Oh sheep. On May 5, Science magazine published an editorial from its Editor-in-Chief Holden Thorp, PhD, about the Biden Administration’s recent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. And spoiler alert, it wasn’t positive. It began with the sentence, “The Biden administration is sheepishly waving a checked flag on the pandemic.” Note that the word “sheepishly” doesn’t tend to be positive unless you’re talking about counting something when trying to fall asleep.
Thorp went on to describe the Biden Administration’s members as “cringing as they do so.” The word “cringing” isn’t positive either, unless the word “not” comes immediately before or after it. He labeled the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner as “likely superspreading” and pointed out how US President Joe Biden, besides giving a speech, actually skipped much of the event including the cocktails and the meals and how Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci, MD, “avoided the whole affair.” Thorp pointed out how “many members of Congress and the administration” have recently tested positive for Covid-19.
Meanwhile, Thorp wrote, “All of this happened while the White House allowed a renegade federal judge in Florida (where else?) to end the nationwide mask mandate without much of a fight.” Thorp complained of how “mixed messages have been emanating from the administration for months now, and although those with resources have tools to manage Covid-19, care needs to be taken that those without such means are not forgotten.” So far, not exactly the type of stuff that you would want to see on a letter of recommendation.
It didn’t get much better after that. Thorp wrote that the Biden Administration has made a “clumsy pivot to a message that politicians always turn to: personal responsibility. Get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask, get a prescription for the antiviral Paxlovid—if you want to,” rather than try to muster a more organized national response to the still ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Thorp stated, “This [personal responsibility] may be fine if you have a healthy immune system, great health insurance, and the ability to navigate the US health care system. But what about everyone else?”
He then drew parallels with the handling (or rather mishandling) of the HIV/AIDS epidemic when antiretroviral drugs had first arrived. He quoted Gregg Gonsalves, PhD, an Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Yale University, as saying, “The HIV epidemic didn’t go away. It just went to where people could ignore it.” That would be a bit akin to hastily cleaning your apartment before your date arrives by pushing everything including the 400 hot dogs that you have on the grill and your 20 brats who are in the midst of chess matches all under your bed and into your closet, hoping that your date won’t say, “hey, can I see your closet?”
Thorp concluded the editorial by mentioning several reasons why it’s too early to wave a checked flag on the Covid-19 pandemic. These included the continuing emergence of new severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) variants and the still very low Covid-19 vaccination rates in many places. He ended by writing, “It absolutely ain’t over. And this is no time to drop the ball.”
Speaking of balls, this whole editorial may seem to go against the seemingly simpler and more convenient narrative that everything can return to normal, which these days can take cojones, so to speak. After all, anyone who has gone through high school knows that being responsible is often not viewed as being cool and popular. It’s much easier to tell people that they can do whatever they want.
On Saturday, Gonsalves posted a tweet thread that included Thorp’s editorial as well as a POLITICO article by Adam Cancryn entitled, “Fauci privately miffed about the message sent by the WHCA dinner” with WHCA standing for White House Correspondents’ Association:
In the POLITICO article, Cancryn wrote that Fauci has “expressed frustration with the growing perception that the pandemic is effectively over” and regarding the White House Correspondents’ Dinner “questioned why so many people felt comfortable gathering maskless indoors amid a fresh surge in Covid cases.”
As you can see in the next two tweets of the thread, Gonsalves stated, “it’s unavoidably clear that we are indeed sacrificing the vulnerable in the headlong rush towards ‘normal’, pretending that the pandemic is over” and presented a document that suggested that this may be, surprise, surprise, more a politically-driven strategy, rather than a science-driven one:
Politics trump science? Gee, when has that ever happened in Covid-19 decision-making? Gonsalves then pointed out that Fauci being 81 years of age may have “nothing to prove” while “Others in the Administration have years of ambition to fulfill,” implying that “Others” may be driven by political ambition rather than science when making Covid- 19-related decisions:
Gonsalves concluded the tweet thread by emphasizing that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over, regardless of how “deeply unpopular” such a view may be and urged others to “stand up and speak out” against the wave-the-checkered-flag narrative :
As evidenced by the responses to them, Thorp’s editorial and Gonsalves’s tweet thread weren’t simply a pair of lone voices in the wilderness. Far from it. Many scientists, medical doctors, and public health experts have expressed similar frustrations and agreed. For example, here’s what Lucky Tran, PhD, Director of Science Communication and Media Relations at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tweeted:
Tran pointed out that “many in science sadly are complicit with government resignation.” While many scientists have continued to follow and push science, some have been behaving more like politicians in scientists’ clothing, further pushing the “back to normal” political narrative.
And Arghavan Salles, MD, PhD, a surgeon and Senior Research Scholar at the Clayman Institute at Stanford University, related how this “back to normal” narrative has paradoxically led others to chastise her for maintaining Covid-19 precautions:
Being chastised for actually caring about keeping others safe? Welcome to the gigantic Mean Girls high school that’s known as our society, where following science ain’t considered cool by many. As I covered for Forbes on March 19, a hashtag #CovidIsNotOver even emerged to urge people not to mistakenly believe that things have returned to normal, whatever “normal” may mean. I’ve written on multiple occasions for Forbes about how the lifting of face mask and Covid-19 vaccination requirements may have been premature relaxation. And as you know (or perhaps heard from friends), things that are premature can lead to a lot of confusion and messy situations.
Covid-19 decision making has certainly become more science-driven since 2020. But that could be like telling someone, “you seem to be dressing better now than when you were in kindergarten.” The year 2020 wasn’t exactly the highest bar to surpass. The question is how much has science really been driving the Biden Administration’s Covid-19 decision making? Or have politics remained the primary driver just to a different degree and in a different form?
You can say that the pandemic is over all that you want. You can drop Covid-19 precautions like face mask wearing and getting more people vaccinated. You can even try to “cancel” Covid. But reality is not like some kind of political, self-help, rom-com, or Silicon Valley you-can-do-whatever-you-set-your-mind-to, mind-over-matter rah-rah speak. The SARS-CoV-2 and people’s immune systems just ain’t going to listen. The pandemic isn’t going to be over until science really says that it’s over.