Professor Peter Doherty on COVID-19, Life, Science, and The Road Less Travelled
Originally published at https://www.nickfabbri.com/bloom/peterdoherty
Full transcript below ^_^
In this interview, Nick and Professor Doherty discuss:
- Peter’s life and career in science and advice for young research scientists today
- The work of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in tackling the global burden of COVID-19
- The different public health responses to COVID-19 around the world
- Globalisation, pandemics and the 21st century
- President Donald Trump and the American response to COVID-19
- The state of scientific literacy and education in Australia and the world
- The proliferation of conspiracies about COVID-19, including 5G and Bill Gates
- How our societies could change as we recover from the pandemic
Professor Peter Doherty shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996 with Swiss colleague Rolf Zinkernagel, for their discovery of how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells. He was Australian of the Year in 1997, and has since been commuting between St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne. The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity is named in his honour, and the institute is leading a lot of the research into COVID-19 in Australia.
00:01 Nick: Welcome to Bloom, a conversations podcast about anything and everything. In this episode, I’m lucky to be speaking with Professor Peter Doherty. We cover a wide range of topics including his unique career as a veterinary surgeon turned research scientist and eventual Nobel laureate in the field of medicine, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the different public health responses to the virus around the world, and how societies could change on the other side of the current crisis.
00:25 Professor Peter Doherty shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996, along with Swiss colleague, Rolf Zinkernagel, for their discovery of how the immune system recognises virus infected cells. He was Australian of the Year in 1997, and has since been commuting between St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and the Department of microbiology and immunology at the University of Melbourne.
00:49 The Peter Doherty Institute for infection and immunity is named in his honour, and the institute is leading a lot of the research into COVID-19 in Australia. Thank you so much for your time today, Professor. It’s a really great honour to be speaking with you.
01:02 Peter: Yeah, it’s a pleasure. I’m not doing much commuting at the moment. I’m locked down in Melbourne. In fact, I’ve come to that end of that part of my career and I’m basically in Melbourne, though I still spend a bit of time in St. Jude which is a wonderful place.
01:15 Nick: Maybe I should have read a more updated biography!
01:17 Peter: No, no. It’s okay. No worries.
01:20 Nick: So, Professor Doherty, you recently lit up social media with a viral tweet, pardon my pun, in which you accidentally wrote ‘Dan Murphy opening hours’ into Twitter rather than a Google search.
01:31 Peter: Yes.
01:31 Nick: Can you speak a bit about the reaction to that tweet and how you’ve found social media throughout the pandemic?
01:36 Peter: Well, it certainly it was a mistake. I was on Microsoft Outlook, doing emails, and I was in Twitter and I thought I was in Google and so that caused a lot of amusement. My wife told me immediately, she picked it up, but I made a complete fool of myself. So, I responded — tried to respond light-heartedly as quickly as possible to try and defuse it.
02:00 That worked and I think to some extent it humanised me because titles like professor and Nobel Prize winner make you into something else. You know, I’m just as stupid as anybody else is and we all are stupid at times.
02:17 So, yeah, it was kind of fun and then I got a lot of exchange back on it and I’ve ended up with about 18,000 more followers on Twitter.
02:28 Nick: Amazing. A very happy accident.
02:30 Peter: I think people — it was right in the sort of grimace period of locking down and I think people just found something amusing and different, and so they really enjoyed it. So, I’ve kept that up a bit. I mean, you know, I’m tweeting from reputable sources, particularly the Betoota Advocate which is a wonderful newspaper.
02:54 Nick: I look forward to their…
02:53 Peter: It’s just revealed that the 1918 influenza pandemic was a result of 5G interference from the Marconi system in the telegram delivery service.
03:08 I did see that article. It’s very good. I look forward to their profile or interview with you. It would be a good exclusive. I think they did one with Malcolm Turnbull a few years ago.
03:16 Peter: I’m happy to be interviewed by them anytime. They are very a reputable and old newspaper.
03:22 Nick: So, if we can just come back to, I guess, a question about life now during the pandemic. I wondered what you miss most about life as we knew it, especially in inner city, Melbourne.
