Ghana’s Vice-President, Dr. Mahamadu Bawumia on April 28, 2020, applauded the KNUST for coming out with Rapid Diagnostic Test kit for COVID-19.
He tweeted, “Congratulations to the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) AND Incas Diagnostics for developing Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) for COVID-19. This RDT produces results in 15-20 minutes.”
Dr. Bawumia’s message comes just a week after a ventilator developed by the institution elicited a congratulatory tweet from the Information minister, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah.
What might have been the force behind such rare disclosure by KNUST of its achievement?
It’s probably an April, 11 news release by the University of Ghana with the title: “University of Ghana Scientists sequence genomes of Novel coronavirus.”
The report says, “Scientists at the University of Ghana have successfully sequenced genomes of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the global COVID-19 pandemic, obtaining important information about the genetic composition of viral strains in 15 of the confirmed cases in Ghana…”
The University of Ghana scientists were perhaps eager to find out about the true identity of the vile visitor, after their US and European counterparts established the nature of theirs, days earlier.
With cases reaching 195, as at April 1, the scientists had ample sample size to embark on the identity-finding mission.
“The data tells us that, while there were some differences between the strains from the various countries, all the 15 genomes generally resembled (with >92% similarity) the reference strain that was isolated in the Wuhan Province of China, where the outbreak began,” said Prof. Gordon Awandare, Director of West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens, (WACCBIP).
The academic community seemed to have dashed into their burrows waiting for the ‘breakthrough’ winter to pass, when thirteen days later, journalists including myself, were summoned to the KNUST College of Engineering.
An out-dooring ceremony was been held for a ventilator, birthed 2 years ago.
The prototype is envisaged to be the first automatic ventilator to be used in a Ghanaian hospital.
As if we’ve heard it all, KNUST again, pulled a card 3 days later. A rapid diagnostic test kit has been developed.
“The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and Incas Diagnostics, a diagnostic company in Kumasi have developed and are optimising Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) for COVID-19 testing.
“This significant contribution towards the fight against COVID-19 will augment the current COVID-19 testing regime in the country,” part of the news release read.
Beyond these, articles with titles such as, “Promoting Ghanaian Herbal medicine in the fight against Covid-19 pandemic,” “The Potential impact of Covid-19 pandemic on food security in Ghana,” among hundred others from Ghanaian scientists filled the opinions sections on websites such as myjoyonline.com, citifmonline.com and ghanaweb.com.
Though the media has intermittently been involved in science reporting, mostly, they fish these stories out themselves.
Journalists, sometimes, take several days to months to secure an interview.
“It has always been difficult reaching out to researchers at KNUST, even after one has come out with a thought-provoking work that is newsworthy,” Ashanti regional correspondent for Citi FM, Edward Oppong Marfo, laments.
“Mostly, they come up with findings or prototypes which are usually used for academic purposes and are kept on the shelves only, whereas they could have been highlighted in the media and received the necessary attention and support to scale up the idea.”
Edward recounts: “The most recent one had to do with the production of hand sanitizers by the faculty of pharmacy at KNUST. I was directed to a female lecturer who was in charge of it. When I got there, she made me wait for well over two hours insisting that the dean of the faculty has to give her approval to speak before she does the interview. She later asked me to go back and that she will call once the dean approves. She has not gotten back to me as at now.”
“After getting information that one has developed, a particular product, a journalist can make several attempts but they are mostly always not available for interviews,” he added.
Nicholas Osei-Wusu, a reporter with the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation has not always had good story to tell about scientists he approached for their findings.
“It’s quite frustrating. They consider granting interview to journalists a favour. They play ‘hide-and-seek’ to avoid or frustrate the media except in few instances as in the case of College of Engineering of KNUST.”
A journalist with the Ghana News Agency, Stephen Asante says, “That posture had created a sort of misconception about Ghanaian scientists as to whether or not they matter in the scheme of things of the nation’s development agenda.”
As a 2007 report in the Cochrane database of systematic reviews puts it: “Scientific findings must withstand critical review if they are to be accepted as valid and editorial peer review is an essential element of the scientific process.”
KNUST professor and Regional Editor for Africa, International Journal of Building Pathology and refurbishment, Prof. Divine Ahadzie insists, as a matter of good practice, academic researchers must always push their work through the mill of peer review.
“Other researchers in your discipline must ensure that what you’re adding is contributing to knowledge. Once you get your peers to review your document, it improves the quality of the piece. In the peer review process, every reviewer will look for whether you’ve satisfied the principles of scientific practices or methodology and to know what you’re professing is reliable and valid.
