Following the science…not

by Janice Nigro

As a scientist, you don’t get much time in the spotlight. It’s late nights and weekends, and you are often alone when you make your discoveries most of which go unnoticed by anyone outside of the niche of other scientists working on similar ideas. 

The pandemic brought a rare opportunity for a captive audience for scientists from the whole of the United States if not the world. Some days I think the scientists who were on stage did brilliantly. The press not so much. Ever after the “story”, many of their pieces were about the grim side of the disease and the salacious bits transpiring between scientists and politicians.

I quit watching the White House press conferences with the task force after a journalist asked if people should be getting their medical advice from the president. When, when I ask, is that ever a good idea?

Some days it seems the best that scientists got out of the deal was a mantra coopted by the mainstream media. “Follow the science!” I hear every time a politician speaks. Maybe repeated enough as you circle around a bottle of wine on the floor, holding hands (or maybe not), for 60 seconds while listening to a gong and poof, the virus will go away.  

That clearly hasn’t happened. But what did happen behind lab closed doors is almost as good as magic. For all the doom speak from the media, scientists, once the sequence of the RNA coronavirus was online, got to work immediately on developing tests and vaccines. Worldwide, scientists were able to initiate such innovations due to molecular biology. The field developed after decades of research following bizarre curiosities into some of the world’s smallest organisms-bacteria, their viral counterpart called bacteriophage, and a host of fabulous underwater creatures.

Many scientists, often based in the US, have won Nobel Prizes for the technologies that led the world to this very moment. These innovations put many scientists in the position to shift gears overnight to generate a workable defense against a novel pathogen. 

Early on, someone in my Facebook feed mocked the president, claiming there was no way a test for a novel coronavirus could be in the stockpile from the previous administration. “Ha, ha, ha,” many in the feed agreed. I avoid political oriented feeds on social media – grand waste of time – but this one was about science. With today’s technology, I wrote, no one even needs to know what the pathogen is. Scientists can sequence a body fluid and find even an unknown pathogen within a few weeks. 

I don’t have a clue what’s in the stockpile, but the point was that no one in the media even bothers to ask. It’s easier to mock the president.

More than one scientist I know in biotech remarked on how quickly they adopted a program to develop tests or in one case, a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. Scientists knew what to do. No one had to force or tell them. But because the infrastructure was well established, it wasn’t hard for any company, even small labs in academia, to make this pivot. One day they were working on a vaccine for X disease. The next, they were working on a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2.

The one caveat I heard, especially from small companies in biotech, was money. Some companies, for example, have the technology but not the cash to produce their products to meet the demands of a market rapidly expanding to meet immediate needs at home and globally.

The government realized it needed to create a bridge between academia, biotech, and manufacturing. So it created the funding program called the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) born out of The Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act from 24 April 2020 and also Operation Warp Speed for the development of vaccines and therapeutics in the defense of SARS-CoV-2.

Yet somehow, the Democrats and the media coopted the mantra “Follow the science” over their Republican and conservative leaning counterparts, granting them many degrees of intelligence over the other half of the country.

I’m ashamed as a scientist that science got hijacked in 2020 as a political tool. The media, like most of the world, have no good answer for the pandemic in a free society, but they can shout, “We’re following the science,” when questioned. “Phew,” I think, “we’re saved,” every time I hear a politician, or anyone, utter these words.

Both of the two main parties in the USA can be accused of violating laws of biology in 2020. And candidates adopt different priorities for science in their platforms. One president wants to be the first on Mars, the other wants a mask mandate. 

I expect inflammatory, insulting rhetoric to take place in the mainstream media; their goal is to accumulate likes and dollars. I’m not OK with science media, the media of the journals publishing the peer reviewed science, going down the same rabbit hole. 

The dive into the rabbit hole began in a subtle way. Science writers I like to follow started pushing for the dirty details of the relationship between Anthony Fauci and President Trump. The second question in one interview with Fauci in March 2020 in the journal Science is “How are you managing to not get fired?” If I had 20 minutes of Fauci’s time, I wouldn’t be asking him a question like that. It was the moment I realized that now science journalists found an opening to express their opinions on the presidential election.

Science pushed hard before the election. Another article details all the mistakes at the CDC, and on top of it, that Deborah Birx in the COVID task force is a difficult woman to work for who answers only to the president. Truth be told, I couldn’t finish reading this article because while it may be factual, I felt like it was undermining not only the efforts of the task force, but the public’s view of science and maybe scientists, especially female ones. Who does that help? Not science.

