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Cosmic Science

When pandemics mix with politics, it’s unhealthy

For years, public health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been playing out scenarios for dealing with pandemics, but the one scenario they didn’t count on was that they’d be hamstrung by their own political leaders.

“I don’t think anybody ever thought that that would happen,” said Maryn McKenna, a veteran reporter on infectious diseases. “And yet, seven months into the pandemic here in the United States, that’s pretty much where we are.”

McKenna and others involved in the response to the coronavirus outbreak discussed the role that politics has played in the pandemic, during a presentation organized by the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Today’s session served as the kickoff for a free weekly series of online events focusing on COVID-19, offered for journalists as well as the public in conjunction with the annual ScienceWriters conference.

Panelists agreed that mixed messages from the nation’s leaders have hampered efforts to combat the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Americans. Just today, Cornell University researchers said their analysis pointed to President Donald Trump as “the single largest driver of misinformation around COVID.”

Such misinformation has taken the form of conspiracy theories about the origins and spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, plus the hype surrounding supposed “miracle” cures and efforts to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak.

Marsha Jones — co-founder and executive director of The Afiya Center, a Texas-based reproductive justice organization — said she’s seen it all before, during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.

“I didn’t think that I would ever see a disease so politicized as HIV was ever again, because for some reason I thought we learned,” she said.

Like the HIV epidemic, the COVID-19 epidemic is dealing a particularly heavy blow to people “who get the least amount of funding, who get the least amount of recognition, who have the worst care,” Jones said.

And even as the outbreak is raging, disadvantaged communities are struggling with the repercussions of systemic racism and urban unrest. “We’re living in a dual epidemic,” Jones said.

Science is suffering along with society, said Peter Daszak, president of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance. His group became the focus of controversy early in the pandemic because it helped train Chinese virologists in Wuhan, which was the outbreak’s global epicenter.

The training effort was part of a federally funded program called PREDICT, which aimed to anticipate cross-species viral outbreaks. The Trump administration let the program expire last year, just before the first COVID-19 cases came to light — and EcoHealth Alliance faced heavy criticism largely because of unfounded accusations that the virus was unleashed from the Wuhan virology lab.

“It’s the right wing, it’s QAnon, it’s people spending hours in their basements doing ‘research’ on the internet to dig up stuff that sounds like a conspiracy,” Daszak said. “And of course, with so much online presence, the president not only allows that to happen, but also promotes it, and seems to believe it himself.”

Scientists tend to be uncomfortable about getting into the political fray, but Daszak said inaction may no longer be an option. “During the HIV pandemic, science got political, and scientists got political,” he said. “It’s no good keeping quiet. You’ve got to push back, and push back strong, and tell the truth about what’s going on. … If you keep quiet, you’ve just basically consigned science to the trash heap.”

So what is to be done? The panelists said the political outlook could brighten next year. There’s already an effort in the works to get a virus surveillance program called Stop Spillover funded, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to revive PREDICT.

McKenna said Biden could also reverse cutbacks in public health spending and shore up the CDC’s data-gathering operation.

But politicians aren’t the only ones who can play a role in repairing public policy on pandemics, Daszak said.

“You’re journalists,” he told the online audience. “So get out there and speak the truth, and push back.”

McKenna said it’s crucial for all journalists to be trained to cover the different facets of coronavirus coverage, ranging from biology to business, from epidemiology to education.

“We should rethink the silos within which we exist as journalists … because it’s entirely possible that a science and public health story like the coronavirus pandemic will come in and cut across all those silos, and demonstrate the degree to which we have not trained each other in the mutual knowledge that we all need,” she said.

Daszak said truth-telling shouldn’t be confined to a newsroom setting.

“Go talk to your neighbors and friends,” he said. “And also, you know, the folks with the Trump sign outside their house. Go have a chat with them, see what they think about masks and school openings. Listen to them, and say a couple of things, a couple of facts, nothing heavy, and just let it settle and move away. … We need a societal change in our understanding of things like this pandemic.”

Jones stressed that you don’t need to be a politician — or a journalist, or a public health worker, for that matter — to parry the pandemic.

“The greatest changes don’t necessarily have to happen in the political arena. “There are changes that can happen outside of that, that will inevitably impact what’s happening in the political arena,” she said.

She advised starting with the place where you have the most influence, even if it’s outside the traditional halls of power.

“If that’s at your house, if that’s on your porch, in the park, in the gym — wherever it is that you have the most power, and you can have the most convincing conversation where you’re talking with somebody who can create change, that’s what you do,” Jones said.

From the CDC: How to protect yourself and others

I’ll update this report with the archived video from today’s #SciWriCOVID presentation once it’s available. The next presentation in the “COVID-19 Science and Coverage” series is scheduled for Oct. 7, starting at 5 p.m. ET (2 p.m. PT). The theme is “Reporting on the Pandemic.” Panelists include STAT senior writer Helen Branswell; Laura Helmuth, editor in chief of Scientific American; Patrice Peck, creator of the newsletter Coronavirus News for Black Folks; and Zeynep Tufekci, a contributing writer at The Atlantic

Full disclosure: I’m the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, which is one of the organizers of the series. FiveThirtyEight senior science writer Maggie Koerth, a CASW board member, moderated today’s session. 

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White House CFO becomes Pentagon’s top techie

White House chief technology officer Michael Kratsios ⁠— who enlisted Amazon, Microsoft and other key players in artificial intelligence and cloud computing to fight COVID-19 ⁠— has himself been recruited for another role as the Defense Department’s top official for technology.