03:33 Peter: Oh, well, it’s always nice to go out for a meal and go to — our local pub serves good meals and we go up there quite a bit. I just do general walking around and walking around downtown. We live very close to downtown. We can walk down there from here. Just normal going into the office and all the rest of it because we’re still largely not going in.
03:58 And of course, because I’m older — I’m 79 and my wife is also — and we have other conditions, we’ll be pretty locked down for a while yet until we know what’s happening.
04:10 Nick: Have you done any sort of ordering in of your favourite pub meals and stuff like on Uber Eats or anything?
04:15 Peter: We get a pizza from the local coffee shop who doesn’t normally do that but she’s keeping herself running by doing a bit of carry out stuff and basically — we ordered from Dan Murphy’s online so that worked well. We do have grandchildren, the son and daughter in law are not far away.
04:38 Nick: I think Dan Murphy’s should give you a year long supply worth of free drinks because of your influencing — your social media influencing.
04:46 Peter: I think they offered a bottle of Grange which we were declined for the moment because we’re very sensitive about making any personal profit out of any of this. I mean, you know, you will have read that the institute is getting large amounts of money coming in. This is all the work that’s been done on vaccine development or drug trials and so forth. None of it comes back to any of the people in the Institute, of course.
05:11 Nick: Yeah. So, in a recent profile with the AFR, you wrote, “Never ask a scientist what they’re thinking, ask them what they’re working on.” So, speaking about the Institute and yourself, what are you and the institute working on at the moment?
05:23 Peter: Well, what I’m working on is basically I’m doing public communications. I’m almost 80 years old and it’s some years now since I’ve actually run a research lab. I did come to the end of — we came to the end of a big what we call programme grant, where we had multiple investigators on that grant for influenza at the end of 2019. So, I was still on that, but my role was essentially as a discussant and to help with writing out papers and so forth which is a lot of what senior scientists do anyway, apart from getting around the place and talking about the research.
05:58 The Institute, though, is working extremely hard on the science and on the diagnostic work. It’s — you know, we have a complex institute — a very unusual, quite unique in Australia, where we have the academic university Department of microbiology which is a very strong department, combined with the state virus diagnostic labs and reference labs for bacterial viral diagnosis, and the World Health Organisation influenza centre, one of six worldwide, and the clinical doctors who have labs, but are working across at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in their infectious disease programme also have their labs in our building.
06:39 So, we have — we’re partly funded by the university and partly by Melbourne Health which is state and also some federal money. That’s why we’ve been so effective, because we’re combining the intellectual academic basic research end with the very practical end. The reason we were people who first isolated the virus outside China, I think.
07:04 Nick: Wow.
07:04 Peter: We were certainly the first people to give the virus out. We had a — as soon as China announced the sequence of the virus on 9th of January, the head of VDRL, the virus diagnostics set up, went out and developed a PCR test. So, we were all set to go when we had our first case on 25th of January, someone who’d come in from China and self-identified, did all the right things and went straight into hospital.
07:32 So, we’ve been really right from the beginning, but a lot of our work has been initially for the federal group and Mike Catan, who heads that, and Julian Drews, who isolated the virus, to get all the testing out there — to get it out of our institution because we only contest a limited number, but we were doing everything to begin with, to get it out into the private labs, the hospital labs, make sure those tests are validated and make sure everyone’s reading off the same thing.
07:58 So, there’s a lot of work like that has had to go on — evaluating new tests, which might be faster and more convenient and all sorts of things. We turn around these tests in 24–36 hours at the most.
08:10 Nick: Amazing.
08:10 Peter: Sometimes it can be a bit of delay on reporting. So, that’s — but then there’s a whole lot of basic science going on about developing vaccines, testing drug candidates and a lot of very practical stuff too.
08:22 Nick: The business as usual sort of stuff.
08:25 Peter: Much beyond, because what’s happened is people who would not normally have worked on this have been pulled into it. The bacterial diagnostic outfit, which is headed by Ben Houghton — fantastic group, which does a lot of — whenever they isolate a pathogenic bacterium, they sequence the whole bacterium. So, this is coming out of the community straight into gene sequencing.
