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On Monday, biotech company Moderna’s claim of positive results in COVID-19 vaccine trials was covered in various degrees of breathlessness on Fox News, NBC, CNN and PBS.

In Australia, there were stories in the ABC and The Sydney Morning Herald (and a mention in Crikey).

Billions of dollars were added to the value of the company almost instantly. Its shares jumped almost 20%.

However, the initial announcement came without revealing any of the underlying data. By Tuesday, vaccine experts were questioning the validity of the trial results.

As Professor William Haseltine, founder of cancer and HIV/AIDS research departments at Harvard Medical School, wrote in The Washington Post.

The Moderna announcement described a safety trial of its vaccine based on eight healthy participants. The claim was that in all eight people, the vaccine raised the levels of neutralising antibodies equivalent to those found in convalescent serum of those who recovered from COVID-19. What to make of that claim? Hard to say, because we have no sense of what those levels were.

He described the study as “publication by press release”. 

Swiftly reporting each step on the journey toward the vaccine has been a staple for Australian outlets — this one included — since the crisis began, and not always with a healthy degree of skepticism.

So far in May, the ABC alone has featured the Moderna story; China’s search for “redemption” through a vaccine; the claims that companies Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE have begun “delivering doses of their experimental coronavirus vaccines for initial human testing” in the US; vaccine lessons taken from the swine flu; and the possibility that COVID-19 is already mutating and how that will affect the development of a vaccine.

“Of course, it’s understandable — people want coronavirus content, and more than that they want a sense of hope,” Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science’s Dr Rod Lamberts told Crikey.

“But increasingly we’re relying on the media to do some of that high-level sifting for us — sifting through what the research means, what stage it is at.”

The Australian Science Media Centre’s Dr Joseph Milton says there was more at stake than the noise of cluttered, over-hyped science reporting.

“The worst case scenario is that you can give false hope to people who are suffering,” he said. “And of course you can further erode public trust in science and journalism at a time when we need it most.”

As Crikey has previously reported, specialist reporting — like science and health — has been one of the biggest casualties in shrinking newsrooms.

“We now see so few journalists now with any kind of science background, so it’s very hard for them to do the necessary assessing of credibility or red flags of an announcement,” Milton said.

The COVID-19 crisis has continued and possibly accelerated the expansion of denialism and conspiracy theories as faith in institutions and experts continues to crumble.

However, Lamberts says useful and meaningful science reporting relied just as much on basic journalistic rigour as it does on expertise.

“You don’t necessarily need that kind of scientific background to properly interrogate people’s claims,” he said.

“Of course journalists are under great time pressure, answering to their editor, but we would just urge journalists to ask the follow-up question; ‘compared to what? Based on what data?’ That’s as important as a science degree.”