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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Covid: Scientists targeted with abuse during pandemic


The Covid-19 pandemic has made celebrities out of scientists, who have graced the daily news headlines and gained large social-media followings.

However, this rise in popularity has been accompanied by online abuse and even physical harassment.

The journal Nature conducted a survey of scientists who reported receiving threats of violence following media appearances.

Harassment was frequently triggered by discussions about vaccines or the drug ivermectin.

Scientists have faced abuse in the past when discussing climate change or previous vaccination campaigns.

Physically attacked

A self-selected survey of 321 people working in fields related to Covid discovered that more than a fifth had received threats of physical or sexual violence.

While this does not represent all scientists and cannot accurately depict the extent of abuse, it does provide a glimpse into some of the personal experiences of those who came into the public eye to provide information during the global disease outbreak.

Six people who responded to the survey said they had been physically assaulted as a result of media appearances.

Some of the more extreme cases have been widely reported. Leading Belgian virologist Prof Marc Van Ranst ended up in a safehouse after being targeted by a far-right trained sniper (since found dead) who despised lockdowns and threatened to kill health professionals.

The UK’s chief medical adviser, Prof Chris Whitty, was assaulted in a park by a 24-year-old estate agent, while two prominent German scientists were posted bottles of clear liquid labelled “positive” and a note telling them to drink it.

Krutika Kuppalli, a US infectious-diseases doctor who gave national media interviews and testified before a congressional committee, told Nature she received a death threat via phone call to her home.

Danielle Anderson, an Australian virologist who worked at the Wuhan Institute for Virology and was critical of the theory that the virus had escaped from there, received an email telling her to “eat a bat and die.”

Swinging coffins

Prof Andrew Hill wrote a positive review of anti-parasite drug ivermectin for treating Covid but reversed his stance once he discovered data he had been basing his conclusions on was untrustworthy.

Current evidence suggests that ivermectin is unlikely to be very effective for Covid – but Prof Hill has been subjected to a barrage of abuse, including accusations of genocide, which has driven him off social media.

“I received images of Nazi war criminals hanging from lampposts, voodoo images of swinging coffins, and threats that my family was not safe, that we would all burn in hell,” he told BBC News.

“Most days, when I opened my laptop in the morning, I was met with a sea of hatred and disturbing threats.

“On email, there were also threats to my scientific reputation.

“I know many other scientists who have been threatened and abused in similar ways after advocating for vaccination or questioning the efficacy of unproven treatments such as ivermectin.”

Being harassed

Dr. Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said there had been “a huge amount of abuse aimed at everyone contributing to the pandemic response… including NHS front-line staff.”

Prof Susan Michie, a behavioural scientist at University College London, predicted that “disturbing” online abuse would occur “most intensively after media engagements, particularly those that address restrictions to social mixing, the wearing of face masks, or vaccination.”

Other scientists polled reported receiving emails from their employers or having their professional reputations called into question.

However, nearly half of those who were harassed on their own social media did not notify their employer.

According to the Nature survey, those who were subjected to the most frequent harassment were the most likely to say it had influenced their willingness to give media interviews in the future.

Fiona Fox, chief executive of the UK Science Media Centre, which provides scientific commentary and briefings to journalists, said it would be a “great loss” if a scientist who was engaging with the media and sharing their expertise was removed from a public debate at a time when “we’ve never needed them so badly.”

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