“Sometimes, it can be reliable but not valid,” he emphasized.
Prof. Ahadzie who has reviewed over 50 articles in top built environment and disaster management journals across the world reveals articles can take a while to merit pages in a journal.
“Papers can take six months to a year to get published. However in an emergency situation like we have with the Covid, the turnaround can be fast-tracked to weeks. When researchers sends their papers to a journal, the journal has about 3 to 4 reviewers in their database on the subject area. And based on the comments sometimes, you have minor corrections, major corrections or the paper will be rejected.
“It’s a very thorough process one has to go through, all for the credibility of knowledge,” he said. To this, Professor Ahadzie adds, “scientific reporting should therefore always stay on the side of caution.”
Journalists on the other hand, have deadlines to meet and therefore believe approaches are not encouraging.
This usually maim the interest of the journalist in following up on the work.
“For instance, about two years ago when I heard of an invention by a lecturer in the chemistry department,” Edward Oppong Marfo recounts. “I tried as many times as possible to arrange an interview but he kept saying the University Authorities are supposed to approve before he talks to me.
“I kept calling him to find out if the authorities had given him approval to go ahead with the interview but he always said “no”. As a result of that, I was forced to abandon that story,” he said.
PR release and journalistic approach
Myjoyonline.com publication read, “Ghana scientists obtain critical information about Covid-19 that enables tracing of community infections.”
A commentator named Ben had this to say: @mmyjoyonline (sic), can you be a little patient to read through statements before you chose a headline!!
“…as it will strengthen surveillance for TRACKING MUTATIONS of the virus and aid in the TRACING OF THE SOURCES of community infections in people with no known contact with confirmed cases,”
How does this quotation mean what you have captured as headline? This is pathetic.”
Another commentator, Babagiwa Babagiwa said he was
“Tired of the fake headlines, let me stay home and keep avoiding people.”
Journalists’ resolve to cover a particular scientific story requires skills in assessing the paper; strength of evidence, sample size, quality of paper, journal story is published among others.
In a 2010 report in the journal Public Health forum, it is captured, lack of such skill, “may lead citizens to develop unrealistic expectations of their health care system, raising undue demand for costly and unproven approaches that may, in the end, cause more harm than good.”
In the covid era, many journalists who are not into science are expected to understand a thing or two about the new virus.
However, the point is made in the report that “a lack of scientific knowledge seems to be among the biggest problems associated with covering scientific stories.”
The report again criticised Journalists for overlooking the quality of the scientific evidence.
A view, lead scientist in the Ghana’s SARS-COV-2 genome sequencing fame, Prof. Gordon Awandare shares.
He observes, “Many journalists were not thorough in preparing for their programmes,” when the release went viral.
Interestingly, all the published works had depended on the public relation news release, including quoted statements. Limitations, especially which were not discussed in the release eluded the thoughts of media houses.
In my conversation with Prof. Awandare, I found out the finding is yet to be published in a journal, though the statement said the sequencing data have been shared with scientists around the world.
“It’s not been published, we want to have a bigger sample size to do better analysis. This is an observational research,” Prof. Awandare said.
No work published in print or electronically media in the country had indicated that.
Phrases like “According to the statement,” “A release by the institute” dominated the news stories.
Whiles websites like citifmonline.com and myjoyonline.com tried to paraphrase the release, a website like Ghanaweb.com, published the raw release.
Indeed, vaccine development has depended on genome sequencing to monitor how the germ is changing.
The release stated, the finding “will strengthen surveillance for tracking mutations of the virus and aid in the tracing of the sources of community infections in people with no known contact with confirmed cases.”
“…and determine how they impact on the efficacy of potential drugs or vaccines that are being developed,” the release added.
However, President Akufo-Addo in his 7th state of the nation’s address had envisaged a vaccine.
“The Ghanaian scientific community is to be warmly applauded for this advance and contribution to global knowledge. Their work makes us proud to be Ghanaian, and, who knows, God may work through them to discover a vaccine. What a triumph that would be!”
Many media houses therefore rode on the vaccine horse to engage the project scientists.
They had concluded a vaccine is in the making, and Prof. Awandare was not impressed.
“Many of them were not being professional. Many journalists who called hadn’t even read the release. Some of them started asking questions which were unrelated to the finding. We didn’t say we’ve found a vaccine but what we meant was, if a vaccine becomes available we would be able to know whether it’ll work for us or not.”
