Public health experts greeted President-Elect Joe Biden’s Monday announcement of a COVID-19 advisory board that will help shape his policy with a sigh of relief. After months of piecemeal public health advice and outright false information from President Trump, combating the coronavirus pandemic with straightforward and unified leadership is a potential game-changer for the United States. But it’s still unclear whether Biden’s new COVID-19 advisory board has the expertise it needs to fight one crucial component: mis- and dis-information.
The COVID-19 “infodemic” has cost lives, stated the World Health Organization in a recent release, and will continue to do so. “Without the appropriate trust and correct information, diagnostic tests go unused, immunization campaigns (or campaigns to promote effective vaccines) will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive,” the organization stated.
Biden’s advisory board, which is a first step towards the pandemic response his administration will undertake once he takes office, has a long way to come on this front. The United States currently leads the world in the number of COVID-19 deaths and infections per capita, and the effectiveness of public health response to this pandemic has been seriously reduced by false information about COVID-19 prevention and treatment.
“All pandemics have misinformation,” says Nicholas Evans, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who studies false information and biosecurity. The difference now, as Popular Science has reported, is that social media allows conspiracy theory and rumor to spread farther and faster than ever before. And Biden’s advisory board—at least so far—doesn’t have the expertise to combat it, he says.
“We just don’t have the kind of knowledge on that advisory board to deal with the very pressing issue of this rapid mass communication that is decentralized and allows people… from the ground up to spread misinformation,” he says. “I don’t think the advisory board is yet equipped for that.”
Biden announced the members of his advisory board on Monday. Its thirteen constituents are doctors and public health experts working both nationally and in global health. Not one of them is an expert in public health misinformation.
Their presence alone—along with the voice of a coherent administration—is likely to have a positive impact. “I think that having unified messaging and functioning public health systems will help” curb the spread of false information, says Anna Muldoon, a Ph.D student at Arizona State University and coauthor of an upcoming book on COVID-19 conspiracy theories. In past disease crises, clear public health communication was a big help in containing mis- and dis-information.
But the social media problem is deep enough and important enough that it needs a directed response, she says, although it’s as yet hard to define what that response would be. “We don’t have established methods, really, to deal with the way that misinformation is spreading on social media,” she says.
The president-elect’s words in a Monday press conference clearly showed why thinking about mis- and dis-information is so important. “It’s time to end the politicization of basic responsible public health steps like mask-wearing and social distancing,” he said, before going on to speak at length about the importance of mask-wearing.
Biden stopped short of specifically addressing popular conspiracy theories about mask wearing, such as those that falsely claim face masks reduce immunity or affect the wearer’s oxygen levels. Instead he encouraged all Americans to mask up in order to protect themselves and others. “For the foreseeable future, a mask remains the most potent weapon against the virus,” he said.
At press time, the Biden-Harris transition team had not responded to a request for comment from Popular Science.
But those conspiracy theories, and many others, are having an outsize impact on the nation’s COVID-19 response. That problem will continue unless it is addressed—and will be essential to contemplate when considering a vaccine roll-out.
“This is a real potential political flashpoint,” Evans says. As a result, for Biden to get buy-in from the state level to his new COVID-19 plans, it will be important to address these issues, he says.