President Donald Trump is designating Kratsios to serve as the acting under secretary of defense for research and engineering — in effect, the Pentagon’s CTO. Kratsios will also keep his CTO role in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The previous under secretary in charge of defense tech, Mike Griffin, stepped down last week to pursue “a private-sector opportunity” along with his deputy.

Kratsios will be in the prime position to help the Pentagon pursue opportunities in emerging technologies such as AI, automation, quantum computing, robotics and 5G wireless services — frontiers that have drawn increasing attention under Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

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How will protests affect the pandemic?

Protesters in Seattle
Activists Malcolm Frankson (speaking) and Jack Eppard Barajas (right) discuss police reforms with a crowd of protesters in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Social distancing, masks and gloves are among measures being taken to avoid spreading coronavirus. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Epidemiologists say the crowding conditions associated with mass protests over police violence seem likely to add dozens of people, or perhaps even hundreds, to the daily death toll from coronavirus infections.

But they acknowledge that that these sorts of assessments involve a tradeoff between public health and social justice.

“Racism and state-sponsored violence are critical public health issues,” Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, wrote in a weekend string of tweets. “We should also acknowledge that the specific action of large-scale public protest at this moment during the COVID-19 pandemic may result in perhaps more than 10 but less than 100 deaths per day.”

In response to feedback, Bedford later revised his estimate to “a highly speculative” guess of more than 50 but less than 500 extra deaths for each day of protest.

Bedford and other coronavirus trackers pointed out that the protests are coming amid widespread relaxation of strict rules on social distancing and business activities. That will make it all the more difficult to tease out the specific causes behind what’s likely to be an upswing in infections.

“The protests and potential to transmit virus are on a background of general societal opening,” Bedford said. “It feels as though we’ve largely given up on controlling the epidemic and have resigned ourselves to living alongside it.”

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Trump campaign pulls ad featuring SpaceX launch

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken say farewell to their families before heading to the launch pad for a SpaceX launch to the International Space Station on May 30. (NASA via YouTube)

An online advertisement that plays off last weekend’s historic crewed SpaceX launch to boost President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign drew a protest from the wife of one of the astronauts today — and soon afterward, the campaign deleted its version of the ad.

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Trump hails SpaceX launch after seeing it firsthand

Donald Trump in VAB
President Donald Trump delivers remarks in Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building with a mockup of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

President Donald Trump held up America’s space effort as a unifying endeavor for a divided nation after becoming only the third sitting president to witness the launch of American astronauts in person.

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Trump says he’s taking pills to dodge COVID-19

President Donald Trump said today that he’s taking hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that’s being tested as a COVID-19 treatment at the University of Washington and  dozens of other sites across the country.

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Tech CEOs advise White House on virus impact

Jeff Bezos and Satya Nadella
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. (Space Foundation / Microsoft Photos)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and President Donald Trump aren’t exactly the best of friends, but that didn’t stop the White House from including the world’s richest individual on a list of industry leaders working with Trump to bring about a “Great American Economic Revival.”

Bezos, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson are among the members of industry groups that were created this week to address the economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, the White House said in an April 14 statement.

Nadella and Bezos are on the tech group, alongside the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel, Oracle, Salesforce and other leading companies. Johnson is listed with a different group, focusing on the food and beverage industry.

There are more than 200 representatives in all on sector-specific teams, ranging from health care industry executives to sports executives and “thought leaders” including trickle-down economist Art Laffer.

“These bipartisan groups of American leaders will work together with the White House to chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity,” the White House said.

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White House science chief will lead NSF, too

Kelvin Droegemeier
White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier speaks during a Seattle town hall session at February’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (AAAS via YouTube)

President Donald Trump has named White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier to serve as acting director of the National Science Foundation.

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Virus-tracking plans raise privacy concerns

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene
Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash.,, says privacy concerns have to be considered along with public health concerns. (DelBene.House.gov Photo)

Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., and two other members of Congress are sounding an alarm over the prospect of using location data to track the coronavirus outbreak.

In a letter to President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who heads up the White House’s coronavirus task force, the three lawmakers take note of reports that Facebook, Google and other tech companies have been talking with administration officials about using data captured by smartphones and apps for public health purposes.

Although such applications may help public health officials limit the spread of COVID-19, they could also limit personal privacy, according to the letter, which was signed by DelBene as well as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.

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Former U.N. envoy breaks with Boeing over aid

Nikki Haley
During her term as South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley paid tribute to the expansion of Boeing’s operations in the state. (South Carolina Governor’s Office Photo / Sam Holland)

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador who has been touted as a future presidential candidate, says she’s resigning from Boeing’s board of directors to protest the company’s request for $60 billion in federal aid.

Boeing has been hit hard by the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the aviation industry, as well as the continued grounding of the 737 MAX fleet in the wake of two fatal crashes. This week the company said it supports a minimum of $60 billion in access to private and public liquidity for the aerospace manufacturing industry.

In a letter sent to Boeing CEO David Calhoun and the board, Haley said she couldn’t go along with Boeing’s request.

“I cannot support a move to lean on the federal government for a stimulus or bailout that prioritizes our company over others and relies on taxpayers to guarantee our financial position,” she wrote. “I have long held strong convictions that this is not the role of government.”

For that reason, she said she was resigning from the board position that she’s held since last year.

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