COVID-19 challenge trial articles in UK media, by sentiment
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The United Kingdom remains to date the only country where human challenge trials with COVID-19 are being held. These trials have revealed important information about the virus, and new trials are slated for 2023 for the delta variant.
As part of an upcoming research report, 1Day Sooner decided to analyze the sentiment behind the media coverage of COVID-19 challenge trials. We generally sensed that they were popular — you don’t get nearly 40,000 signups and 15 Nobel laureates on board for something everyone hates — but wanted to see how that played out in the media in the United Kingdom.
We located 85 relevant articles in total, excluding video coverage. 65 (76.5%) were deemed positive, focusing mostly or exclusively on the selflessness of volunteers and the potential scientific benefits the challenge model could offer. Three articles (3.5%) were negative, and 17 (20%) neutral.
The underlying data, with notes on our assessments, can be found in this spreadsheet.
We conducted domain-restricted Google searches for “human challenge” and “ COVID-19/coronavirus/Covid challenge” on the most-trafficked online websites in Britain in 2020, per to the Reuters Institute 2021 Digital News Report. (This excluded the category of “local media coverage” and also included some websites, like Buzzfeed and CNN, that are based in the United States.) We limited results to 13 months between April 1, 2020, shortly after the prospect of trials was first raised, and April 30, 2021, after both the Imperial College and Oxford studies had been announced.
At the broadest level, we judged whether an article would likely leave readers with a positive, negative, or neutral/unsure opinion of Covid-19 challenge trials.
Positive articles, such as this one from the BBC, generally focused primarily or exclusively on potential benefits and centered volunteers’ voices and their reasons for joining, occasionally making short mention of some ethical or scientific concerns.
Neutral articles tended to give more space to the negatives while also mentioning potential benefits. A Daily Mail article from September 2020 provides an example of what we classified as neutral coverage. The article calls the trials controversial and notes the lack of an established treatment at length. But it also discusses the justifications for the trials, including stated commitments to participant safety. It ends with a quote from Dr. Claire Waddington in support of the trials.
Negative articles focused more on negative aspects of the trials, such as the risk of death, contention around scientific utility, and the controversy as such. A piece in the Telegraph, “Three reasons why Covid-19 challenge trials are so controversial”, is one such article classified as negative.
The initial analysis and data collection was conducted by Daphne Hansell, which was checked and validated by Jake Eberts.
Ultimately, even if we assume some variation in how individuals might interpret different articles, we can still say the coverage was certainly still very positive. Properly explained articles, especially ones that center the altruism of volunteers in COVID-19 challenge trials, helped move the conversation forward during the pandemic.
Authors: Jake Eberts and Daphne Hansell