Assault on Science Rivals Covid-19 as Public Health Threat

Researchers say anti-science rhetoric and rampant conspiracy theories after a recent surge of fresh Covid-19 cases have become just as threatening to our safety as the virus itself.

FILE – In this file photo dated Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, a bottle of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on a table before being utilized in Topeka, USA. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, FILE)

(CN) — With over 100 million cases reported worldwide and more than 2 million deaths, Covid-19 has well established itself as one of the most dangerous pandemics in recent history. Now, a new essay by an expert in virology and vaccine development warns that the virus is competing with a threat just as potentially deadly — anti-science rhetoric.

While there are a great many unknowns about the future of coronavirus, one thing is all too clear: Covid-19 is still very much a troubling reality for nearly everyone on the planet. Even with the recent development of an effective vaccine, coronavirus cases continue to climb while thousands lose their lives each day to a virus that has hounded the world for over a year.

Perhaps nowhere is this reality more tragically evident than in the United States. Although it’s the richest country in the world, it has still found itself leading the world in positive cases and death rates throughout the bulk of the global pandemic. 

This has left countless experts and everyday people scratching their heads over a simple question: How? How did the United States, with all of its resources and capabilities, struggle so profoundly in managing a viral outbreak?

Dr. Peter Hotez, professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, suggests in a new paper that the answer to these questions lies behind a culprit he says can be almost as dangerous as Covid-19 — a willingness on behalf of all too many to ignore and dismiss sound science.

“This year of Covid-19 exposed our vulnerabilities to pandemic threats, but also how a rising tide of anti-science can dramatically expand its devastating impact,” Hotez said with the release of the essay, published Thursday in the journal PLOS Biology. “We are learning a harsh reality that anti-science may represent almost as big a threat as the virus itself.”

Hotez, who also codirects the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital that is helping to develop a new, low-cost Covid-19 vaccine, reports in his essay that it was an astounding surge of anti-science rhetoric, dangerous conspiracy theories masquerading as facts and repeated efforts to politicize scientific data that helped spin the United States so out of control throughout 2020.

Hotez suggests that these factors alone are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and highlights just how influential misinformation can be during a time of unprecedented crisis.

He says that a good portion of this blame can be laid right at the feet of the federal government and its abysmal response to the pandemic — a response that can be traced right to former President Donald Trump.

Hotez says that instead of implementing strategies and safety measures based on data to help manage the pandemic, such as by making a national push for face masks and social distancing, Trump and his coronavirus task force instead spent their time crafting a campaign of falsehoods and disinformation.

At a time when he could have been a strong voice for science, Hotez notes that Trump and his allies used their platform to degrade and dismiss it. This was done through spreading unproven theories on Covid-19 treatments. 

Trump’s decision to tout the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment despite little evidence to support such claims and his consistent downplaying of the severity of the virus even as it ravaged communities across the country all contributed, according to the paper.

Hotez notes that — while admittedly on a much different scale — this effort to diminish the integrity of science conjures up a reminder of what the Soviet Union experienced under the Stalin regime. 

In what is commonly known as “The Great Purge,” Stalin used his power to intimidate, persecute and even execute scientists and other academics he feared could threaten not just his authority, but the control he and his government maintained over the minds of his citizens.

Hotez says that while the context between the Great Purge and what is happening to the United States today is not the same, he raises the story to serve as a reminder for what consequences can befall those who allow national leaders to utilize and even attack science for their own political agendas.

But Hotez says that hope is not lost, however, as there are steps that can be taken to reinforce the value of science once again. He suggests that a new inter-agency task force be established in response to Covid-19 composed of several U.S. agencies, a task force that could also be replicated by the United Nations on a global level.

While there is an understandable push for new breakthroughs in Covid-19 vaccines, Hotez says that in the long run, it is only through encouraging people to turn away from the dangerous and misguided dogma of anti-science will the world truly turn the page on this devastating pandemic.

“There is now urgency to develop an array of Covid-19 vaccines and other biomedical interventions,” he writes. “But ultimately, solutions through biomedicine won’t be sufficient to halt the spread of Covid-19. We must simultaneously dismantle anti-science.”

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