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Science and the Pandemic

Receiving my second AstraZeneca vaccination shot today made me reflect a bit on Science (the area in which I’ve chosen to work for much of my life) and the Pandemic (which I didn’t choose).

The good: Over the last 18 months there have been many astounding COVID-19 related scientific and technical achievements (implementation of PCR testing, rapid whole genome sequencing of viral isolates, ascertainment of human genetic variants that predispose to severe disease, evaluation of novel therapies, development of effective and safe vaccines, to name a few. Remarkably there have been more than 3.5 billion shots given and it has been estimated that in England alone vaccination has prevented 7.2 million infections and 27,000 deaths.) I don’t directly work on this stuff myself, but do consider myself privileged to be working alongside dedicated scientists and doctors, some of who do work on these things, at a research institute that does amazing scientific research.

The not-so-good: One might have thought that the response of the public to these fantastic achievements would be overwhelmingly positive. Astonishingly though, scientists and doctors delivering great advances in epidemiology or immunology are quite often treated with mistrust, disbelief, scorn, ridicule and sometimes abuse. In many cases the abuse includes accusations of venality and stupidity and implies membership of an insidious, evil gang. Good work by scientists is swamped by ludicrous falsehoods which are widespread and numerous (There is no disease! There is no virus! There is no such thing as a virus! The disease is not serious! The statistics are being fiddled! We can just stop the disease with vitamin C! With bleach! Or with sheep dip! We can just boost our immune systems with ginseng! Just stop taking your medications! It’s a plot by someone or other to subject us to something or other that’s really horrid! I’m a radio receiver! I’m magnetic! I’m being treated as a lab rat! I’m being persecuted!)

No, it’s not a fake. The Australian federal government’s Department of Health really thought it was necessary to say this.

And to be clear these are not dissenting minority views which are part of a rational scientific discussion: they are attempts to degrade science and do away with the scientific method altogether.

Not all of the anti-science pack are thugs and nutters. I understand that often the people who repeat the falsehoods may simply be ill-informed or fearful or susceptible to belief in conspiracy theories. Sadly though, sometimes the abuse originates from educated individuals who seek to self-aggrandise by promoting a contrarian position. Any contrarian position.

The conclusions: I have worked in science for decades but it has not been until this year that I realised to what extent people despise scientists, and that there is a popular and well-organised movement to corrupt the practice of scientific medicine. So for example there is a push to equate doctors with faith healers who like to use the work “holistic” in their job title. I’m a little despondent sometimes when I encounter people who seem to wish to drag us back into the Middle Ages. But from today I can cheer myself up by thinking of all those little T-cells and B-cells in my body doing their stuff to keep me and the people around me safe from the serious consequences of infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Thanks Science!

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