After all, who wouldn’t be stressed and difficult to work with while trying to figure out what to do with a worldwide deadly pandemic? The pandemic is a grand biological experiment progressing in real time on a worldwide scale with all the failures and dead ends appearing on live television rather than hidden in a drawer in a lab notebook. 

Instead, science journals report politely on Chinese scientists who have been at the center of the controversy around the origin of the virus. ‘Trump owes us an apology‘ begins the title of one article. An understandably necessary article to quell any conspiracy theories out there. Yet we still don’t know how exactly the pandemic started.

You can’t argue with articles that state facts. The CDC has had its problems and maybe Birx is hard to work with for some. In my own experience, most scientists in high level positions are demanding. The only ones I’ve found regretful to work for are the ones who have no particular vision. 

But for me, people in science started to cross the line when editors at the journal Science and other peer reviewed journals began to unabashedly slam the president. “Trump Lied about Science” was the name of one. This is the journal Science, not the New York Times.

It was a three minute read on how the president had lied to America about SARS-CoV-2. I can’t argue against what was recorded on Bob Woodward’s tape. Nor am I going to try to interpret the president’s words or make excuses for them. The argument might work well in the mainstream media, but the editorial seemed like a form of whining from an accomplished scientist that he too had been hoodwinked by the president about the pandemic. I don’t believe it. Anyone, especially scientists, had their antennae up in January. I didn’t need Bob Woodward’s tape to confirm the potential danger nine months after the fact.

When the first travel ban was instituted, much to the disgust of half of the country and the media at the time, I thought, OK this disease is not just in Wuhan any longer. Many people acted and wrote about the potential for the spread of the disease differently.

I had a trip planned to Seattle, where only two weeks before the first case of COVID-19 had been diagnosed. I was to leave on 30 January the day before flights in between China and the USA would stop. I wondered for a few moments whether or not I should even fly to Seattle. I went. My thinking was if it’s there, it’s here too in California, as ~ 7,000 travelers a day were arriving in my state from Asia before the pandemic. And anyway, like many other travelers out there in the USA, I chose not to cancel my trip to a private event in Seattle, despite the implications of the first international travel ban.

My fears were compounded when I boarded my flight to Seattle where I had to choose between my assigned seat next to a very large man or one wearing a mask on the other side. I took my chances with the guy with the mask, but I couldn’t help but wonder when I entered the Seattle Airport with a lot of other travelers from Asia if I hadn’t made the wrong decision. Already I was fixating on touching the buttons on the ticket dispensing machine for the train ride into the city.

It wasn’t that long ago that the people in the science community wouldn’t remember the threat of SARS-CoV-1. The virus killed about 10% of the people known to have been infected with it. SARS-CoV-1 didn’t get far. It wasn’t as contagious as SARS-CoV-2, and the rigorous execution of contact tracing and quarantining ended that disease.

But if you’re a scientist writing an editorial slamming Trump for lying about science, you might instead ask, “Are scientists communicating well enough to the general public? To our leaders? What are we doing wrong?” Sure all eyes are on the president. Yet getting science right for the public is part of what our job should be.

While I can marginally tolerate an opinion piece on the president’s action, or inaction, on the pandemic in a science journal, even though I found it to lack any self-reflection on communication or ideas for how to curb the disease’s trajectory, I had a more difficult time with the one criticizing the development of a vaccine, A dangerous rush for vaccines

First, the editorial written by a scientist lacked a sense of the power of today’s technology. Second, it underestimated the experience of the companies and the scientists who are doing the work. Maybe I can forgive this editor because he’s a chemist and not a biologist. But the development of a vaccine in months rather than years was not Star Trekian science, not in 2020. 

There’s that thing called genomic sequencing which shaved years off even the discovery of the virus. All that molecular biology. And oh, one of the companies involved, BioNTech, has been in the business of developing personal vaccines for cancers for a few years.

Contrast that title with another in the science journal Nature: What China’s speedy COVID vaccine deployment means for the pandemic. Most of the article glorifies the feat of the Chinese with only the last paragraphs addressing any of the caveats of an accelerated pace in the development of a vaccine against a novel pathogen. Given the choice, I would choose the dangerously rushed vaccine born of a collaboration of German and US companies.

OK, it’s all fair in the discipline to criticize, that’s what scientists do, but are scientists who speak from a political point of view undermining America’s science and our scientists? The last thing America needs is for a scientist in a science journal for political reasons to cast doubt on a vaccine. Enough damage has been done where vaccines are concerned.

