WHO Official Laments Abuse, Death Threats Against Female Scientists

  • WHO official Maria Van Kerkhove said as a younger female, she’s “an easy scientist target” for harassment.
  • Van Kerkhove lamented online attacks on scientists at the AAAS annual meeting on Friday.
  • “Some of the accusations of being a murderer, death threats, threats against our families, I just don’t quite understand,” Van Kerkhove said.

Epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove was thrust into the global spotlight in January 2020 as the World Health Organization’s technical lead for COVID-19. More than two years later, she is one of the pandemic’s most recognizable faces, appearing frequently at WHO press briefings and live Q&A sessions.

That visibility comes with drawbacks, Van Kerkhove said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting on Friday.

“The abuse that we take for doing our jobs and speaking — imperfectly, of course — it’s something I’m still trying to wrap my head around,” she said, adding, “Some of the accusations of being a murderer, death threats, threats against our families, I just don’t quite understand.”

Female scientists face a particular threat of online harassment, she added. In December 2020, female scientists in Brazil, France, and Switzerland reported death threats and cyber harassment after publishing studies showing that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine weren’t effective COVID-19 treatments.

“Women are easier targets than men. It’s a generalization, but I see it. I see it with my own colleagues. I think being a younger female, I’m an easy target,” Van Kerkhove, age 44, said.

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Maria Van Kerkhove (left), WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Professor Didier Houssin, and WHO official Michael Ryan at a press conference in Geneva on January 22, 2020.

Pierre Albouy/AFP/Getty Images


She called for more training and support for scientists who face similar vitriol. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has also received death threats that forced him to procure a security detail, and his three adult daughters have been harassed, Fauci told an online forum in 2020.

Van Kerkhove said she was unprepared for the backlash to her public comments.

“It’s definitely not something that I am trained for, nor do I think I handle [it] all that well,” she said.

‘If I oversimplify too much, I’ll get a phone call’

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Maria Van Kerkhove speaks during a daily press briefing on COVID-19 at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on March 9, 2020.

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images


The pandemic has often forced scientists to issue public-health guidance with limited data.

In one of the earliest examples, the WHO said there was no need for healthy people to wear face masks in April 2020, then reversed its decision two months later. Those changing recommendations opened who officials to criticism, but Van Kerkhove said she stands by her decisions throughout the pandemic.

“Every single piece of evidence that we have issued, we could have waited for more information,” she told Insider at the AAAS meeting. “The timing could have been different,” she added, but “looking back with hindsight is really unfair.”

Van Kerkhove also acknowledged the difficult task of communicating the same message to different types of people.

“When I speak publicly, I’m speaking to my mom, I’m speaking to political leaders, I’m speaking to my peers, all at the same time,” she said. “So you bet, whenever I say something, if I oversimplify too much, I’ll get a phone call.”

But much of the harassment against scientists happens on social media platforms like Twitter, she said.

“I use social media, because I think there’s important information to get out,” she said, adding, “I do mute people. I don’t block anyone anymore because I blocked some people and, again, the accusations were worse.”

Despite the harassment, Van Kerkhove said she doesn’t often think about her status as a public figure.

“I am still in that phase where it’s every day working and focusing on that,” she said, adding, “I’m not actually out and about that much.”

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