On Monday, 11/30, the NPR-WMAU show 1A had a discussion with a virologist and a professor who analyzes misinformation. This isn’t required, but, if you’re curious and want better analysis than sound-bite media offers, I highly recommend checking out the podcast “Building Confidence In A COVID-19 Vaccine.”
Things to Remember for These COVID-19 Readings
- Yes, this will be on the Final Exam
- Notice the article dates regarding this emerging pandemic
- March 6, 2020: Dr. April Baller video
- May 28, 2020: Louis Casiano “WHO Guidance…” from Fox News
- June 10, 2020: Holly Yan “Fauci says the WHO’s comment…”
- Aug. 15, 2020: Morens & Fauci “Emerging Pandemic Diseases” from Cell
- Only the journal Cell is a peer-reviewed source vetted by scientists in the field
- You should be drawing comparisons to other topics covered this semester about emerging science, specifically:
- Collins & Pinch’s “Story of Cold Fusion”–Sept. 17th
- Collins & Pinch’s Pasteur-Pouchet Debate–Sept. 17th
- Collins & Pinch’s “AIDS Cures and Lay Expertise”–Oct. 15th
- Scientific consensus doesn’t happen overnight, and COVID-19 underscores that fact
Besides using dates to split up this discussion, I’m also separating out these Anthony “Tony” Fauci articles. The first one is about his advice on COVID-19 spread and the other article is one he co-wrote. Seems an obvious way to split the discussion. Don’t just focus on what’s being said in the video or articles but how it’s communicated. Not all information is equal. As Isaac Asimov reminds us, our “right to know” is meaningless without our actually making an effort to read.
Fauci says the WHO’s comment on asymptomatic spread is wrong
For this article, Holly Yan interviews or finds public statements from experts in the field in order to explain the reasons behind why wearing masks slows the spread of COVID-19. Specifically, the article defines the following:
- Asymptomatic spread: “transmission of the virus by people who do not have symptoms and will never get symptoms from their infection.”
- Pre-symptomatic spread: “transmission of the virus by people who don’t look or feel sick, but will eventually get symptoms later.”
Here’s what’s interesting about the title. Yan uses “Fauci” in the title, yet she uses quotations from a variety of experts. Fauci, an infectious disease expert who has been in the public’s eye since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, is very well known and trusted. Rhetorically, having the title “Fauci says…” rather than “Experts say…” conveys a stronger ethos, stronger credibility, because readers know Fauci’s character and expertise. I’m not saying Yan is misleading readers; after all, she does include information from Fauci. Just don’t miss the subtle rhetorical move of putting “Fauci” in the title.
Some key quotations from the article:
- para. 6: the WHO claims “asymptomatic spread ‘appears to be rare,'” but other scientists disagree
- Consensus is being established in the news, but, as an emerging disease, scientists still have questions–not certainty
- para. 8: “Evidence shows that 25% to 45% of infected people likely don’t have symptoms” (paraphrase from Fauci)
- Yan doesn’t ask how Fauci derived that statistic. Doing so wouldn’t be appropriate for the readers who aren’t well versed in how statistics are compiled.
- This doesn’t mean the article is bad; we trust Fauci has done the proper research or understand the research others did to get that 25%-45% range.
- para. 11: Yan points out that pre-symptomatic carriers might be more of a concern to the public than asymptomatic
- She provides us with more research, but she never again mentions Fauci’s name in the rest of the article.
- Then, she cites actual research that found pre-symptomatic spread more likely than asymptomatic.
- para 15: “…studies have found that paucisymptomatic transmission (meaning they have extremely mild symptoms) can occur, and in particular, in the German study, they found that transmission often appeared to occur before or on the day symptoms first appeared.”
Other Experts in Yan’s Article
In the rest of the article, notice how Yan cites reputable and well-known sources. Find comments in the article from the following:
- Anne Rimoin, an epidemiology professor at UCLA’s School of Public Health
- The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- The journal Science
- Harvard Medical School
- CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta said “People tend to be the most contagious before they develop symptoms, if they’re going to develop symptoms” (para. 29)
- Although Dr. Gupta is at CNN and they’re publishing this article, he is a highly respected neurosurgeon and was considered as a choice to be Surgeon General by President Obama.
