Survey finds 22% of scientists who do media interviews about COVID get violent threats

Nature surveyed 300 scientists who've done media interviews about COVID. The results had some surprisingly positive notes — 85% said "their experiences of engaging with the media were always or mostly positive, even if they were harassed afterwards".

But as you might expect, a significant chunk described some ghastly abuse. Fully 15% got death threats, and 22% "received threats of physical or sexual violence."

You'd expect that vaccines would be the source of a lot of the threats, but in talking to individual researchers, the reporter for this Nature story found that some of the hottest abuse came after scientists did media interviews debunking the bogus "cures" for COVID — like the anti-parasite drug ivermectin.

As Epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz said …

"I think I've received more death threats due to ivermectin, in fact, than anything I've done before," he says. "It's anonymous people e-mailing me from weird accounts saying 'I hope you die' or 'if you were near me I would shoot you'."

Andrew Hill, a pharmacologist at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Translational Medicine, received vitriolic abuse after he and his colleagues published a meta-analysis in July. It suggested ivermectin showed a benefit, but Hill and his co-authors then decided to retract and revise the analysis when one of the largest studies they included was withdrawn because of ethical concerns about its data (A. Hill et alOpen Forum Inf. Dis. 8, ofab394; 2021). After that, Hill was besieged with images of hanged people and coffins, with attackers saying he would be subject to 'Nuremberg trials', and that he and his children would 'burn in hell'. He has since closed his Twitter account.

The same thing goes for researchers who question the claim that COVID was created in a lab in China …

Virologist Danielle Anderson, now at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of Melbourne in Australia, received intense, coordinated online and e-mail abuse after writing a fact-checking critique in early 2020 of an article suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 might have leaked from China's Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). At the time, she was based at the Duke–National University of Singapore Medical School in Singapore, but had collaborated with the WIV since the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002–04. "Eat a bat and die, bitch," one e-mail read.

The story notes several caveats to the Nature survey, including the fact that it includes only info from scientists who chose to respond. The findings here are thus suggestive but not conclusive; the real incidence of abuse could be lower than this study found (if people who'd been harassed were more likely to respond) or higher (if the inverse were true).

(CC-2.0-licensed image of coronavirus courtesy Yuri Samoilov's Flickr feed)