Amid coronavirus crisis, Yale scientists find useful tool in Twitter

Howard Forman, Nathan Grubaugh, and Akiko Iwasaki

Before COVID-19 became a massive global health threat, Yale epidemiology professor Nathan Grubaugh mainly relied on Twitter as a direct line of communication with fellow scientists, especially if he wanted a fast response to a scientific inquiry.

It was where I could ask for reagents or protocols, share preliminary data, or find jobs,” he said.

But as the new respiratory infection spread across the globe from China to South Korea to Italy and then to the United States, media outlets noticed Grubaugh’s comments on the social media platform and turned to him for insights. He soon co-authored an op-ed on CNN dispelling myths about coronavirus mutations, and afterward found his Twitter following not only growing, but full of nonscientists hungry for reliable information.

Grubaugh is not the only Yale faculty member attracting new Twitter followers seeking expertise. Immunobiology professor Akiko Iwasaki (nearly 20,000 followers), radiology, management, public health, and economics professor Dr. Howard P. Forman (nearly 33,000 followers), and Nicholas Christakis, social and natural science professor (over 90,000 followers), are also on the frontlines of communicating advice and science about the coronavirus to a confused and panicky public.

It’s a new opportunity not only to get things we need, but to show information directly to the public,” said Grubaugh. “People get to interact directly with public health officials. It’s a good way for them to sort through the misinformation and find reputable information.”

In addition to a Twitter thread that serves as an easy-to-digest explanation for why virus mutations are not a cause for panic, Grubaugh recently used the platform to track down genetic material he needed to help Yale New Haven Hospital and other medical facilities validate coronavirus tests.

Does anyone have #COVID19 (#SARSCoV2) RNA to share?” Grubaugh asked his Twitter followers on Feb. 29.

Fellow scientists on the platform recommended he reach out to the University of Texas Medical Reference Library. By the end of that day, his lab had an initial agreement in place. Two days later, he had the RNA.

We now have piles of great standards we’re trying to make available to the clinical community,” he said. Standards are solutions, or mixture of substances, with a known amount of COVID-19 RNA.

So far, he’s sent standards to four hospitals that have requested them for coronavirus tests.

Iwasaki, the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, and a leading expert on viruses, has used her Twitter platform to give accurate and detailed public health advice about COVID-19. She has repeatedly called for social distancing, and when she recently appeared in a Facebook interview on Connecticut news channel WFSB, she promoted the interview on Twitter.

In that interview, I was able to address many questions from the audience about this virus and raise awareness of the seriousness and severity of the problem,” said Iwasaki, who is a member of the National Academy of Science.

She’s also using Twitter to share her research into the positive impact of humidity on fighting the spread of viruses, a key focus of her work and one that’s relevant to coronavirus.

She and Grubaugh are both part of the laboratory group for a new COVID-19 task force at Yale. The laboratory group is headed by Dr. Ellen Foxman, assistant professor of laboratory medicine and immunobiology, and includes Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and associate dean for global health research; Dr. Albert Ko, department chair and professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases) and of medicine (infectious diseases); and Marie-Louise Landry, director of the Clinical Virology Laboratory. The larger Yale COVID-19 task force spearheaded by Omer is working with the Connecticut Department of Public Health on strategies for minimizing the virus’ spread and helping vulnerable populations, including the homeless and seniors in retirement homes who can’t easily self-isolate.

Forman, founder and director of Yale’s M.D./M.B.A. program, moved swiftly into public education mode on Twitter as the coronavirus crisis hit.

At a time when information is changing rapidly and data is so diffuse as to be nearly impossible to source and analyze individually, social media — particularly Twitter — has become indispensable to many of us in helping to inform the public about the facts, the science, and the emerging data and trends,” said Forman, who is also director of the executive M.B.A. program in healthcare, and of the Health Care Management Program at Yale School of Public Health,.

Forman was one of numerous experts who provided leadership and advice for a COVID-19 Stimulus Bill and has repeatedly used Twitter to call for more COVID testing.

Engaging the public on Twitter is vital, he said, but must be done with care.

There is a lot of false information out there that can cause widespread panic and/or deter people from using proper precautionary measures,” said Forman. “I am trying to be diligent with my coronavirus tweeting to minimize political considerations and maximize attention to detail, tamping down on inappropriate speculation, and engaging with people in good faith.”

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19

Media Contact

Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643