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OPINION

Lessons from Deepwater Horizon for coronavirus

My experience as a scientist working closely with first responders to the oil spill has helped me in recent weeks to understand what is probably happening behind the scenes with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fire boats battle a fire at the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon April 21, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico.
Fire boats battle a fire at the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon April 21, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico.US Coast Guard/G

This is not the first time we’ve lived in the grip of uncertainty and a palpable feeling that everything has changed. The last time I felt my life so out of control was during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. My experience then, as a scientist working closely with first responders to the oil spill, has helped me understand what is probably happening behind the scenes with the COVID-19 pandemic, and relieved that good people are on the job.

Nearly 10 years ago, I was on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico that was crammed between two other ships burning off huge flares of natural gas. The sound was deafening, and we were constantly enveloped in nauseating fumes and intense heat. All the while, tens of millions of gallons of oil and gas from the crippled well flowed, unrelenting, into the ocean, threatening ecosystems and the livelihoods of thousands of people.

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Over the next several months, I bounced from ships to the lab to press conferences to congressional hearings, digging up answers that often raised even more questions. What I learned then is applicable to the coronavirus pandemic.

First, we need to accept the fact that uncertainty is a way of life, and reducing uncertainty is an ongoing battle. This is probably the last thing anyone wants to hear when normalcy erodes, but it’s become a comfort to me that, in a crisis like this, the pace of research to solve critical questions hyper accelerates. Of course, that comes with a hidden cost: There’s less time for results to undergo rigorous replication and peer review, but that does not mean this new research is bad or wrong. We just need to fold it into the uncertainty we live with every day and understand that it is all part of the gradual march toward greater certainty overall.

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Second, every crisis is different, but the people who are best prepared to adapt to a new situation are the ones on the front lines already. Like those who are now dealing with the much higher stakes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Deepwater Horizon responders had extensive experience with oil spills and quickly came to grips with the new challenges present in the Gulf of Mexico, which they did with phenomenal dexterity. In the same way, there is undoubtedly a learning curve for each phase of the ongoing pandemic, but many of our public health officials and front-line providers train for these sorts of events. The difficulty comes in meeting the unique challenges presented by the complexity and magnitude of each new event.

Third, we have to be acutely aware of the information flowing to us and that we spread to our networks. In the midst of a crisis, front-line responders are often the ones whom officials, the media, and the public want to hear from the most. They are also the ones who are dealing most directly with the crisis and its many ripple effects. One of the greatest dangers we face is small misstatements that aid the spread of misinformation. To add to this, myths and blame-gaming only create greater confusion and obstruct response efforts. During Deepwater Horizon, precious time was wasted beating back claims that microbes would naturally consume all the oil and fix the whole problem or that the Gulf ecosystem is irredeemably dead. The truth is often more nuanced, which does not always make for splashy headlines or pithy social media posts.

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Finally, we need to remember that the scientific process (and this is a crisis that will be solved thanks to the careful work of science) is incremental and often not linear. Don’t be frustrated if immediate answers are not black and white or when information changes over time. The science of this virus is moving so fast that even a statement today from a world-class expert may change tomorrow or next week because of new information. Find reliable, unbiased sources of information and stick with them, like Dr. Anthony Fauci. Avoid secondhand information from unqualified news pundits, “deniers” who have only their own interests in mind, or your Twitter feed, and avoid spreading this misinformation like a virus.

Science doesn’t provide perfect certainty, but it is critical to guiding decision-makers as scientists and medical experts chart the best path forward. If we trust in the science and those on the front lines, and apply their knowledge to take informed actions, we can all help prevent this terrible ordeal from unnecessarily getting worse.

Christopher Reddy is a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.