Marisa Peryer

Several Yale professors have joined 3,500 public health experts to deliver a blunt message to the Trump administration: stop downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic and start listening to the science.

Epidemiology professor Gregg Gonsalves co-authored an open letter calling on President Trump to heed experts’ advice when crafting the nation’s pandemic response. The letter defends Anthony Fauci — Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — and his evidence-based approach to combating COVID-19.

Gonsalves drafted the letter alongside Peter Lurie, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a science-based watchdog. Though the White House has not yet responded to the letter, the piece has received significant support from the public health community. Since the letter’s July 17 release, it has accrued signatures from more than 3,500 top health officials, including former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders and former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden.

“We want to ensure that the world knows that ignoring the science for political gain is a dangerous game and that scientists in the US will not remain silent as President Trump spreads information and lies about COVID-19,” Gonsalves wrote in an email to the News.

The nation has fragmented in its efforts to quell the pandemic, with scientists and politicians often disagreeing on whether to mandate masks and how to pace reopening. Meanwhile, case numbers have surged. By July 27, the US had reported over 4.3 million cases of COVID-19, comprising more than a quarter of total cases worldwide.

Other nations, including China and much of Europe, have largely been able to bring the virus to heel. Robert Bazell — a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology who signed onto the open letter — attributed the successful reopening in those countries to their careful consideration of the science. 

Through past pandemics in the US — including the H1N1 epidemic in 2009 — Bazell said the standard procedure was for politicians to cede control of the response to scientists, and only to speak up to reinforce their messaging.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has differed. 

Harlan Krumholz, a public health professor who signed onto the letter, explained how the US’s struggle to contain the virus has been largely a product of a starkly divided political sphere, as messaging about the severity of the virus has become divided between people with different political views.

“We’re in the midst of a highly polarized environment where almost anything that occurs in the country divides us along political lines,” Krumholz said. “When the pandemic came, it became embroiled as part of that political life where people took sides.”

Krumholz added that this divide has stymied the nation’s efforts to fight the illness by eroding confidence in leaders and confusing people with differing messages.

Bazell said that the politicization of disease is nothing new; it dates back to at least the Bubonic Plague. More recently, the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Gonsalves explained, saw the US fail to  effectively address the disease as it mostly struck the gay community.

But both professors added that the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates a different, and to them more worrying, phenomenon: “a turning away from scientific evidence and facts for political reasons,” Gonsalves wrote.

“This is about science denialism, like saying the Earth is flat,” he continued.

According to Bazell, Fauci — whom he sees as an embodiment of the scientific community — has been scapegoated by some segments of society. The letter refers to a campaign waged by the White House to discredit Fauci. 

In recent weeks, the Executive Branch has mounted an attack against Fauci, claiming that he erred in directing the public health response at the start of the pandemic. In a July 9 interview, President Trump told Fox News Host Sean Hannity that Fauci had “made a lot of mistakes.” A recent White House document released to the press portrayed some of Fauci’s early statements about the pandemic as inaccurate. 

Bazell defended Fauci’s actions and noted that emerging diseases as dangerous as COVID-19 often require policy decisions before the true nature of the illness has been uncovered. Policy decisions and advice are therefore apt to change as scientists discover new information, Bazell continued.

“Attempting to marginalize highly respected researchers such as Dr. Fauci is a dangerous distraction at a time when we most need voices like his,” the letter reads. “Now is not the time to turn our backs on science.”

In a recent series of interviews with The Atlantic, Fauci described attempts to discredit him as distractions to the US’s pandemic response. Krumholz echoed this idea, and added that the letter aims to eliminate this distraction rather than retaliate with finger-pointing. In recent weeks, Trump has reversed course on his initial stance trivializing the impact of mask wearing, which Krumholz said is an important step for delivering a uniform message to the American public.

“It’s of no use to enter the political fray and to start criticizing,” Krumholz said, adding that letters like this one don’t try to “chastise or embarrass,” but rather to urge the Executive Branch to utilize Fauci’s experience to help the country recover.

As of July 27, there are more than 16 million coronavirus cases worldwide.

 

 

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu