Q & A with an accountability expert

Dr. Ali Nouri, molecular biologist and president, Federation of American Scientists discusses the COVID-19 pandemic and reducing Congress’ science deficit.

Can you tell us about FAS’s Coronavirus Project and its overall impact?

In the early days of the pandemic, people had a ton of questions, so we set up the Coronavirus Project as an online resource to provide answers that are backed with solid reporting from a team of scientists. When we started getting even more questions, we teamed up with The GovLab at New York University and the National Policy Science Network to build ‘Ask a Scientist’ an answer bot component to the site that has vetted answers about the coronavirus from reliable scientific sources. There’s also space to write in your question, and have several of the 600 scientists that are volunteering their expertise respond to each question. Every question is reviewed by a number of experts, and their responses go back into the database to make it smarter. The platform has turned out to be a tremendous resource, and so much so that the states of New Jersey and Alabama cloned it to meet the demand for information from their constituents. Once we launched it, the page received millions of views in the first week, this was quite early in the pandemic when a lot of the labs were closed, so it helped meet this critical need.

How does the Coronavirus Project compare to FAS’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force?

We created the Coronavirus Project mainly for the public, but there’s also a need to educate policymakers. The fact is we may have scientific expertise in the executive branch, but we don’t in Congress. Of the 535 members of Congress, there are two or three Ph.D. scientists. At the staff level, there aren’t many scientists either out of thousands. Frankly, Congress has a deficit when it comes to science, and in this era of COVID-19, lawmakers are in the dark because of hyper-politicization. The COVID-19 Task Force is composed of experts from academia and vaccine development who serve as a resource for Congress. We also have the Congressional Science Project we kicked off in January of 2019 that focuses on informing lawmakers who are preparing for congressional hearings. The hearings must be evidence-based, so we crowdsource our community of 800 (and growing) scientists to provide answers to lawmakers’ questions so Congress can have productive conversations during the hearings.

What are your thoughts about the origin of the virus?

Some say it originated from animals such as bats, pangolins, and then spread to humans in China. Another theory is that it was leaked from a lab there, but there are lots of other labs in that area, and there’s no evidence that it was SARS COVID-2 that was leaked. I think there was a concerted effort to pin it on China, and also pin it on the previous administration that funded a grant on zoonotic disease surveillance. There are political forces that also looked at it and thought it came out of Fauci’s agency. Historically, diseases tend to jump from animals to humans frequently. It was the case with the first SARS virus, Ebola, and influenza, so Occam’s razor tells us that’s what happened here because about three-fourths of infectious diseases jump from animals to humans. But social media has made it hard to parse facts from fiction. It’s a dangerous point in time in terms of the way information is disseminated, even though I recognize it’s a reflection of the times.

Was the virus really ever “under control as much as you can control it” in the U.S. per Trump’s assessments?

Our response here in the U.S. was grossly inadequate, in part because the lockdown wasn’t streamlined. The curve didn’t flatten and stagnated instead, which is why there was a trend upwards after the country tried to reopen. We lost control of the virus a long time ago. The pandemic underscored the importance of effective governance, and we have seen that in the way different governments around the world have handled their responses to it. The governments that left states to their own devices saw the aftermath of that decision with something as simple as mask-wearing. In countries where the majority of leaders decided to wear masks, the population was more willing to wear masks. Here in the U.S., we can’t take our feet off the gas pedal just yet. Yes, other countries’ responses may have helped curb the spread, but the pandemic is not over.

As a molecular biologist, what has proven to be the hardest thing to believe about this particular virus?

Its newness and all the uncertainty that came from it. It has turned out to be a nasty virus that is lethal to people 80 years of age and above. Plus, you can spread it before you have any symptoms. A huge fraction of the infections are from people who are transmitting the virus before they exhibit any symptoms. We have to err on the side of caution to keep our society safe in order to get ahead of it.

You have been vocal about coronavirus aerosol transmission on social media. What should the public be aware of regarding this mode of transmission? 

We need to keep in mind that being in closed spaces makes all the difference because the prevailing idea was that the virus was transmitted through heavy droplets from coughing, sneezing, or talking that become airborne. However, aerosol scientists have clarified that we don’t only cough and sneeze these big droplets, we are releasing aerosols constantly into the air by breathing. It’s why we need to have efficient ventilation in buildings and to stay more than six feet from others during social interactions. Ventilation is key and indoor spaces especially need to be adequately ventilated. If you are indoors in a place that isn’t your home, make sure the space is ventilated. For example in my office (and in most offices), the air conditioner recycles the air over and over – that’s a problem. This is why HVAC specialists are now talking about prioritizing HVAC units that bring in more fresh air instead of simply recycling the same air.

How effective do you think testing is at this point?

There has been a lot of testing in the U.S., and we have improved considerably. We have to acknowledge that, but most places like Quest or CVS still take four to six days or longer. That’s a problem because if one is infected, at day one to three, they may not be symptomatic, and might be spreading the virus in the meantime which renders the test useless. More testing is great, but the test results have to be quicker.

Several pharmaceutical companies have announced promising early coronavirus vaccine trials. How excited should we be about the efficacy of a vaccine come 2021?

I am hopeful there will be several different vaccines, but we have to see what the phase 3 trials show because they are most expansive and involve the largest demographic of people. Overall, it’s a great development and quite impressive if you consider the fact that we don’t have a vaccine for HIV even though it has been in existence since 1981. However, we do have to wait and keep in mind that it won’t protect us 100%; no vaccine does that. It takes time from when the vaccine is approved to when it’s ready for public use. We’ll have to be patient and see how effective the vaccines will be.

What’s your take on the reopening schools debate? A Washington Post survey showed parents disagree with the administration fully reopening schools.

We can’t apply a cookie-cutter approach to all schools because communities have different levels of exposure, and opening schools too rapidly will put teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff at significant risk. We have to remember millions of Americans live with kids, and the population with children tends to predominantly be in communities of color compared to communities with low transmissions (i.e. 1% positive status). The decision should be based on locality. South Korea, Germany, and a few other countries have either reopened schools or are reopening with lesser cases, but we can’t just say since they are reopening, we should too; that’s the wrong approach. We have to look at the data and plan accordingly.