Science Communication & Emerging infectious diseases
"...the way this type of preventative scientific policy-making protocol works is that...
if we do our job correctly, nothing happens."
The interview was led by Sophie Veigl with pre- and post-interview work done in preparation with Lynn Chiu.
We got together with Orsolya Bajer-Molnár, Hungarian emergent infectious diseases (EID) expert, to talk about science communication during the corona pandemic. Orsolya studied evolutionary biology, systematics, and ecology before studying host-parasite interactions for her PhD. She was working on a postdoctoral project in Brazil when the Zika epidemic hit hard in 2015. Coming back to Hungary, she teamed up with emergent disease specialist Dan Brooks.
Bajer-Molnár and Brooks focus on how we can take action in the face of emergent disease threats and the implementation of the DAMA protocol, which is currently being voted on by the Hungarian parliament. She is now at the KLI as a postdoc fellow.
Hi Orsolya, it's nice to (virtually) catch up with you! The first time we met you, you gave an eerily timely talk at the KLI on the evolution of emerging infectious diseases. The virus SARS Cov-2 was named the day of your presentation! It’s been one year now… how has the pandemic impacted you and your work?
Personally, just like anyone else, masks and restrictions and whatnot. For me, it wasn't that difficult to get through. Work-wise, it's a little ambivalent. Because on the one hand, this is what we had been talking about ever since I started working on EIDs, and this is what Dan (Brooks) has been talking about for the past 30 years. And now it's happening. From a professional point of view, the pandemic certainly put the spotlight on our discpline as now everyone finally understands what pathogen evolution can result in, and does result in, whether we acknowledge it or not.
From a scientific perspective, I think there is a very important difference we have to make between prevention and avoidance. We talk about prevention when we prevent an epidemic from breaking out anywhere. Once it has broken out, you can aim to avoid it as much as possible, but you can't work on prevention anymore. Once it's there, it's going to run its course, one way or another. I think prevention did not work, whatsoever, on any level. If it had worked, we wouldn't be talking about this right now.
Reaction, on the other hand, is one of the things that you can use to your benefit. In case of the pandemic, you have the entire scale of possible reactions, from one extreme to the other extreme. That is, from one extreme where everything locks down and people are restricted to their homes, where physical distancing is put in place before the first positive case shows up, to the other extreme where we're relying on herd immunity, and losing who we have to lose in the hopes that the survivors will have some sort of immunity. The different national restrictions represent almost everything between these two extremes.
“As soon as people get comfortable, and they learn what they're supposed to do, they adapt to this new style, and tend to overlook new announcements.”
It is possible to delineate “disaster communication” as a subfield of “science communication.” What are the particularities of communicating why people should stay at home during a pandemic or other disaster?
I do think that the campaign of the spring wave of coronavirus was very successful in Hungary, but I also think that, if we would say okay, let's opt for a similar campaign in GMOs, in climate change, in globalization, in whatnot, it would simply overload everybody.
And just as you would expect it, by the second, autumn wave, the public had been overloaded with information. As soon as people get comfortable, and they learn what they're supposed to do, they adapt to this new style, and tend to overlook the new announcements. The attention to the campaign has a curve similar to that of herd immunity. So there's an incredibly steep spike, where everybody is all over the "What should I do," but then, as soon as we personally become comfortable with the idea that okay, experts are taking care of it, it just becomes a habit and a part of life. And immediately, the attention drops. So it’s important we understand that the attention span is short.
If I understood you correctly, you are saying that the sense of urgency of coronavirus communication is a double-edged sword. You can get people to immediately focus on it, but also to sooner turn away from it again.
I think the focus here is obviously driven by concern, and probably in a lot of cases, fear of the unknown. People didn't know what this virus is about and there were all sorts of conspiracy theories online as well as all sorts of rumors. If someone is afraid of something, they're going to be looking for a source that will solve this problem, one that will satisfy them and show that it's all taken care of. So they will be hungry for this type of input. This kind of hunger is beneficial for science communicators. The downside is that as soon as they get the input and are satisfied with you being in charge and taking care of the situation, they lose interest. Because generally, people don't live in fear of EIDs and pathogens roaming the world; they have other things to take care of. They're worried about the part that affects them. And as soon as that's taken care of, the interest often dies down. It works to your benefit when it starts, but then it makes them lose interest pretty soon.
“If someone is afraid of something, they're going to be looking for a source that will solve this problem, one that will satisfy them and show that it's all taken care of.”
Was it possible to differentiate between "good" and "bad" pandemic communication?
This is probably a matter of strategy, what you call "good" and what you call "bad." When the epidemic started, the main message coming from central government agencies or offices were technical instructions on what one should do to keep oneself safe in the next six hours. It wasn't about, for instance, where this virus came from, how it arrived to Hungary, what the symptoms are... it was: wear a mask if you have to go out, wash your hands, disinfect, and don't visit grandma. These were simple instructions for everybody, messages that everyone understands, everyone can relate to. If you don't have hand sanitizers, buy them here! If you don't have masks, do this!
The downside of this is that it opens up space for guesswork, and it gives room to come up with theories as to the origins of the disease. Is it really a virus, or is it the 5G towers sucking oxygen out of the air? I definitely saw an uprise in these theories where many were quick to offer their own answers on where this coronavirus came from, whether it was really natural, did it escape from a lab, was it dropped off by planes or military corps, or did the military sneak the virus into China and then pour it onto the first bat, etc., that type of stuff.
You were invited to a morning show to talk about the pandemic, how did that go?