What finally drove me to write this essay was a piece, published after the election, titled Let’s not overthink this. Now in a fashion as in the mainstream media, the piece was no longer a dig against just the president, but one against his voters as well. Throughout the article are overt digs to half of the country. Because apparently they don’t even believe in science. They’re hopeless, the author writes. 

Funny, I heard politicians on one side saying that they would wear a mask but not take the vaccine. Is that following the science?

The editorial was an attack on voters’ positions on specific science issues: the pandemic and climate change. Anyone using the mainstream media and social media as their main resource for generating such opinions runs the risk of mischaracterizing most of the voters in our country. 

I don’t believe a majority of conservative voters aren’t interested in climate change. And I don’t believe a majority of voters on the left thought the virus couldn’t be transmitted at the protests even equipped with a mask.

More people didn’t get infected with SARS-CoV-2 during the protests because as one study, totally misrepresented by the mainstream media, concluded, most people just stayed home. If anything, the study emphasized the importance of maintaining distance from each other during a pandemic. Sure, the protests were outdoors, but then why keep Disneyland closed? Or why close the beaches? This isn’t science.

Only the Los Angeles health director came out with a warning about contracting the virus at the protests, and suggested getting tested and/or self-quarantining for 14 days if you had been at one. I thought this statement supported the protests but told participants how to do it responsibly during a pandemic.

Going down the rabbit hole with the mainstream media backfired for the science community in some cases. The high impact journal The Lancet retracted a study on the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19. Hydroxychloroquine was a hot topic because of the president’s ramblings, never mind there were justifications for trying the drug on patients early on in the pandemic. Presidents shouldn’t be weighing in on how to treat diseases, although I’m sure he didn’t come up with the idea on his own. At the same time, I don’t take those statements seriously.

My worry is what if a study showing hydroxychloroquine had helped COVID-19 patients had been submitted? Would it have even gone into review? 

In the end, the system worked. Scientists revealed the fraud of this paper. But Americans don’t need a science program designed to refute the president’s brain storming ideas. Or personal political opinions cloaked in a piece on science. The country, the world needed tests, therapeutics and a vaccine. And on those issues, he backed the science community 100%. Yet, the journals such as Scientific American, Nature, the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet all went on in an unprecedented fashion to publish editorials backing his opponent in the US presidential election. 

A good dose of humility from the science community (and most of the rest of us) and possibly some self-reflection is in order. It’s our country. If there were better ideas out there on what we should have been doing for the pandemic early on, or better choices for non-elected positions in leadership, someone could have spoken up. 

Maybe we let each other down. The world doesn’t stop for one US presidential election gone wrong for half of the country. The pandemic is evidence of that.

It’s time to move on. Attacking voters after the election isn’t changing anything. Not supporting the Paris Agreement, or a candidate who does, isn’t equivalent to not realizing the climate is changing. And does it matter? The purpose is saving our environment and not depleting the resources the planet has. And what are people willing to give up to achieve those goals? Their cars? Uninterrupted power?

Fossil fuels at today’s levels are driving us maybe into extinction. At the same time, I’m not convinced that the renewable energy technology of today (which has its place) on a global scale won’t just destroy the environment in another way.

Scientists don’t get off so easy, blaming someone else. Not during a pandemic. 

Politicizing science is almost a surrender to our own inadequacies communicating as scientists. It’s confusing and wrong to associate science issues with one party or the other. WHO failed the world because, well because it was political. Just maybe, what Americans have discovered, is that agencies like the CDC and WHO need to be rigorously updated to function at the level of expertise available in the private sector and academia in 2020. 

It could be a failure of scientists, if a major issue in science is not a priority of all Americans. The mix of science and politics didn’t work very well centuries ago for Galileo. The Earth revolves around the sun, but at one time it was a political issue. 

I don’t know if science was on the ballot for most voters. Maybe I agree with the editorial on that issue. But should it be? Some people are just trying to get meals on the table. Do scientists want their work linked to politics anyway? Scientists can’t risk losing their credibility based on chasing a narrative they like whether it’s related to politics or not.

It’s easy to work for a boss you like. It’s not so easy working for a boss you might not like or disagree with. The same work still needs to be done. So it’s still our responsibility as Americans to fight to protect our own country no matter who is president and until we get the next one. I commend the scientists in public office who were willing to do that.

 

Stay safe!

 

©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, Clinical Cancer ResearchPLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.

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