Intermountain’s Greg Poulson on trusting science during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it both the “best of times” and the “worst of times” for science, according to Greg Poulson, senior vice president of Intermountain Healthcare. Poulson spoke about science, trust and COVID-19 at the Utah Health Policy Project’s annual “Health Care Solutions for Utahns” conference.


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He praised the expedited COVID-19 vaccine development process, which started in January, 2020, when the genome of the virus was sequenced. 

“Within 48 hours [of sequencing], the first vaccine had been designed based on the virus structure, and that’s — in fact — the one that Moderna is now providing,” he said.

He went on to say having vaccine trials move to Phase 1 by mid-March, then to Phase 3 in July, and achieving a 95 percent efficacy rate and FDA approval in December was remarkable. By comparison, the Shingrix vaccine for shingles took 20 years to develop, according to Poulson.

“This pace, just to put it in perspective, is five times faster than the previous fastest vaccine development, which was mumps, and that was years and years ago,” he said.

Despite his acknowledgement of this scientific progress during the COVID era, Poulson also provided examples of the opposite being true. Early treatments and preventative medications have been relatively unsuccessful or controversial, he said. He also said basic science around the virus has been politicized, such as the use of masks and the willingness to receive the vaccine.

He said he has seen an instance of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in observing the public’s trust in COVID-19 science. This theory, created by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999, shows the relationship between an individual’s knowledge about something and their confidence levels about this knowledge, he said.

“It’s the basic idea that sometimes when we start to learn about something, we gain great confidence that we understand it in greater depth than we do,” he explained. “We don’t recognize our own lack of competence or knowledge. But then, as we start to learn more, we start to recognize that maybe we don’t know everything, and our confidence goes down. But happily, as we continue along the knowledge curve, we learn more and more, and our confidence level then increases, but now it increases proportionately to the knowledge that we have.”

Poulson said this effect is present in the world’s reaction to COVID-19. According to him, the world is on the second confidence level increase of this model — people are starting to be more confident in their knowledge of COVID-19 after an initial confidence decrease, as more information becomes available. We are still continuing to learn new things about the virus, he said.

He said part of the problem has been that many credible news sources are reporting incomplete science. The “political saga” of hydroxychloroquine is an example, he said. He offered the example of Yale Medical School putting out a statement saying hydroxychloroquine was unlikely to be effective. A department head from the same school later contradicted this statement, saying the drug was promising. Conflicting information like this, especially from prominent media sources, is part of the reason there has been so much distrust in COVID-19 science, according to Poulson.

“Most people have neither the time nor the expertise to really become knowledgeable about something like COVID, but we should expect credible news organizations to help us,” he said.

Poulson said he remains optimistic despite these setbacks, and believes there is still a lot of promising scientific progress occurring.

“I would be remiss to not point out that we’ve done a lot of really good things,” Poulson said. “I’ve focused on the negatives, but spring is just around the corner, and the future, I think, is bright.”