Dr. Levitt: Your words have power. Use them carefully.

Opinion by Mallory Harris
Dec. 13, 2020, 5:48 p.m.

Dr. Michael Levitt:

Two short years ago, I was interviewed by you, Stanford Professor and Nobel Laureate Michael Levitt, for the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program. We had an illuminating conversation about my intentions to study disease modeling as a means of guiding proactive responses to emerging infectious diseases, as well as my experiences as an activist. At one point in the interview, you asked me to describe an instance when I have been an advocate within the scientific community. At the time, I had no answer but told you that I was interested in finding this intersection. I believe I’ve found it.

Throughout this pandemic, you have been sharing your musings on COVID-19 from your personal Twitter account that now boasts 76,100 followers. Your biography opens with “Stanford Prof.” and your username, @MLevitt_NP2013, touts your accomplishment of winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2013: needless to say, the posts you make (and your public statements) carry considerable weight. I’m concerned that people interpret your conjectures as facts.

Unfortunately, your conjectures often fly in the face of both scientific consensus and, more dangerously, public health guidance. In the past few weeks, you have used your platform to undermine the legitimacy of PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing to identify infections. You implied identifying asymptomatic and presymptomatic infections is unimportant. You suggested “Society must assume only symptomatic infect: if you feel sick (not by PCR), self-isolate.” You shared an article on how “PCR caused a pseudo-epidemic.” You amplified the claim that asymptomatic spread is “not real.” 

Your followers seize on your doubt-mongering to spread further misinformation. A quick glance through the replies demonstrate that your statements have been interpreted to mean testing is meaningless and any precautions taken by people without symptoms are useless.  Your tweets have been shared thousands of times (with captions including  “#Covid19 WAS PLANNED w. Fauci?” and “#SCAMDEMIC2020”), and likely seen by hundreds of thousands of people. The consequences of people mistaking your statements as public health guidance are serious. So serious, in fact, that I could get evicted from Stanford’s on-campus housing for following your advice by refusing to self-isolate after receiving a positive test, even if I didn’t have symptoms. 

When spread is exponential, even a handful of people failing to follow public health guidelines can have catastrophic consequences. This is already documented (including by your colleagues at the Stanford Internet Observatory) in the context of vaccine hesitancy, where misinformation circulated largely online has undermined herd immunity against infectious diseases like measles. Over the summer, you mused that the mRNA technology involved in the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates may provoke an autoimmune response, a serious claim to circulate without evidence. In a since-deleted tweet, you conjectured that vaccine development efforts were a money-making scheme by pharmaceutical companies. 

Undoing the effects of this is difficult: When you recently stated that you would, in fact, take a COVID-19 vaccine, your audience used your own prior arguments to try to dissuade you. Despite being an outspoken critic of lockdowns, you are allowing your words to be used in ways that undermine alternative strategies like vaccination and contact tracing that would allow us to control transmission while safely relaxing population restrictions.

And your followers look to you for more than public health guidance. They have been known to swarm other scientists who criticize your work, including your own trainee, whom you publicly chastised on Twitter (I will not share a link to this, as I do not wish to reignite the attacks on him). Their aggression is, however, in keeping with your hostility to epidemiology: You’ve made public comments that epidemiologists overreacted to COVID-19, which you characterized as “exactly as dangerous as flu.” You stated that their attempts to prevent a pandemic were “going to make 9/11 look like a baby story.” 

As a student who once looked to you as a potential mentor, it was disturbing to see you liken my entire field to the worst domestic terrorist attack in modern U.S. history. It was frightening to see you attack a trainee with whom you’ve worked closely. If I were to be interviewed by you today, knowing how you view the work I do on modeling infectious diseases, I would not be able to engage with you in the candid manner I did two years ago. I would be prepared for you to dismiss my aspirations to model and prevent disease outbreaks as participation in the “mass hysteria destroying the world,” as you did to your own trainee (again, I am not linking to that tweet).

Through your actions, you have lost the trust of students like me and support of your colleagues. Even in writing this, I am bracing myself for the potential barrage of trolls. But, as I explained two years ago, I believe it is my responsibility to speak out when everyone’s health and safety are being jeopardized. As members of the Stanford community, we are responsible for holding each other accountable, especially for statements amplified using the Stanford name. You are responsible for the misinformation and abuse being spread by your followers. 

Your words have consequences, and perhaps the most direct demonstration of this has been the advice you have given to policymakers. In March, you privately advised Prime Minister Netanyahu and publicly questioned the Israeli government’s fears that thousands of Israelis would die of the virus — indeed, you predicted no more than 10 deaths. Then, in August, you proudly claimed credit for Israel’s deadliest week of the pandemic until that point. The resurgence, you declared, proved that the government had listened to your advice to allow the virus to spread without “lockdowns and restriction.” You believed they based this decision on your fringe claims that the virus is less deadly during the summer and that herd immunity could be achieved with as little as 5% of the population infected. The August resurgence became a second wave, far larger than the first, and 47 Israelis died in just a single day, with almost 3,000 dead so far

On Aug. 18, 2020, you encouraged the Placer County Board of Supervisors to pursue a herd immunity strategy, asserting without evidence that most COVID-19 deaths reported in the county were somehow misclassified. I was personally distressed to watch you tell the governor of Florida, where my high-risk family members live, that COVID-19 does not present a significant threat in terms of overwhelming hospitals. This is verifiably false.

As 98 of your colleagues wrote in response to Dr. Scott Atlas’ dissemination of similar misinformation and policy advice, “[f]ailure to follow the science — or deliberately misrepresenting the science — will lead to immense avoidable harm.” Despite your July 25 prediction, the pandemic did not end on Aug. 25, and reported deaths in the U.S. have already exceeded your forecast by over 100,000. The consequences of this pandemic have been far greater than “a very small reduction of total life years.” I ask that you pause to reflect, recognize the damage you may have caused (even if inadvertent), and redress this. 

Speculations you share are taken as expert opinion. While you have occasionally engaged with critics, you have failed to publicly correct the misinformation you have distributed to policymakers and the public. It is important to also recognize when your voice is drowning out that of others — or even being used for harm.

Contact Mallory Harris at mharris9 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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