The Tweet Heard Round the World

Arlington epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding warned in January that COVID-19 could be catastrophic. Some said he was crying wolf.

In 2016, in reaction to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, Feigl-Ding founded Toxin Alert, “the first geo-social network and public alert system for drinking water toxic contamination,” according to the Harvard Gazette. By then, he was a researcher with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Nutrition Department.

Soon, through his current consulting job, he’ll be publishing a study examining the influence of industry payments to physicians on prescribing habits and opioid overdose deaths.

At the time of Feigl-Ding’s first pandemic-oriented tweet, not one case of COVID-19 had been reported in the United States, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) knew about an outbreak of respiratory disease in China.

“I don’t necessarily fault people for not realizing what was coming,” he says, explaining that he had access then to sources that researchers in western academia wouldn’t have had.

What he hoped, though, was that national and international bodies would take action sooner and that the U.S. would begin to stockpile masks, personal protective equipment and ventilators.

Instead, 10 days passed before WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern. It would be 11 days before the U.S. announced a public health emergency. The rest is history.

If Feigl-Ding has been vindicated, he takes no pleasure in it. By some estimates (including a CDC journal paper set for release in July, which was previewed by the scientific community in April), the median R0 value of COVID-19 in the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan was 5.7—far worse than the number he first tweeted.

It’s a tricky metric to pinpoint. The infectious rate can vary from place to place and day to day. On average, the R0 for COVID-19 is currently believed to be 2 to 2.5, which is still higher than the flu. Research at the National Institutes of Health indicates that the median R value for seasonal influenza is 1.28.

Now Feigl-Ding is a frequent guest on CNN. He’s appeared on BBC World News. The governor of New Jersey called him on his cellphone the other day.

Arlington resident Josh Kaplowitz, a lawyer who works on climate change issues and knows Feigl-Ding through community affairs circles, describes the epidemiologist as “maybe one of just a handful of experts in the U.S. who saw clearly the catastrophe that was headed our way.”

But saying it out loud sounded ludicrous back in January. “People were not even on the same reality plane,” Feigl-Ding says in retrospect. “I might as well have said ‘Aliens’ and “Area 51’—that would have been just as crazy as imagining this level of pandemic shutting down the world.”


Categories: Health & Fitness