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The strange case of China’s Dr Fauci and life as a science whistleblower

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. In this edition: chaos in Kabul, life as a fake-science whistleblower and the man with the vaccine pass tattoo

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DON’T SHOOT THE WHISTLEBLOWER 

It’s been a wild couple of weeks for academic misconduct. In China, the media has been filled with headlines about the story of the country’s “Dr Fauci,” aka top virologist Zhang Wenhong, who has been accused of plagiarising his PhD thesis after a user on Weibo outed him. I’ll be investigating the allegations in an upcoming piece, but it got me thinking about the life of the academic whistleblower. 

When I wrote about Chinese “paper mills” — content factories that churn out fake scientific research — last year, almost all of the scientists I spoke to refused to be quoted under their real names. They had devoted their lives to debunking bad scientific research, but the stakes were too high to reveal their identities. 

According to Lex M. Bouter, professor of methodology and integrity at the University of Amsterdam, who spoke at a recent seminar held by the institution, several discrete types of people tend to report research misconduct. His list goes something like this: honestly concerned colleagues, angry ones seeking revenge, “machiavellists with self-serving motives,” and green ink, all-caps “crazy people.” 

Regardless of their motives, being an academic whistleblower is not an easy option. According to a survey presented by Bouter, a quarter report losing their job or research support after speaking out, 43% say they are pressured to drop their allegations, and more than half report mental health problems. 

“It affected my health, productivity and relationships; I lost countless hours that I could have devoted to lab work,” wrote Michael Doran, who raised concerns that led to the retraction of stem cell research carried out at Queensland University, in a 2016 article for Nature journal.

One of the most prominent scientific whistleblowers of the pandemic is Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist and scientific integrity consultant who raised ethical, procedural and methodological concerns about the research of the hydroxychloroquine-promoting French scientist Didier Raoult last March. 

She was promptly attacked on French television, doxxed and is now facing legal action brought in France by Raoult for harassment and defamation. In May, more than 1,000 researchers signed an open letter, written by scientists in Europe, the U.S. and Australia, in support of her “and all the whistleblowers that help maintain the quality, honesty, integrity and trustworthiness of scientific research.”

Among the thousands of people desperate to leave Afghanistan are the country’s researchers and scientists. The prospect of a return to life under the proscriptive version of Sharia law previously enforced by the Taliban, in which women were banned from higher education and anti-science views ruled academia, is clearly no prospect at all. In 2016, suspected Taliban fighters attacked the American University of Afghanistan, killing 13 people and wounding more than 50. Academics fear that the Taliban is unlikely to pay salaries to university faculties, that institutions will be looted, and that teaching will be closely monitored by extremists. “Their idea is to handicap these institutions; push them back to the first century,” Khyber Mashal, an Afghan scientist speaking under a pseudonym told Science magazine this week. 

A news article about a doctor who died two weeks after getting a Covid-19 shot was Facebook’s most-viewed story during the first quarter of 2021. The Chicago Tribune piece had been updated to say there was no proven link to the vaccine he had received. Nonetheless, it was promoted triumphantly by anti-vaxxers and viewed an astonishing 54 million times. New York Times journalist Davey Alba posted on Twitter that Facebook had shelved its quarterly report showing the article as its most-read item, because it would “look bad.” Ninety-eight percent of the views came from private Facebook groups. A Facebook spokesperson said: “We considered making the report public earlier, but since we knew the attention it would garner, exactly as we saw this week, there were fixes to the system we wanted to make.”

My favorite story of the week is about a young Italian man who tattooed his Covid-19 vaccination QR code onto his arm, so he could go to McDonalds without a fuss. Twenty-two-year-old Andrea Colonnetta, from the southern region of Calabria, said that he had wanted to get some new ink, but hadn’t given much consideration to what it might be. Before he knew it, his inner bicep was branded with a hodgepodge of black squares. It may not be pretty, but at least it’s useful, which is more than can be said for most other tattoos – mine included. That is, until the government changes the coding system. If you venture onto TikTok, you can find videos of him using his arm to check into the fast food joint before happily tucking into his burger. 

WHAT WE’RE READING 

A new report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism looks into how two leading oxygen companies in Mexico scared hospitals away from building cheap and convenient onsite oxygen plants. The companies lobbied hospitals to use their supplies instead, while spreading disinformation and false claims that onsite plants could kill patients and cause infections or explosions. Mexico has faced wave after wave of Covid-19, as well as frequent oxygen shortages. As prices more than tripled last December, a black market flourished.  But, as the Bureau notes, “oxygen suppliers had their own priorities.”

Fresh research from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, discussed in the Conversation, looks at how widespread vaccine hesitancy has put a huge strain on the Kremlin’s coronavirus response. Just 24% of the country’s population is fully vaccinated. In August, more than 98% of patients hospitalized by the virus hadn’t been vaccinated. According to researcher Arik Burakovsky, Russians remain largely unconvinced that vaccines are safe, thanks to a deep-rooted mistrust in institutions, that “will hamper the country’s efforts to move past the pandemic.”

Coda Story’s Masho Lomashvili and Erica Hellerstein contributed to this week’s edition. Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

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