- In 2003, while reporting on medical conditions in Iraq, he actually saved soldiers and civilians lives by performing emergency surgeries!
Yan, a journalist, cites the experts to explain why wearing masks is helpful. She doesn’t go into enormous detail but provides pretty good evidence for why we ought to wear masks and not rely on whether or not someone’s showing symptoms. She references actual scientific studies that were done: these studies are what builds scientific consensus. Scientists do their research and disseminate it via peer-reviewed outlets (mainly through journals and, prior to 2020, conferences*). This vetting process, which you’re read about this semester, is how science gets established. During an emerging issue–such as a pandemic–science might not be as quick to resolve disputes as the public wants. That’s not a failure of science; that’s a failure of citizens who don’t understand the process of science.
Speaking of citizens who fail to understand, compare Yan’s short article to the Fox News article from Casiano that only mentions what the WHO says and what the CDC says without going any further into the science behind transmission. Notice the sources Casiano mentions; notice the studies he references; notice that it’s nearly a useless article.
Yes. All news is not created equal. There is a difference, and, as college-educated readers, you need to be able to recognize the difference.
*Academic conferences have continued during the pandemic, but they’re mostly done remotely. All my conferences this year were canceled.
Morens & Fauci “Emerging Pandemic Diseases”
As mentioned above, this article comes from a peer-reviewed source, meaning the authors had reviewers read and verify their findings before publication. This is the difference between journalism that reports on findings (although investigative journalism may approach the rigor of peer review) as opposed to academics who create knowledge. If there are any aspiring academics out there, your goal is to publish peer-reviewed research. Even in the humanities, we have our research vetted by blind reviewers (meaning we don’t know them, and they don’t know us).
This isn’t the longest thing you’ve had to read, but it’s longer than the previous articles. Notice the way it’s written. It’s not written for a general audience the way the other articles are written. There are lots of definitions and several charts that display information visually. I’m going to focus on just some areas. This article is pretty comprehensive and provides context for COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2. I’d be stunned if you’ve gotten the information on how pandemics emerge from popular sources (newspapers, online news outlets, nightly news, NPR, etc.). If you have, you should comment on that in this week’s Weekly Discussion post or on your last weekly discussion in two weeks.
In order to make things easier to locate, I’m using page numbers from the PDF version of the article. You can read either version for the same information.
- p. 1077: “Newly emerging (and re-emerging) infectious diseases have been threatening humans since the neolithic revolution, 12,000 years ago, when human hunter-gatherers settled into villages to domesticate animals and cultivate crops. These beginnings of domestication were the earliest steps in man’s systematic, widespread manipulation of nature.”
- p. 1077: “Only a century ago, the 1918 influenza pandemic killed 50 million or more people, apparently the deadliest event in recorded human history. The HIV/AIDS pandemic, recognized in 1981, has so far killed at least 37 million.”
- p. 1081: “Also of importance to the infectivity of newly emerging infectious diseases are viral genetic properties associated with pathogenicity and co-pathogenicity, exemplified most clearly with pandemic IAVs. The 1918 H1N1 pandemic virus, which killed an estimated 50 million people (equivalent to 200 million when adjusted to the 2020 population) was particularly lethal.
- Notice what the authors do here by explaining the lethality in today’s population terms. They’re basically saying that in 1918, with a world population at 1.8B (billion), 50M (million) deaths would be around 200M based on today’s world population.
- The math is easy enough for an English professor. Fifty million is 2.7% of the world population in 1918. Today’s world population is 7.7B, and 2.7% is 210M (these are estimates of population, so their “200 million” isn’t an exact calculation but a good estimate).
- You hear this all the time when someone says this amount of USD (dollars) would be $XXXXX.XX today because of inflation.