“Anybody who paid attention to it got the message,” he added.
Few media houses made the attempt to breakdown the language. Readers had to grapple with meaning of the word, ‘sequence’ which ran through media houses’ news script from online to TV.
“Scientists at the University of Ghana have successfully sequenced genomes of coronavirus…” news script by JOY FM, 6 AM news on the 12 April, read.
The ministry of information in the morning even tweeted, “Ghanaian scientists successfully found sequenced genomes of SARS-COV-2.” Same headline was used by gbcghanaonline.com.
The use of ‘sequence’ instead of a familiar word like ‘determine’ and ‘genome’ instead of ‘genetic information,’ didn’t go down well with the people, as many found it less comprehensible.
“Ministry of information should know better about communication,” a tweet from one user, SARK OR DIE read. “Break it down for us,” another user, Tweep virus complained.
More of a concern to Prof. Awandare was, a headline on the same day, by thevaultmag.com, “University of Ghana scientists discovers SARS-COV-2, the virus responsible for global covid-19 pandemic.”
“And this is the worst. We certainly did not discover the virus,” he pointed out.
But is it only the fault of the Journalists to have gotten it wrong?
Whiles Prof. Awandare thinks the release was “clearly explained,” Chief Operations officer at STEM NGO, G.H. Scientific, Dr. Thomas Tagoe believes “The scientist may have used the ‘hard’ language which the reporter didn’t seek to break down the PR. The reporter may have wanted to sound ‘sciencey’ after all that’s what is ‘in’ now.”
The news release, a fortnight later, with the heading, “Knust, Incas diagnostics develop rapid covid-19 diagnostic test” however, seemed to have had a smooth landing on minds of journalists.
“KNUST develops rapid test for COVID-19” and “KNUST scientists develop rapid covid-19 test kit,” are headlines of graphic.com.gh and myjoyonline.com respectively.
KNUST’s Public Relation Officer, Dr. Norris Berkoe was satisfied with news stories.
“I didn’t find any misreporting anywhere,” Dr. Berkoe spoke happily. “Before we come out with a press release, we determine an angle of which the story should be reported. We do so in such a way that we want to compress as much information and make it meaningful so journalist can get enough information and take their story out of it.”
The long-awaited friendship
President Akufo-Addo, when he met the Ghana Journalists Association, and other media institutions and agencies, charged the media to allow scientists do the talking.
“When people are going to talk about this disease, they will talk about it from the viewpoint of science. Get the scientists,” he said.
Though GBC’s Nicholas Osei-Wusu, says scientists are “Only trying to exploit the pandemic to prove they are up to their mandates to gain public support,” Prof. Awandare, for instance, wouldn’t agree, as he maintains they’ve been making their research findings known to the public through their social media handles.
“We have a communication manager. If you check our twitter and Facebook feeds, every now and then when we come out with something, we put it up. Just that this time it caught people’s attention because of covid-19. We’ve done some on malaria and others,” he revealed.
At the time where the media and scientists have found dependency on each other, Dr. Berkoe says, “There should always be a closer collaboration between the university relation office and the media.”
He thinks the move will help “identify the problems faced by the media in order to address it.”
Dr. Tagoe recommends: “The scientist must be made to feel ownership of the article as much as possible. The reporter will, of course, wants to do a good job of communicating. But the scientist will only give you as much as you require of him/her. From something as simple as a quote through to an explanation, an understanding all the way to an effective communication.”
“Since most scientists don’t play around in the science communication field, it becomes incumbent on the reporter to enquire the appropriate language from them,” he added.
Dr. Tagoe proposes a solution based on efforts made by the Ghana Science Association to coordinate scientific commentary during this pandemic: “If we have a common platform with scientists that are willing to engage and journalists that are interested in covering science stories, I believe this will make everyone’s work easier and the public will stay informed with accurate science.”
CITIFM’s Edward Oppong Marfo hopes “The coronavirus could break the glass ceiling but if there isn’t a conscious effort to properly engage the media to highlight their works, this will not be the last and we may be back to zero.”
“Hopefully, this conservative nature of scientists is expected to change once an antidote to the pandemic is found.” GNA’s Stephen is optimistic.
“The invaluable contribution of scientists to containing the pandemic is simply great. I think that scientists are beginning to build confidence and interest in going public with information relevant to mankind’s survival,” he’s hopeful.