Aussie scientists abused after speaking about COVID-19, less willing to talk again

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Xinhua News

14th October 2021 – (Canberra) One in five Australian experts who have spoken about COVID-19 in the media have received abuse, a study has found.

The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) on Thursday published a survey of 50 scientists who have spoken about the pandemic in print, television, online and radio.

It found that 31 were subjected to trolling in the wake of their media appearance and 20 percent received death threats and/or threats of physical or sexual violence.

The AusSMC also worked with highly-regarded journal Nature to survey more than 300 international experts, finding that 15 percent experienced death threats and 22 percent received threats of physical or sexual violence.

Forty percent of Australian experts and 60 percent of international scientists said the personal attacks impacted their willingness to speak about the pandemic again.

“Scientists are facing pandemic levels of abuse for simply trying to help us all wrap our heads around COVID-19,” Lyndal Byford from the AusSMC said in a media release.

“For some, the abuse they received for this public service has made them think twice about appearing in the media again,” she said. “If experts take the understandable Naomi Osaka approach, and stop speaking to the media, all of us will be worse off.”

One participant in the survey who wished to remain anonymous said they received a “near-continuous flow of hate mail” after appearing in the media.

“I had offensive material industrially stapled to my front door at home. I have been threatened in airports by unknown people. I had lies sent to senior colleagues and ministers of the crown in efforts at character assassination including efforts to cover me with corruption allegations.”

Australian scientists who publicly rejected claims that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a lab were also targeted.

According to a Sydney Morning Herald report last October, Professor Edward Holmes from the University of Sydney “became the target of online attack after he co-authored a paper in Nature Medicine debunking the pervading conspiracy theory that the virus was engineered in or escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan.”

He was accused of being paid by China, and of mass murder for failing to support the lab theory.

Virologist Danielle Anderson from the Peter Doherty Institute received an email telling her to “eat a bat and die” after critiquing the “lab leak” theory based on her own experience in China.

A scientist close to her, who spoke to Xinhua on condition of anonymity, said that political motivation was put ahead of science and truth in the search for the origins of the coronavirus. If a scientist insists on telling the truth, rather than joining the “political correct” smear campaign against China, she would be labeled as a puppet of China and get abused.

Dominic Dwyer, a medical virologist who was on the World Health Organisation (WHO) team that examined the origins of the pandemic, was also abused.

“We know the information on the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is still incomplete, but these gaps shouldn’t be used to support a political stance, encourage the blame game or criticize others, especially behind the anonymity of social media,” he told the Australian Financial Review (AFR). 

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