- p. 1084: “Human beings have many different organ systems, each with many different cell types, and with each cell having arrays of different receptors; therefore, it is not surprising that switching of a pathogen from an animal host to humans results in very different clinical and epidemiologic outcomes, including different disease manifestations and transmission mechanisms.”
- p. 1085: “Preliminary evidence from clinical and pathological studies of both SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2, which indicate viral infection of multiple tissues, is consistent with elicitation of robust and hopefully long-lasting protective immunity, providing a potential for control of COVID-19 with vaccines.”
- I take this as a good sign (but the next quote should scare you).
- They cite other researchers and suggest–remember, they can’t prove anything at this point in time–a vaccine for COVID-19 should be very likely because it “looks” and “behaves” similarly to pathogens scientists know about.
- Again, they aren’t certain, but, based on how viruses of this type act, they are confident a vaccine will be developed soon.
- p. 1085: “More ominously, expression of ACE-2 receptors on endothelial and numerous other cells, and autopsy evidence of significant SARS-CoV-2 endothelial infection, are consistent with systemic viral infection causing both pulmonary and extra-pulmonary pathology, including widespread microthrombus formation, among other outcomes.”
- There are a lot of specialized words here (endothelial, microthrombus, ACE-2, etc.), and the meaning will only be immediately understood by members of this discourse community.
- Now for the scary part and our purpose regarding rhetoric: Scientists try to limit the adjectives they use because they believe it is a more objective way to communicate. They don’t like to “dress up” their language. When they do use an adjective–especially ominously–you ought to pay attention.
- pulmonary pathology: diseases related to the lungs.
- extra-pulmonary pathology: diseases situated outside the lungs.
- Basically, this respiratory disease can spread and affect your other organs: heart, kidneys, liver, brain, and even skin!
- p. 1087: “The discovery that its closest identified viral relatives are enzootic in horseshoe (Rhinolophus) bats indicates that SARS-CoV-2 probably emerged from an as-yet-unidentified bat reservoir either directly or after infection of an intermediate host such as a pangolin.”
- p. 1089: “As human societies grow in size and complexity, we create an endless variety of opportunities for genetically unstable infectious agents to emerge into the unfilled ecologic niches we continue to create. There is nothing new about this situation, except that we now live in a human-dominated world in which our increasingly extreme alterations of the environment induce increasingly extreme backlashes from nature.”
- p. 1089: “The COVID-19 pandemic is yet another reminder, added to the rapidly growing archive of historical reminders, that in a human-dominated world, in which our human activities represent aggressive, damaging, and unbalanced interactions with nature, we will increasingly provoke new disease emergences.”
- The text in red might seem peculiar for academic writing, but we must consider where this text is in the article: the conclusion.
- Academics often use conclusions not to simply summarize their study (which you were probably told was appropriate in 5-paragraph essays…) but to point out where new research should focus.
- In this conclusion, I think the authors are telling us to wake up! The conclusion’s style is much more aligned with expectations for general or lay audiences, and, rhetorically, they’re warning readers that pandemics will return, so we ought to consider what causes them and work to avoid them.
The authors’ conclusion points out that our “meddling” and “aggressive” actions in nature cause these zoonotic diseases to spread to humans. The article never mentions masks, facial coverings, or social distancing. It tells us that COVID-19 is yet another pandemic humans have had to deal with and it won’t be the last. In case it isn’t clear…
COVID-19 isn’t a hoax; it wasn’t created by rogue scientists; it can kill you in painful ways.
After reading this peer-reviewed article that details the pathogenic properties of COVID-19 in relation to other pandemics, you know the authors are very well educated and know viruses. If they suggest I wear a mask for protection, I’m gonna wear the $&%*#@ mask!
Don’t forget to post Weekly Discussion #12 to Canvas by 11:00 pm tomorrow (12/04). After this week, you’ll have two posts left. Your 500-word Essay is due on Tuesday (12/08) on Canvas.
The last readings for the class will be on video games. You’ve done so well and come so far this semester that you deserve a reward! The readings are all on Canvas, and I’ll have notes up shortly for Dec. 10th and Dec. 15th–the last day of class.