I was on it several times. The first time, we were just going into the first wave of the epidemic. It was about how we could avoid becoming infected, where this came from, how it make its way to Hungary, what we are going to do to avoid it, etc. That was the topic on the viewer's mind at that moment, what concerned them. And it was really interesting how the questions changed the second time I was there, in the same morning show, the same time, same viewers, same everything. Because the second time it was about: should we expect a second wave, how do viruses work, where is it now? And needless to say, the third time I was called was going well into the second wave, where it wasn’t about instruction and origins anymore, but more about outlooks on the future: when will the second wave end, how will it clash with the flu season, will it be worse than the first wave, how many more waves are coming?
In terms of communication, it is very important to realize that you have to know which information to deliver at which point in time. For scientists, like you and me, there is no difference in relevance between the following two questions "how can I prevent an epidemic?" and "how could I avoid getting infected by an epidemic?" But for the public we are going to work with, not just you and I, but the millions of others who are not involved in research, we have to understand that for them, the quest for information is driven by this very natural biological instinct, that I worry first and foremost about surviving and then I worry about learning from the experience, not the other way around!
Would you say you had to train a particular skill in order to speak to this kind of audience, or would you say you're a natural? Because that's how you seem to me!
Whenever you go out to give a talk, whether it's a 90-minute presentation or a seven-minute interview, whatever you say, you have to make sure that one people shut the TV off, there is at least one sentence they remember of what you said. That's the message. That one sentence is what you're going to build your entire presentation over. This is really like writing a song. You can sing about love, you can sing about breaking up, you can sing about whatever you want to sing about, you can sing trash metal… you need a refrain people to understand and learn. And if you don't have a refrain you're not going to have a hit, because no one can identify with it. Science communication is about finding that refrain for your work. The refrain can change, obviously, because you're going to deliver a completely different presentation for a scientific audience, for a scientific audience out of your field, for the general public, for policymakers, for professionals of non-scientific areas, etc., this all influences the process. But you have to have the refrain.
“This is really like writing a song. You can sing about love, you can sing about breaking up, you can sing about whatever you want to sing about, you can sing trash metal… you need a refrain people understand and learn. And if you don't have a refrain, you're not going to have a hit, because no one can identify with it. Science communication is about finding that refrain for your work.”
Lets talk about DAMA, its leading slogan being "Let's find them before they find us." So for starters, could you just tell us a little bit about DAMA, what the abbreviations stand for?
The DAMA Protocol proposes a framework for taking scientific results that we currently have and that we are currently producing in the fields of bacteriology, virology, microbiology, parasitology, and many more, and using those results to map the currently unknown, gigantic diversity of microbes, to estimate which of them pose a risk from an epidemiological perspective.
The first three letters stand for Documenting those microbes that we don't know yet, Assessing the risks that they pose, and Monitoring those of high risk. The fourth letter is where I think DAMA is really doing something that has not necessarily been proposed yet. It calls for Action. Usually, the way a scientific study works is that you produce your results, you publish them in a paper, and then you think, it's now there for anyone to read. Now the reality is, very few people, other than scientists, read those papers! And in the case of epidemics, we have to understand that an epidemic does not care if you're a scientist or not. An epidemic affects everyone and anyone. It affects the economy, it affects society, it affects governments, it affects industry, it affects everything!
DAMA was voted on by the Hungarian government. Congratulations!
I'm not going to say corona didn't help it. It was a demonstration of our principles, but one that we didn't ask for. We had proposed the DAMA protocol last year, that is, we submitted it through agencies to get to the government. Of course, it takes time for them to look at it. Now it is currently being looked at and voted on by the government, and then we're just going to see how it goes from there. However, I think an important thing to note on DAMA is that a lot of people imagine DAMA to be one big global network that tells everyone what to do.
Quite the opposite, DAMA has to be regional. When you want to act on regulations, and by these regulations, I mean nothing more complicated than pasteurizing milk or screening pork products for tapeworm eggs , these have to be done through regional authorities. They're the ones who understand the circumstances as well as the legal regulations and implications. So DAMA will only be able to go global, which is the future hope, once it goes regional. The foundation is regional authorities making things happen.
For the purpose of illustration, if DAMA had been in place, how would that have affected the corona pandemic? And particularly, where could it have stepped in?
In Wuhan. If DAMA had been up and running on a regional level in China,... I mean this is my personal estimate, but with this virus in particular, and with these reservoir species that we know the virus uses, there is a 90-plus% chance that we would not be talking about anything right now. Because we knew that this coronavirus strain exists in small mammals since 2007. We would have had 13 years to monitor and create an action plan and regulations, etc, had this framework been in place.
“The way this type of preventative scientific policy-making protocol works is that, if we do our job correctly, nothing happens. And if you think about it, from a communication perspective, this is a very tough sell. Because it's not Dustin Hoffman running with a file of antibodies, and every cured patient in the world flashing as green dots. It's just you sitting in a café believing me that had we not done this and this, you would now be in a pandemic.”
This is another message that needs to be delivered and understood by everyone: the way this type of preventative scientific policy-making protocol works is that if we do our job correctly, nothing happens. And if you think about it, from a communication perspective, this is a very tough sell. Because it's not Dustin Hoffman running with a vial of antibodies, and every cured patient in the world flashing as green dots. It's just you sitting in a café believing me that had we not done this and this, you would now be in a pandemic. "Yeah, right." This is one of the challenges in a project like this, in any preventative measure. You have nothing to show, because the “nothing” is your reward. The “nothing” is your outcome and your result.