Some virologists who have talked about the Corona virus through the international media are facing online harassment and violent reactions, including threats and attempts to kill some of them. Who is behind it?
Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst was the victim of threats from a far-right military named Jürgen Konings, who fled after the police chased him and was found dead on June 20 with a bullet that ended his life. In his car were 4 rocket launchers and ammunition. The investigation later revealed that he was near Van Ranst’s home on May 17, according to a report in Deutsche Welle.
The virologist tells Agence France-Presse that Konings’ car “was parked in the street, according to surveillance cameras, and he was waiting for me to return.” “What he didn’t know was that I took a half-day off for the first time in 18 months. I was at home.” Van Ranst and his family were placed under police protection, and had to live in several secret places for about a month.
Van Ranst became a media face during the health crisis and a source of ire for anti-vaccination activists. He explains, “I have a huge file of about 150 threatening letters, some of them are simple. They compare me to Hitler or Mengele (a Nazi doctor), and some of them are death threats.”
Repeated harassment of scientists
Van Ranst is not the only scientist who has received such threats. The medical journal Nature published the results of a survey of 321 scientists who spoke about Covid-19 in the media, most of them from the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Germany. The results showed that they often received threats and were bullied. Only a third of respondents experienced negative consequences for publicly speaking about COVID-19.
More than half of the respondents said that their credibility was questioned after their media appearances, while 15% of them confirmed that they had received death threats.
“It was very violent, I’ve never experienced such violence,” French infectious diseases specialist Karen Lacombe told AFP. Lacombe co-wrote a letter in December 2020 in The Lancet denouncing the harassment of female scientists.
In conjunction with Lacombe’s transformation into a media personality with the start of the pandemic, she began to be attacked when she objected to Doctor Didier Raoult’s promotion of the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment to fight the virus.
“Since that time things have gotten out of hand,” he remembers. She continues, “I received insults in the street. In anonymous letters, I received threats of rape with barbed wire, things like that. It was a very difficult period.” “One day I received a thousand emails with the same text, and at the beginning of the message some people put a very offensive personal sentence. It’s the repetition that drives crazy.”
Science declares war on the Corona virus
Lacombe is part of a group of doctors and scientists known for their fight against misinformation about Corona, who in early September denounced the insults and threats they had been exposed to for months, accusing the judiciary and politicians of indifference. “I no longer file complaints,” she says unfortunately, and that she feels “psychologically drained” and “has a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder”.
“I didn’t come home for several days because I told myself that people would be waiting for me there,” she explains. To “take a step back”, Lacombe relied on “psychologists familiar with the mechanics of online harassment” and “groups that fight online hate and disinformation”.
“It reinforced my convictions,” she says, “they want to silence us and we must not succumb to this blackmail.” Van Ranst’s view is similar: “I’m not overly cautious and I’m still against anti-vaccination messages or misinformation, or else they win.”