News Editor Lauren Kahme reports on the virtual event, where speakers sought to debunk misconceptions around COVID-19 in public health.

The Columbia Science Review (CSR) hosted its second virtual event via Zoom on April 23, 2020, where two Columbia University doctors and a doctor from the Chinese CDC broke down the common misconceptions surrounding COVID-19. Kat Wu, CC ’23, moderated with the help of three other student organizers: Boyuan Chen, SEAS ’23, John Nguyen, CC ’23, and Nick Vaughan, CC ’22.

The event was structured with specific questions curated by CSR to which one or more of the speakers responded.

How does COVID-19 compare to epidemics and pandemics we’ve seen over the past few years from the perspective of your field?

Dr. Bob Fullilove, Professor and Associate Dean of Community and Minority Affairs at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, began by speaking to the unprecedented nature of the virus. Compared to SARS and MERS, COVID-19 is less deadly, which explains the overwhelming amount of people requiring hospitalization. Because COVID-19 is less fatal than SARS and MERS, many people get sick without dying, they need hospital care, and the healthcare system gets flooded. He says that the only virus to come close to what we’re experiencing with COVID-19 is the 1918 Spanish Flu, but COVID-19 takes advantage of the way modern humans live—connectedly.

Dr. George Gao, Director of the Chinese CDC, says that we haven’t seen a pandemic of this magnitude in centuries, even referencing the Black Death and Smallpox pandemics as comparable to COVID-19. Scientists had expected a widespread virus to come due to climate change, changes in human behavior, and the overall progression of modern ways of living; they just couldn’t say where and when it would occur. Dr. Gao says that “this virus has a lot of hidden characters” that make it much harder to control and understand. For example, many cases of COVID-19 are asymptomatic but many are also sever or deadly, so it is difficult to trace and control.

Dr. Vincent Racaniello, Higgins Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Columbia University and doctor from Mt. Sinai School of Medicine of CU, starts by acknowledging the other pandemic affecting 37 million people and coexisting with the COVID-19 pandemic that he hopes we don’t forget: HIV and AIDS. In his view, the coronavirus could have been prevented and “the most outstanding feature of this virus is that it could have been prevented.” He says that “we have the tech to prevent it,” but the people with the means to do so did not step up to help. He hopes we all take this pandemic as an opportunity for a lesson learned.

What is each of your understandings on the state of vaccine development for COVID-19 or, more specifically, what do you think are the resources most urgent to finding a solution to this problem as of now?

Dr. Fullilove emphasizes the importance of following what’s happened successfully in places like South Korea. We have to know details about the level of transmission; this would require much more expansive testing to trace the virus more closely. He also talks about populations, specifically in New York, that are most vulnerable to COVID-19 (and illness, in general, before this pandemic). These groups of people are the ones who keep the city running; they are running the trains, driving busses, and serving you food. Getting these public essential workers protected is of great priority because we probably won’t get to a point where we have a safe and universally-accessible vaccine for a year or a year and a half.

Dr. Gao agrees that “testing is the key” for the current situation. For a long term solution, though, vaccines and anti-viral drugs are what we’re looking toward. It looks like Remdesivir might work, and this is special for all coronaviruses. “I would encourage all the countries…to share the information.” Dr. Gao promotes solidarity and avoiding quarrels between countries, and he hopes we’ll have a vaccine for everyone all over the world as soon as possible.

Dr. Vincent Racaniello points out that many companies who are working toward a vaccine are doing so with a profit in mind. He hopes that after going through this pandemic, we can change “our model for developing life-saving medicines.”

There is a difference across the globe in terms of cases and deaths in different regions. Why do you think this disparity exists?

Dr. Gao says that the case fatality rate is affected by early strategies: early diagnoses, early treatments, and early quarantines. Because certain countries took earlier precautions, their outcome may have been different than those countries that took a later approach.

Dr. Fullilove speaks on the degree to which COVID-19 exploits the social faults of America. In New York City, areas with high levels of folk with pre-existing conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, are also the areas of densely packed neighborhoods and are also the areas with folk working essential jobs. This combination of factors means that fatality rates are much greater in these neighborhoods, specifically Black and Latinx communities in New York City.

Dr. Racaniello says that we can’t hope to know the crude case fatality ratio of COVID-19 because “we don’t know the denominator.” He refers to the high rate of cases that are asymptomatic, which contributes to our lack of accuracy when assessing the case fatality rate. This may be why we see such disparities across the globe.

How have narratives in the news and social media contributed to incidents of racism and xenophobia and how have they played a role in COVID-19 response?

