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Coronavirus — the uncertain path ahead, and a guiding voice of reason

Coronavirus — the uncertain path ahead, and a guiding voice of reason
© Greg Nash

The relentless coronavirus pandemic, surging in the U.S., with over 3.5 million Americans infected and more than 135,000 deaths, has riveted attention in the country to the virus and hopes for containment. Who can we trust to announce where we are, where we’re going, and what assumptions inform the path to containment? 

National polls confirm the sustained public confidence in Dr. Anthony Fauci, spokesperson for explaining the arc of COVID-19 and conveying recommendations for control. Countries all over the world listen to his pronouncements to guide their responses. The apolitical director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has based his assessments on science: articulating the critical questions — listing current assumptions and using valid metrics to assess progress, and adjusting current approaches as new data arise. Then in an iterative process, reexamine the original assumptions and re-chart the path ahead.  

Science in general, and Dr. Fauci specifically, does not seek perfection, but both demand unwavering curiosity and persistence in the quest for truth. In the play, "Life of Galileo," German playwright, Bertolt Brecht,  has the protagonist answer the question — what is the aim of science? To paraphrase, Galileo says,  "The goal of science is not to open the doors to everlasting wisdom, but rather to close the doors to everlasting ignorance. Fauci has consistently done just that."

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A vocal minority of Americans disparage or ignore science for several reasons: distrust in institutions and expertise, a lack of understanding of the scientific method, a sense of infringement on personal choice, hubris, and the politicization of science. The CDC has been marginalized for political purposes, and the administration has rerouted statewide data on coronavirus infections away from the experts at the agency to the central government. Repeated attempts to discredit or silence Dr. Fauci, however, have failed because of his courage in speaking out, his resiliency and continued public trust. 

Imagine a space odyssey with no flight plan and no instruments. The captain wouldn’t know the direction of the flight, the altitude or speed, fuel gauge readings, or the probability of arriving safely at the destination. On spaceship earth’s orbit, we passengers seek to reach the end of the pandemic, but there is no clear flight plan for COVID-19. Instead, there’s a patchwork of 50 disparate sketches and no agreement on the key safety check — a mandate for masks on our flight. More recently, the metrics have been highjacked.  

We have an experienced pilot with a rich knowledge of navigating through limited visibility, a capable crew at CDC if they liberate themselves, and the scientific ability to measure and make adjustments in case of unexpected turbulence. 

What makes no sense is to take the pilot and crew offline, fail to file a flight plan, tear up the safety checks, and hide the instruments. Instead, we should engage our strengths and set the course to end harmful partisan delays to liftoff.

Richard P. Wenzel, M.D. is an infectious disease epidemiologist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He is editor-at-large at The New England Journal of Medicine. Wenzel also serves as an emeritus professor and former Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at VCU and has been President both at the national Society for Healthcare Epidemiologists of America and The International Society for Infectious Diseases.