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Scientists Are Reaching Out to Spur Action on COVID-19, Both Now and Into the Future

Model of the coronavirus crocheted by Ana Maria Porras, AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador.
Model of the coronavirus crocheted by AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador Ana Maria Porras.
Photo credit: Ana Maria Porras

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread around the world, many scientists and science communicators have been asking themselves: what can I do to help? They also wonder: will this experience change the way we prepare for and respond to pandemics, including the way we fund research? 

Partly to combat her frustration as she saw people going about their business as usual, Kacey Ernst, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, reached out to her cohort of AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute fellows, all infectious disease researchers, with an idea. She wrote a draft of an open letter to local, state and national leaders, calling for more uniform and enforceable social distancing. Several of the fellows provided edits -- Karen Levy in particular. A professor of epidemiology and environmental health at Emory University, Levy also reached out to Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean at Emory School of Medicine and chair of Emory’s Department of Global Health. Del Rio, who has many contacts and experience with the media, helped them streamline the letter. They had about 100 signatories from the infectious disease research community when they reached out to a news editor at Science. Since it was covered there, the signatories list has grown to more than 600 scientists and more than 150 scientists-in-training.

On her motivations, Levy says, “Anthony Fauci [Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] seemed like the only one speaking clearly on the topic, and I wanted to find a way to amplify Dr. Fauci's message, and indicate that it was not just him, but that a large chunk of the infectious disease scientific community agreed with him on the importance of taking the virus seriously, and taking quick and comprehensive action.”

The actions they recommended in the letter (closing non-essential businesses and schools, scaling up testing including drive-thrus, actively preparing hospitals for onslaughts of patients, and immediately providing financial support for those impacted) are now being taken in many places, although not always nationally. Ernst says she knows decision-makers saw the letter, but doesn’t know what effect it had.

Ernst notes that “being in the Leshner fellowship cohort really made this possible to put together. Without Karen [Levy], it wouldn’t have gotten done, and without Leshner, I wouldn’t even know Karen.” She also points out that currently, policymakers tend to rely on a few federal researchers and other experts for their information, but she believes it shouldn’t be on so few shoulders. Just as their letter relied on the power of signatory numbers and consensus, she hopes a pandemic threat assessment and response network of experts can be formed to systematically assess threats of newly emerging pathogens and provide this information directly to policymakers. “I hope that we change based on what we are learning from this pandemic,” Ernst concludes, via email.

One of Maria Elena Bottazzi’s hopes for the future is that the COVID-19 pandemic could cut the cycle of short-term, reactive interest in funding public health research, helping the public and policymakers take a longer-term view. Bottazzi, another member of the infectious disease cohort of Leshner fellows, is the co-director of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, and associate dean at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. Her lab developed a vaccine after the SARS epidemic that could have been fully developed into a vaccine for this strain of the coronavirus, but they ran out of funding and had to stop work on it. Now, they are taking it back up again.

Bottazzi recently was a guest on the NBA-themed podcast Back to Back, speaking alongside Dr. Zachary Binney, a sports injury epidemiologist at Emory University. Given that a number of NBA players have tested positive for the coronavirus and the NBA has postponed its season, John Drazan, a biomedical engineer who won the 2020 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science for his work connecting sports and science, already had connections to the podcast and pitched the idea of inviting scientists onto the podcast to talk about the pandemic. His AAAS contacts put him in touch with Bottazzi. She and Binney talked about how COVID-19 spreads, what actions to take, and whether it was reasonable for the NBA to reassess its season after a month (they agreed it was reasonable, but also not to assume that they can start up again at that time). Bottazzi also said she hopes this crisis will open up more collaboration between government, the private sector, and academia -- including discussions about where there are gaps in research funding and pandemic planning.

On television, online, and elsewhere, scientists are seeking ways to share information with the public. Bill Wuest, a chemistry professor at Emory University and member of the current human augmentation cohort of Leshner fellows, was featured on The Weather Channel. He talked about using soap and hand sanitizer to combat the spread of COVID-19 (both work well, but both require 20 seconds of scrubbing; with handwashing, it needn’t be a special kind of soap, but hot water is better than cold, and with hand sanitizer, scrub until it dries). Many scientists are sharing information via social media. For example, AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador Ana Maria Porras, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell, used Instagram to share information about coronaviruses as a part of her ongoing #MicrobeMonday campaign - and included a model of coronavirus that she'd crocheted. On Reddit, AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador Dorothy Tovar, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford who studies how viral diseases spread from bats to humans and livestock, participated in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) with two other experts about the coronavirus. The conversation was viewed 213,000 times and was well-received (i.e., 92% of viewers upvoted it).

The AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science will continue to share examples of how scientists can and are discussing this virus and appropriate responses with other members of the public. Email us at publicengagement@aaas.org or tweet to @MeetAScientist with your stories.

More examples of scientists engaging with the public on COVID-19 include:

Author

Elana Kimbrell

Communication Program Officer

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