Dr. Fullilove recognizes that the world has been upset in such a dramatic way, and millions of people lost their jobs, and it’s human nature to search for a scapegoat. People whose lives have been uprooted are not looking to scientific studies or epidemiologic findings; they are looking for somewhere to place the blame. This way of thinking is problematic, as is the rhetoric “starting with the White House” that calls this virus the “Wuhan Virus” or the “Chinese Virus.”

Dr. Racaniello says that the desire to blame someone else is driven by “the political situation in this country.” He emphasizes the harms of incorrect theories or false studies when he says that “bad science gets propagated” and contributes to the frenzy of false information and conspiracy theories. He hopes that after this pandemic, people will learn how to deal with science.

Dr. Gao weighs in on the mixture of public opinion and science; scientific findings are a commodity of sorts that journalists pick up and spread. He emphasizes the critical nature of focusing on the virus itself rather than on different countries.

People claim that the statement “the virus came from China” is the truth, and that’s the way it should be remembered. If not, how do you think the public should view pandemics of foreign origins?

Dr. Gao recommends that the public focus on the real enemy: the virus. Dr. Racaniello adds that “this virus came from nature, and nature has no country.” Dr. Gao agrees and poses the question “do you really think the earth has a border?” to remind viewers that borders of countries are human inventions having nothing to do with the natural land of earth. Dr. Fullilove reminds us that the 1918 Spanish Flu was only named “Spanish” because when the Spanish King contracted the virus, newspapers reported it and it was the first time many people heard the media talk about the virus. In fact, it originated in the state of Kansas in the United States. He remarks that we seem to continue applying misnomers to viruses even a century later.

How will climate change affect the frequency and severity of the viruses we see in the future?

Dr. Racaniello says that his main concern about climate change is “the expansion of the mosquito range.” Mosquito ranges will expand north and south from where it is now, which could potentially spread disease since mosquitos are a known vector for many diseases.

Dr. Gao adds that COVID-19 exists in countries across the world that experience different kinds of temperature and climate, and he emphasizes that this disease spreads regardless of whether it’s in the northern or southern hemisphere.

Dr. Fullilove says that as the climate changes, “population density and the move toward urbanization…are going to wreak havoc on the local environment in a wide variety of ways.” Pandemics are just part of the many ways the human-induced environmental change will impact our health.

Can any of the specialists speak to the most likely timeframe of the virus, if possible?

Dr. Fullilove asserts the likelihood of multiple waves of the virus if people return to “normal life” too early. The 1918 Spanish Flu saw this happen, having two or three waves of the virus in places where people returned to their pre-pandemic habits before it was safe to do so.

Dr. Gao acknowledges the challenges of balancing both the economic and human health of the world when he says that we have to balance “opening businesses and disease control.”

Dr. Gao and Dr. Racaniello have a short dialogue about China’s numbers specifically; China has had a full month of zero new cases, but herd immunity is low. Once people from outside China start coming in, they may bring COVID-19 with them, and China may have to face another wave of the virus.

Why do you think the rates of infection and death are so high in the United States compared with other countries?

Dr. Fullilove says that “our leadership failed us completely.” The United States could have prepared for a very long time, and scientists have known that a large pandemic was coming. He says that we’ve not done a good enough job at convincing the American public that the advice of medical professionals and viral experts is in their best interest.

Dr. Racaniello says we should have started “extensive testing” when the first cases started showing up in Washington state in January. He agrees with Dr. Fullilove that “we had leadership who was denying it was a problem.” Both doctors agree, then, that the rates of infection and death can be attributed in some way to the current leadership of our country.

What is the best way for us to determine for ourselves what information are misconceptions and what information can we trust?

Dr. Racaniello says it’s crucial to seek out scientists that are trustworthy; he recommends going on social media and podcasts to find a scientist since they may not be able to be featured on major news channels.

Did the virus originate from animals and transfer to a human?

Dr. Gao reveals that there have been viruses in bats or pangolins that are close to COVID-19—though not the coronavirus exactly—which leads scientists to believe there must be another animal involved that has a closer genetic make up to humans. They suspect some other mammal was involved in the transfer of the virus which would explain how COVID-19 was able to take hold in human populations.

How should we react to skepticism in the news toward test results and suspicions that they are underestimates?

Dr. Fullilove says that “we should accept that as the truth,” and he references how New York City’s fatality rate jumped a few thousand people after accounting for those who never got tested because they couldn’t and those who died at home, all of whom are people who were suspected to have had COVID-19. Because it is so difficult to create accurate models due to the nature of the virus, some of these models have been wrong which fuels people’s skepticism.

Dr. Racaniello discusses how “testing is iffy” and the various tests are “being developed on the fly.”

Both Dr. Racaniello and Dr. Fullilove acknowledge the possibility of having a fuller picture of truth and accuracy in the years to come as we look back on the COVID-19 pandemic.


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