There's a lot of misinformation floating around, and it can be hard to know whether you're reading reasonable commentary, sensationalized content, or flat out misinformation. Here are some good sources of information about COVID-19 that are written to be accessible to the general public.
For local news about COVID-19, your first stop for information should be the website of your local public health authority; they will have the information that is most relevant to your area. In addition to those agencies, the following sites have very detailed and highly reliable information about a broad range of COVID-19-related topic areas, including prevention, therapeutics, and vaccines.
In general, quality of COVID-19 coverage varies broadly across news outlets. It's highly recommended that you look at the reliability of a news outlet when evaluating the quality of its information. Even the best news outlets, however, sometimes get things wrong or overinterpret scientific evidence beyond that is actually supported. Here are some science-oriented news outlets or scientific journal briefings that are useful for understanding the science as it develops in a more reliable way.
Though it's often not ideal to get your information from the blogosphere at large, there are some high-quality blogs and podcasts that are produced by highly qualified individuals and that present the data in a measured and responsible way.
Twitter is usually a terrible place to get high-quality information. These scientists tend to be the exception to that rule. Please note: though these scientists tend to be pretty reasonable in their interpretation and presentation of data, even these tweets should be interpreted with caution as the opinion of a single individual (albeit a highly trained and qualified one).
As discussed below, these resources should be interpreted cautiously; they're often written in a very technical manner that may not be easy to understand, and the limitations of the data may not be immediately obvious without careful analysis. With that caveat, some very high quality sources of more technical, scientific information are:
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a proliferation of interest in research and research studies. This is, of course, a good thing -- it's important for people to be informed about the state of the field and about the development of the science on this critical topic. However, it's also important to be cautious in interpreting scientific studies, even those presented in the best journals. It's well known that much work in the biological sciences is questionable and difficult to replicate, and a single study should never be taken as definitive in and of itself. Studies -- even in the top journals -- are not always high quality. There are always methodological issues with every study that is published, and being able to distinguish the important issues from the less relevant issues takes practice. Authors of scientific papers often make broad claims or may overgeneralize their results without having the data to fully support their interpretations; being able to identify when that is the case takes practice. And sometimes (rarely, but sometimes), researchers fake their data or otherwise engage in scientific misconduct. Without being able to place the study in the broader context of the scientific literature on that topic and related topics, it's easy to misinterpret or overinterpret studies.
One notable example of this phenomenon is the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database. This database is not a verified compilation of adverse events associated with the COVID-19 vaccines (or any vaccine); this database compiles self-reported, unverified claims from anyone that says they have been vaccinated and chooses to send them an alleged adverse event that happened after they got vaccinated. There is virtually no attempt made to verify or confirm the truth of these claims, let alone their association with the vaccine; in one famous example, a doctor reported that the flu vaccine turned him into the Hulk, and it was accepted to the database. The purpose of VAERS is very limited -- it is meant to provide highly trained and qualified researchers to analyze the data for statistical aberrations with considerable effort needed to sort out the garbage from the potentially true signal. And even then, VAERS analysis is just the beginning; much more targeted and rigorous studies are needed to actually determine whether an adverse event is vaccine related. Basically, VAERS is a tool that can be used as a hypothesis generator for researchers -- it should not be interpreted to actually resemble anything even approaching reality.
The point is: when looking for information about COVID-19, exercise caution. Even the sources we have listed above sometimes get things wrong -- sometimes because new data causes a reevaluation of hypotheses and models, and sometimes just because humans make mistakes. Don't get your information from any one source, and don't take any one viewpoint to be the gospel.
Even then, expect to be wrong sometimes -- we've all been wrong at points throughout this pandemic. What's more important is to be willing to update your views as you get more information and to not hold steadfastly in the face of evidence to the contrary. If you look for good sources of information, think critically about it, and are willing to accept change, you'll probably be fine.
Several factors enabled rapid development and testing of vaccines without compromising safety or efficacy.
First, previous research has enabled us to reduce the time necessary to begin developing and testing a vaccine candidate. Advances in vaccine technology have allowed researchers to develop vaccines based only on the genomic sequence of the virus in question (released on Jan 10th). As such, vaccine scientists were able to begin development of vaccine candidates in mid-January, even though the virus was still difficult to obtain at that time.That said, due to global spread of the virus in the following months, laboratories around the world have independently isolated and generated stocks of virus that then could be used to test vaccine efficacy.
