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Scripps Research Director Eric Topol Discusses Covid Vaccination and Misinformation at Belfer Center

The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs is located at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs is located at the Harvard Kennedy School. By Karina G. Gonzalez-Espinoza
By Madeleine A. Hung, Makanaka Nyandoro, and Audrey Zhang, Contributing Writers

Eric J. Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, discussed Covid-19 vaccination and misinformation at a Wednesday webinar as part of the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center’s Diversity in STEM series.

During the webinar, Topol, a cardiologist, addressed misinformation surrounding the Covid vaccine and underscored the importance of sharing easily accessible information to help people make informed medical decisions. Topol was joined in conversation by Belfer Fellow and epidemiologist Syra Madad.

For the past year, Topol has been writing a column called “Ground Truths” on the online platform Substack, where he provides facts about Covid-19 in an attempt to combat health misinformation.

“We have some really bad actors out there — they got thrown off of Twitter and now they’re using Substack,” Topol said. “That also inspired me that maybe they need some antidotes to this toxicity. It’s very difficult to counter misinformation.”

Topol said the United States is “so far behind our peer countries in vaccinations and boosters.”

“We are more exposed,” Topol said. “The only thing we have is a lot more infections and infection-induced immunity and hybrid immunity. We’ll see whether that holds up.”

Topol cited the lack of proper communication on the effectiveness of vaccines as a major cause of vaccine hesitancy.

“We have an issue that people think the vaccines don’t work,” Topol said. “They think they’re basically leaky and faulty. And there’s a lack of understanding that the vaccine is still doing quite a good job of protecting against hospitalizations and deaths and, to some extent at least, long Covid.”

Madad, a faculty member in infectious disease policy at Boston University, said she received criticism and even death threats following a pro-vaccination opinion piece.

“I had written a CNN piece on why I planned on vaccinating my 9 and 7-year-old, and this was last year when the Covid-19 vaccines — the primary series — were made available to that age group. And the next day someone broke into my car, and they smashed the window,” Madad said, though she noted that she was unsure if the events were related.

When asked during the event for his recommendation on how to increase trust in science, Topol said it was important to “lay it out there.”

“That’s the way we should be communicating – that it’s simple terms, no jargon and inside baseball stuff – and that it’s suitable for everyone,” Topol added. “But we don’t do that generally, and it took me decades to realize that that’s how we should be working.”

Topol said he opposed the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to withhold portions of their Covid-19 research findings from the public to better create blanket policies, adding that the medical community must understand that “people can deal with nuances.”

“Rather than trying to come up with a strategy that really was up to that individual’s natural history of their infection, they dumbed it down, and it was just egregious,” Topol said. “What happened as a result is they lose credibility.”

In reference to the next generation of scientists, Topol said it is essential to create an open line of communication with the general public to launch a counterattack against misinformation campaigns.

“We’re not activists. We don’t stand up. We just kind of keep our head down,” Topol said, “We can’t do that anymore — look what’s happened as a result.”

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