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Trust in science to defeat COVID-19

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Science is under attack by the White House. Our war-time president is exploiting the invisibility of the virus to hide it rather than defeat it. He politically weaponized masks – marks of is existence. He rejects testing — proof of its chilling reach. Now, he threatens to override FDA guidance on vaccine safety — promising its false, tainted end. “Warp speed” means Nov. 3. 

But, President Trump is merely monopolizing on another ominous problem. The growing divide between you and me. 

I’m a scientist, and my eyes are your direct channel to forming data-driven beliefs and actions removed from politics. But, I’m failing you with my silence. So, let me begin to bridge the divide. Let me take you along and show you what I see. 

Seeing the invisible drew me to science. I expose the secrets of cells that could trigger cancer. Similarly, structural biologists are exposing the secrets of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that triggers COVID-19. The structure of its spike-like surface is key to vaccine development.

The virus is not blue or red. It’s colorless. At 1/1000 the width of a human hair, it defies the colors of visible light. 

Research has shown that infected individuals emit millions of viral particles per hour through airborne droplets, the main source of community spread. Data has proven that masks are indeed a weapon – one of our best in stopping the spread of our viral enemy — a physical barrier protecting you from me. 

On Apr. 17, Governor Cuomo ordered a state-wide mask mandate, the first in the nation. Masks helped crush New York’s curve and lower the infection rate throughout a data-driven, phased reopening. Smart mask policies enacted later in Republican-led states — Ohio, Texas — have also proven effective

Science-based policies to address science-based crises work. Yet, only 34 percent of U.S. adults strongly agree that policies should be grounded in science

Why? For me, science rests on what I see. For you, science rests on trust. That’s harder. 

Scientists have kept largely out of the public and political arenas to preserve the unbiased, apolitical nature of our enterprise. But, have we sacrificed public trust? In detaching ourselves, our ability to communicate weakened. And, the public’s scientific literacy weakened, opening the floodgates of doubt. Original data — buried in 2.5 million new publications a year — is largely inaccessible to the public. Second-hand misinformation metastasizes in mere seconds in our digital age. And, the political distortion of science is proving both dangerous and deadly.

The 6.9 million scientists in the U.S. need to connect with the public, as a matter of urgency. The same digital age that facilitates the distortion of facts also facilitates the sharing of facts, in just one click. We should be informing the public in a global pandemic. Yet, we’re eerily quiet. Silence is complacence. Let’s make our voices heard at the ballot box, too, supporting candidates who support science. 

We need to reform the transparency of our work, beginning within federal agencies with the most immediate public influence. Commissioner Hahn, the head of the FDA, promised transparency of potential COVID-19 vaccine reviews. Frankly, a promise isn’t good enough. It isn’t good enough for the American Medical Association, who penned a letter seeking updates for physicians regarding the review process. It isn’t good enough for Governor Cuomo, who will have New York health officials review any approval. It isn’t good enough for the scientific community and me. It isn’t good enough for you. Public acceptance of a potential vaccine plummeted from 72 percent to 51 percent

However, our health crisis offers you a rare opportunity to help build trust — unprecedented access to COVID-19-related academic research, where most of our knowledge begins. Science is an analytical mindset as much as a toolset. Tap into yours. In looking at the findings, you will see for yourself which public health recommendations are irrefutable — masks work. You will see the fabrications, too – COVID-19 does not spare the young. You will be informed. Empowered.

Science will determine solutions for our biggest existential threats – from COVID-19 to the climate crisis. In this pandemic, the price of rejecting science has never been higher. The price is a projected 410,000 lives lost by Jan. 1. Together, we have the power to change that. 

Elena M. Lucchetta, Ph.D., is an associate research scientist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She also works with Science for New York (Sci4NY).

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