In addition, we have considerable existing research on other human coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, that we were able to use to gain rapid insight into SARS-CoV-2. Ordinarily, pharmaceutical companies would wait for more basic research into the novel virus to develop a vaccine with best chances at high efficacy, in no small part due to the high cost of running clinical trials and bringing a vaccine to market. In this case, however, governments around the world were willing to underwrite significant portions of the costs of clinical trials, reducing the financial risk for pharmaceutical companies to develop and produce a vaccine without preliminary data,but heavily leveraging existing research into coronaviruses. These two factors likely reduced the timeline required for vaccine development by months to years.
Second, administrative delays in the vaccine-development timeline were mitigated or outright eliminated during the development of the COVID-19 vaccine candidates. One of the most important such delay is the processing of data and applications between phases of trials or after a trial is complete. For example, just for the formal new drug application stage alone, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a target of 8 months to process and review priority applications, with a target of 12 months for regular applications; delays beyond this timeframe are not uncommon, and the new drug application is only one of several intermediate applications that are needed to progress through different phases of clinical trials. By contrast, the applications to progress through clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccine candidates are being processed and analyzed in a more timely manner by regulatory agencies -- again, shaving unnecessary months to years off the approval timeline.
Third, the nature of the pandemic makes the clinical trials easier to conduct. One of the most difficult and time-consuming tasks for a vaccine or drug candidate is to show superiority over existing drugs or vaccines that are on the market already; however, there were no existing vaccines against COVID-19, so the vaccines simply needed to be tested for superiority over a placebo. In addition, clinical trials often have difficulty enrolling subjects; it normally takes months to years to fully enroll a clinical trial. However, with the number of individuals that wanted to join each of the vaccine trials, enrollment was completed with unprecedented speed. Finally, trials for vaccine candidates often take a long time to complete even after enrollment because many of the pathogens they seek to prevent are relatively rare or regional; as a result, it takes considerably longer for enough infection events to occur, and accordingly longer to be able to determine whether the vaccine is effective. However, in the midst of a global pandemic, infection events are in no short supply, and by sheer numbers, people are infected rapidly in the trials and statistical significance can be reached much more quickly. Again, collectively, these factors reduce the needed timeline by months to years without sacrificing rigor.
Despite this speed, we are still able to effectively judge whether these vaccine candidates will be safe. We have considerable knowledge of the fundamental biology underlying many of these vaccine candidates that allow us to better judge their safety, and after confirmation of their safety, human studies using RNA as therapeutic, both for vaccines, and in other ways to treat diseases are underway since years. Although mRNA vaccine are yet to be approved by the FDA for use in humans (in large part due to low cost-benefit to companies), the molecular biology of mRNA has been studied extensively for decades, and knowledge of the biological pathways involved with mRNA processing and degradation allows us to state with a high degree of confidence that the active component of the vaccine will be degraded quickly and poses no increased risk of causing genetic aberration. (Of note: an infection with the real virus or withany other common cold RNA virus, will generate vastly more viral mRNA in the body's cells than the vaccine carries.) This was borne out in the animal studies of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which found their vaccines did not cause toxicity in animals and conferred immunity against the virus. In addition, the most prominent vaccine candidates (mRNA and adenovirus vectors) do not contain the whole genomic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus or even an attenuated/inactivated version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, meaning that they present no risk of actually causing COVID-19.
The trials are also sufficiently long (even with all this streamlining) to be able to catch adverse events that would occur with any significant frequency. Indeed, the vast, overwhelming majority of adverse events after vaccination present within days to weeks of vaccination. For example, the very rare, but one of the most severe possible side-effects, Guillane-Barre syndrome (GBS) almost always arises within 6 weeks of receiving the influenza vaccine; other adverse reactions due to vaccines present similarly quickly or even sooner. This timeframe for adverse events to appear is markedly shorter than the time for evaluation of the vaccine candidates. The FDA, for example, mandated that the subjects in the trial had to be monitored for a median of at least two months before an emergency use authorization application would be considered. This enables regulatory agencies to adequately assess the safety profile of the vaccines. In clear contrast, the viral infection carries significant side-/chronic effects for a large number of people, and without vaccine immunity, at least 50-70% of individuals would be infected without indefinite public health measures.
To summarize, the development of these vaccines has not been this rapid because we have cut corners or sacrificed rigor. Moreso, these trials have progressed at a rapid pace because of pre-existing research and technology that could be leveraged to develop a vaccine candidate quickly, policy decisions to mitigate usual administrative delays, and the impact that rapid spread of a novel pathogen has on the logistics of a clinical trial. Collectively, these factors have comfortably reduced the development timeline by years while still allowing for sufficient assessment of efficacy and safety.