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.

He may be controversial, but he’s no slouch. Feigl-Ding grew up in Pennsylvania and finished college in three years, earning a degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University. He completed dual Ph.D. programs at Harvard—in nutrition and epidemiology—by age 23, then attended medical school at Boston University for two years while simultaneously teaching in the medical school at Harvard.

He has published more than 100 scientific papers and, among other honors, was invited to join the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers program, an international network of young individuals committed to doing their part to help shape a better future.

Elizabeth O’Day, founder and CEO of the biotech company Olaris and a fellow Global Shaper, remarks that, “Eric’s work as a scientist, political leader and entrepreneur reflect [the] commitment of [that program].” The fact that his warning wasn’t heeded, she says, “is a tragedy.”

Still, Feigl-Ding persists. One of his current side projects, he says, is helping to get FDA approval for a randomized controlled trial for a potential COVID-19 treatment as a not-for-profit drug.

How and why does he do it all?

“After receiving the diagnosis of a terminal illness at age 17, I was literally given a second chance at life, and I didn’t want to waste it,” he explains. The large tumor in his chest, initially believed malignant, turned out to be benign. But the experience had lasting physical and emotional consequences.

“Life is about what you do,” he says. “I went into public health to solve problems.”

Was he qualified to send that sky-is-falling tweet back in January? Some are still debating that point. Feigl-Ding says he did what he felt was necessary.

“Science has an impact,” he says. “I wasn’t in a policy position at [the time] to force any changes.” But others could have.

Had that been the case, perhaps the scientist and his family would now be out on Arlington’s Bluemont and Glencarlyn bike trails, which they so often enjoy in normal times. Instead they are social distancing like everyone else.

“Science without public policy leadership,” he admonishes, “is toothless.”

Sue Eisenfeld writes, teaches, and consults from home in Arlington. She is the author of Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South and Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal. Find her at


Categories: Health & Fitness