and bikers stagger once they're within 16 feet of walking or 32 feet of running behind someone.

It's an interesting theory, but Blocken didn't just share the simulation without peer-reviewed research to go with it. He also chose to talk about the research with a Belgian media outlet, further alarming people about coronavirus transmission while running or walking outside with little evidence to back it up. (BTW, here's what you *actually* need to know about running outside during the coronavirus pandemic.)

Both regular folks and scientists alike have criticized Blocken's choice to publicize the study before it had the chance to undergo peer review.

Blocken defended his choice to take interviews and post about the study before it was peer-reviewed and published, arguing that the COVID-19 crisis is a special circumstance. "Interesting... A few people criticize this study has not been peer reviewed, he tweeted Wednesday. "Seriously? Crisis is world-wide, situation urgent, people are dying, economy crumbling. Should the public wait for months until peer review process is finalized?"

The coronavirus has sparked a conversation around the implications of speeding up studies in hopes of learning more about COVID-19 as quickly as possible. When considering preprints like Blocken's, Stanford University researchers say there are pros and cons: Preprints make information available to other scientists faster and are usually freely available to the public rather than hidden behind a paywall. On the other hand, they've led to an "inundation" of information about the virus that's harder to sift through, some of which could be misleading to the general public.

In addition to the increase in preprints, some traditional research journals are making adjustments during the coronavirus pandemic. The New England Journal of Medicine announced practices it will take during the outbreak, including expediting "all editorial steps to make [studies] available as quickly as possible." (Related: Should You Wear a Face Mask for Outdoor Runs During the Coronavirus Pandemic?)

It's tough to say whether expediting studies has been doing more harm or good. Either way, it's more important than ever to be critical about what you read online.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.


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