“When virologists are in demand, it’s a sign of the apocalypse”: Meet the unlikely stars who are helping us navigate the pandemic
When news broke that the Biden administration was preparing to recommend coronavirus vaccine boosters, Pierre HotezS phone and inbox started to explode. Hotez, a veteran vaccine scientist and dean of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston (with more credentials than this sentence can fit), is one of today’s most wanted COVID experts, as evidenced by his parade of three days. appearances to talk about boosters: The lead with Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper 360, Don Lemon tonight, At this time with Kate Bolduan, Morning Joe, Stéphanie Ruhle reports, Katy Tur Reports (with Geoff bennett replacement), All with Chris Hayes (with Mehdi Hassan replacement), Daily MTP with Chuck Todd, Hello america, the CBS Evening News, NPR, SiriusXM, Yahoo Finance and a pinch of local radio for good measure. Moreover, he also found a few minutes to talk to me, not about COVID or vaccines, but rather about his new media profile. “It’s like having two full-time jobs,” said Hotez, one of the leading researchers of a vaccine candidate called Corbevax, which he hopes will soon be deployed in the developing world. “The main thing is to try to keep up with laboratory research and articles and do all media and public awareness. I like both.”
Each successful news cycle, from foreign conflicts and political scandals to missing planes and mega-trials, brings its own set of talking heads uniquely qualified to translate the mysteries: intelligence analysts, pilots, legal experts, generals to the pensioners, campaign agents, prosecutors, etc. In the past year and a half, perhaps no expert has been more in demand and ubiquitous than those steeped in the science and politics of the pandemic, a unique plague (hopefully!) In a way that most of us have never seen.
Meet the COVID Commentary: An influential army of virologists, epidemiologists, infectious disease physicians, vaccine scientists, emergency physicians, and public health figures who have gone from relative obscurity to familiar names. Before this all started, many of them happily worked in the anonymity of their laboratories or research institutes. Now, they have a large number of Twitter followers hanging on to their every word, sharing the links they tweet to esoteric preprints and @ -ings asking them if it’s okay to hang out at. inside with fully vaccinated friends. Everywhere you turn, they are there: on the cable, in The New York Times, on your Facebook feed, on the radio when you drive to run errands in the middle of the day, when you were at work. Before COVID, you had no idea who these people were, and if a random bat hadn’t ruined everything, chances are you always wouldn’t know who they are. (Remember when the name Antoine Fauci didn’t immediately ring a bell?) Now you’d probably pay a lot of money for the chance to pick their brain over dinner or a drink – outside and six feet away, naturally.
“When virologists are suddenly in demand, it’s a sign of the apocalypse,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “I am a researcher and a virologist. I inoculated mice in a windowless concrete block room for 20 years. I am someone who worked in a lab seven days a week. What were my joys? Go to a meeting called a “double stranded RNA reunion”. And then all of a sudden you’re on TV. You are a television person. I was on MSNBC this morning and CNN at noon. I can promise you that inoculating mice was the opposite of training for it. There is something that makes Offit a little uncomfortable. “Sometimes people stop me in the street because I am often on television. It hurts. He said CNN offered him a three-month, $ 25,000 contributor’s contract. (He declined.) He has been interviewed on camera for several documentaries. The filmmaker and producer Jon avnet (Grilled green tomatoes, Black Swan) consulted him on a pandemic-related project, he said. “I think it’s important that voices like mine are out there,” Offit told me. “But on the other hand, it’s terribly attractive.”
If COVID-19 had happened before Twitter was as influential as it is today, we would not have had direct and constant access to these experts. Their feeds are a public service, and once you start following enough of them, it feels like you always know the latest study on transmission dynamics, the most recent statistics on rising or falling cases, last piece of dark or uplifting science on the very moment it falls. At the same time, you are also starting to realize that even the best and the brightest in a particular field often have conflicting views. Some are criticized for being overly optimistic and optimistic. Others take heat to spread misfortune. (Do not look Eric Feigl-Ding‘s Twitter if you want to sleep well tonight.) It can be hard to know which piece of information is more solid, but it also gives you a range of very enlightened perspectives to shape your own judgment – a sense of control amid the chaos of a interminable public health emergency.
“I was accused of having a very positive outlook, which upset some people,” said Monique Gandhi, infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “Even though this is all very painful, I have a vision of it. I know it’s gonna end, and how it’s gonna end thanks to the immunity. I keep trying to get us going by saying, I’m sorry the delta has arrived, but again, it’s going to cause a lot more immunity. I have this kind of post and I see things that I want to say clearly, but I hate it because I have never been attacked before or seen as controversial. Gandhi told me that not a day goes by without “one or more” media requests. She only joined Twitter in April 2020; now she has tens of thousands of followers, including many prominent journalists. “I hope when this ends I will quit Twitter forever,” she said. “It’s like I have to do it, because I feel an obligation.”
In addition to tweeting, appearing on TV and giving endless sound bites to print journalists, some members of the COVID commentary are creating their own media. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, does a weekly podcast titled The Osterholm update. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, has partnered with The Journal of Providence to COVID: the sequel. Celine Gounder, infectious disease specialist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Grossman School of Medicine at New York University, runs a company called Just Human Productions, for which she runs American diagnosis and Epidemic, in addition to his frequent successes on audiovisual and cable networks and his writings in major news publications.
Andy Slavitt, who was a senior advisor and czar of vaccine awareness on the president Joe bidenThe COVID response team has grown from a little-known public health official to a Twitter phenomenon and podcast host. Slavitt got his first glimpse of niche social media stardom as acting head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during the Obama administration. (He took to Twitter to evangelize the Affordable Care Act.) He himself isn’t a doctor, scientist, or politician, but he has access to everything that matters and speaks to them regularly. So, at the start of the pandemic, when he started distilling everything he heard and learning about COVID in digestible Twitter feeds, his audience skyrocketed. (It has nearly 690,000 subscribers.) As Slavitt said, “I classify myself as kind of an outside insider.”