Norwegian coronavirus “experiment” was misleading. People who train in gyms can infect each other with COVID-19.
OPINION: An undocumented message about it being safe to work out in gyms during the coronapandemic has been disseminated.
A Norwegian study found that people who worked out at gyms in Oslo in late May and early June did not contract COVID-19 infections. The discovery has received a great deal of attention and has been featured in the New York Times, Science and the Norwegian media.
The researchers behind the study are quoted as saying that it is safe to use gyms.
This is a misleading message from a flawed research project.
The experiment is flawed because none of those who trained at the gyms were infected with corona. The study therefore shows nothing else than what we already know: No infection can be transmitted if there is no infection to transmit. No research is needed to reach that conclusion. No matter what non-infected people are subjected to in an experiment, they will not infect each other.
When the researchers realized that none of their participants had COVID-19, they should have simply filed the study in the drawer. Instead, a manuscript was written up as if a randomized controlled trial experiment with an important discovery had been completed.
As a consequence, an undocumented message about security in gyms has now been disseminated, misleadingly presented as if it was supported by a randomized experiment.
The study shows another unfortunate consequence of hasty research. Since the results have been published as a pre-print, no experts have evaluated the quality of the study. We do not yet know what the peer-reviewers will say about it, but the comments on the pre-print are predominantly negative so far.
Researchers, like everyone else, should be careful about spreading uncertain knowledge, particularly when the consequences of being wrong can endanger life and health.
We may also ask whether it is ethically justifiable to actually run a study like this. After all, uninfected people were invited to work out in a gym together with participants the researchers assumed to be infected with a potentially deadly virus—just to see if new cases of infection would occur or not!
Researchers no longer need to ask if infected people can spread the COVID-19 virus in gyms. We know they can. We also know that the virus can spread despite good hygiene and social distancing.
Hence, if the Norwegian study contributes to an ignorance about these facts, the consequence may be more infected people. Hopefully that will not happen, but if it does, the study adds to the little honorable part of the history of medicine, in which meaningless experiments cause rather than prevent disease.
This article was first published in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.
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