Nature interviewed 300 scientists who did media interviews about COVID. The results had surprisingly positive ratings – 85% said “their experiences of engaging with the media were always or mostly positive, even though they were harassed afterwards.”
But as you might expect, a significant portion described horrific abuse. No less than 15% have received death threats and 22% “have received threats of physical or sexual violence”.
Vaccines would be expected to be the source of many threats, but speaking with individual researchers, the reporter from this Nature history has revealed that some of the hottest abuses have come after scientists gave media interviews to debunk bogus ‘cures’ for COVID – like the pest control drug ivermectin.
As epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz put it …
“I think I’ve received more death threats from ivermectin, in fact, than anything I’ve done before,” he says. “These are anonymous people emailing me from weird accounts saying ‘I hope you die’ or ‘if you were near me I would shoot you’.”
Andrew Hill, a pharmacologist at the Institute for Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool, suffered vitriol abuse after he and his colleagues published a meta-analysis in July. He suggested that ivermectin had a benefit, but Hill and his co-authors then decided to retract and revise the analysis when one of the larger studies they included was withdrawn due to concerns. ethics regarding its data (A. Hill et al. Open Forum Inf. Say. 8, ofab394; 2021). After that, Hill was besieged by images of hanged people and coffins, with attackers saying he would be subject to “Nuremberg trials” and that he and his children would “burn in hell”. He has since closed his Twitter account.
The same goes for researchers who question the claim that COVID was created in a laboratory in China …
Virologist Danielle Anderson, now at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of Melbourne in Australia, suffered intense and coordinated abuse online and via email after writing a fact-checking review at the start of 2020 of an article suggesting SARS-CoV -2 may have leaked from the Chinese Institute of Virology in Wuhan (WIV). At the time, she was based at the Duke – National University of Singapore Medical School in Singapore, but had collaborated with the WIV since the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002-04. “Eat a bat and die, bitch,” an email said.
History notes several caveats to the Nature survey, including the fact that it only includes information from scientists who have chosen to respond. The results here are therefore suggestive but inconclusive; the actual incidence of abuse may be lower than that found by this study (if people who had been harassed were more likely to respond) or higher (if the reverse was true).
(Image licensed under CC-2.0 of Coronavirus courtesy of Yuri Samoilov’s Flickr feed)