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COVID-19 Pandemic Unleashed Death Threats, Violence And Abuse On Scientists


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer


Anthony Fauci has experienced so many threats during the pandemic he has been assigned personal security guards. Many lower-profile scientists have experienced similar attacks on a smaller scale, and it has caused some to stop talking about their research. Image Credit: NIAID CC BY 2.0.

A global survey of medical researchers who spoke publicly about COVID-19-related work reveals the consequence. One in five scientists who braved the media firestorm received threats of murder, more received threats of other physical violence, including sexual, and the majority experienced milder abuse such as personal attacks on their credibility. Six scientists reported physical assaults.

The survey, carried out by the journal Nature, has not been peer-reviewed and may be unrepresentative, but discussing the threat of the virus or the effectiveness of vaccines to a large audience is clearly risky. In many ways the pandemic was unprecedented, and that meant constant global media coverage, including interviews with experts as a means of communication as to what was happening, the various stages of containing the virus's spread, and the path out of it via newly developed vaccines. 


Scientists' findings causing an uproar is not a new concept. Galileo proving Earth was not the center of the universe is emblematic of the consequences of reporting scientific findings that upset the powerful, but social media has allowed everyone to join in. COVID-19 has taken abuse to new levels.

After hearing anecdotal accounts from prominent scientists, the Australian Science Media Center (ASMC) surveyed researchers who had given media interviews on the science of COVID-19. From 50 participants, 31 described responses that were abusive rather than genuine debate, and 12 described being threatened with murder, assault, or rape. After adapting the survey and distributing it to science media centers in other countries, including the UK, Germany, Canada, Taiwan, and New Zealand, Nature, which carried out its own survey including scientists in the US and Brazil, has published the results.

Of 321 responses, 15 percent reported death threats while 22 percent reported threats of non-lethal physical violence, including sexual violence. Some of the threats were to assault or kill the scientist's family.

University of Wollongong epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz has experienced so much abuse he can analyze the triggers, with debunking of ivermectin studies topping the list. Others have found critiquing the lab leak hypothesis, particularly costly. Offering views on face masks, the origins of the virus, and the efficacy of vaccines were also triggers. 


"During the pandemic, many scientists became celebrities, appearing regularly on our TV screens, radios, and in our newsfeeds. They helped all of us understand this awful virus," said the ASMC's Lyndal Byford. "But for some, the abuse they received for this public service has made them think twice about appearing in the media again.”

That of course is the aim of the attacks, and unfortunately, they work; more than half the respondents, particularly those most consistently attacked, said they became more reluctant to do media interviews as a result.

“While not surprising, these findings demonstrate that the highly charged and polarised anti-science views surrounding COVID-19 coupled with the relative anonymity of social media have provided an ideal breeding ground for online abuse," Queen Mary University's Professor Chloe Orkin, President of the Medical Women's Federation, said in a statement.

Professor Susan Michie of University College London noted that most of the scientists she knew continued doing media despite the abuse, but added: "I am concerned that it discourages early-career scientists, especially young women and young women from minoritised ethnic backgrounds, from engaging with the media."


Besides the threats, personal attacks predominated over critiquing the science including coordinated online and email attacks, alonside individual abuse. Many scientists reported feeling exhausted opening their social media apps and emails after speaking publicly on COVID-19, with 42 percent saying they experienced emotional or psychological distress.  

The ASMC sees support for scientists doing media as the way out of this conundrum and is working on training materials. However, the fact 44 percent of the respondents didn't tell their employers about the attacks may reduce such projects' effectiveness. 

Byford and co-authors acknowledge their findings may exaggerate the problem, since scientists who did not experience particularly hostile responses may have been less likely to spend time filling out a survey. However, the hostility during the pandemic wasn't just directed at scientists in the media, with most US public health departments reporting harassment towards their staff and officials, according to Beth Resnick of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who has surveyed 580 departments so far. 

COVID-19 brought this sort of abuse to health professionals who may not have encountered it before, but it's familiar ground for climate scientists. In some cases, this goes beyond words, such as when leading paleoclimatologist Professor Michael Mann had cornstarch masquerading as anthrax mailed to him. Mann previously moved states to escape government harassment and some universities have felt the need to increase security for their climate-related departments following attempts to make threats a reality.

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