Covid: Scientists targeted with abuse during pandemic

By Rachel Schraer
Health reporter

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

But this rise in prominence has come with online abuse and even physical harassment.

The journal Nature surveyed scientists, who described receiving threats of violence after media appearances.

Discussions about vaccines or the drug ivermectin were common triggers for harassment.

In the past, scientists have faced abuse when discussing climate change or previous vaccination campaigns.

Physically attacked

The self-selecting survey of 321 people working in fields relevant to Covid found more than a fifth had received threats of physical or sexual violence.

While this is not representative of all scientists and cannot accurately reveal the scale of abuse, it provides a glimpse into some of the personal experiences of those who came into the public eye to give information during the global disease outbreak.

Six people who responded to the questionnaire said they had been physically attacked following 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.

Media caption,
Covid: NHS doctor 'receives 20 to 30 abusive messages a day'

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

Australian virologist Danielle Anderson, who worked at the Wuhan Institute for Virology and was critical of the theory it might be where the virus had escaped from, 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 available evidence suggests ivermectin is unlikely to be very effective for Covid - but Prof Hill has received a barrage of abuse, including accusing him of genocide, which has driven him off social media.

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

"This was happening most days - I opened my laptop in the morning to be confronted with a sea of hate and disturbing threats.

"There were also threats to my scientific reputation on email.

"I know many other scientists who have been threatened and abused in similar ways after promoting vaccination or questioning the benefits of unproven treatments like ivermectin."

Being harassed

University of Southampton senior research fellow in global health Dr Michael Head said there had been "a huge amount of abuse aimed at everyone contributing to the pandemic response... includ[ing] NHS front-line staff".

University College London behavioural scientist Prof Susan Michie said "disturbing" online abuse would happen "most intensively after media engagements and especially after those that address restrictions to social mixing ,the wearing of face masks or vaccination".

Other scientists surveyed mentioned emails being sent to their employers or their professional reputations being challenged.

But of those being harassed on their own social media, almost half said they did not tell their employer.

The Nature survey also found those targeted with the most frequent harassment were most likely to say it had affected their willingness to give media interviews in the future.

Fiona Fox, chief executive of the UK Science Media Centre, which provides scientific comment and briefings to journalists, said it was a "great loss if a scientist who was engaging with the media, sharing their expertise, is taken out of a public debate at a time when we've never needed them so badly".

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