08:48 They’ve sequenced over — I think it’s 1200 of the COVID-19 isolates and there’s a preprint out there about how that’s allowed them to identify different groupings because the virus has little mutations in it. They don’t change the antigenicity which we worry about with vaccines, but they do act as markers. They’re like a barcode and so they can say how many different types of viruses, how many different little species almost of virus are out there. They can say, you know, a lot of these — it’s say five cases, you’re in a particular grouping or — and most of them of course up until now coming from overseas anyway.
09:30 So, that’s a very powerful technology and then other people who would normally work on basic immunity are now doing virus immunity. So, everyone’s come in behind this and the influenza groups are working on it, everyone.
09:45 Nick: Yeah, fantastic to hear. So, just to come back to I suppose your life and career as a whole. So, you wrote a book, “How to win a Nobel Prize, a guide for beginners,” which is about providing advice, in part to young scientists.
09:59 So, the book covers your career as a research scientist and your journey to ultimately winning the Nobel Prize and beyond. Could you provide an overview of some of the key moments in your life story and career which brought you to where you are today?
10:13 Peter: Well, my research story is very unusual. I didn’t set out to be a medical researcher, I trained to be a vet at the University of Queensland. I went into the vet school when I was 17 and graduated when I just turned 22.
10:30 I was working for the state government because they paid my way through the university. So, I was sent out into the field for a while, did field veterinary work and then was pulled back into the lab because they had some research money and the guy that was supposed to do the project got out of it.
10:45 I started doing research with infectious disease of domestic animals, which I did for 10 years. Very interested in what’s called pathogenesis. I’m very interested — my basic interest is in how disease processes work.
10:59 Peter: Early on, I worked with some bacterial infections, but basically it’s been virus infections, and I’ve been working on virus infections now since the mid-1960s, so that’s 55 years.
11:13 I did that for 10 years, four years in Brisbane and then the rest of that time at an institution called the Board and Research Institute in Edinburgh, where I was working on virus infection of sheep and doing diagnostic pathology.
11:31 I came back to Australia — I was going to come back and take a senior position at CSRIO division of animal health, but I just been hearing about this new area of cell mediated immunity and I asked the people here — I would have come to Melbourne — whether they’d mind if I took a couple of years off and learnt about this.
11:52 So, I got a bit of funding to go to the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra. By this time, I’m married, we have two kids, both born in Scotland and that’s where we made the discovery that led to the Nobel Prize.
12:06 So, since 1974–1971, really or 1972, I’ve been involved in basic medical research and that’s been the rest of my career. I’ve been — worked twice in the United States, back in Australia for a while, and then finally at the University of Melbourne.
12:21 Nick: Reminds of that Robert Frost poem about the road less travelled, you know, taking sort of unexpected turns.
12:26 Peter: Yeah, yes. Well, the scientific road is a bit like that. I mean, if you’re in the research career, you can start — I have great colleagues, for instance, who started out in plant science who are now in India who is now one of the leading authorities on what’s called the Inflamazone which is one of — which is part of the inflammatory responses, one of the problems with COVID-19.
12:54 So, we often end up in a very different place from where we are thinking we would be. This also happens to people who train as medical doctors who suddenly find themselves off in research theme and they may decide that’s what they want to do.
13:08 So, yes, I think — and that’s a bit the way the world is now, isn’t it? We train early on thinking, “This is our expertise…” and we find ourselves doing very, very, very different things. So, that’s kind of fun, but it’s challenging. I’ve at times — several times actually — given up full time jobs with secure retirements and all the rest of it to really take much more tenuous positions because it was more exciting. I think, you know, life is an adventure and of course, you’re going to take a few hard knocks with it but that’s the way it is.
13:46 Nick: So what advice would you give to young people, you know, setting out to become research scientists today, to embrace science as a way of life in a career rather than, you know, taking our secure kind of routes?
13:58 Peter: Well, it’s — you need to realise what you’re doing. I mean, if you want a bit more security, of course, and you’ve got the grades, maybe go to medical school first.
14:06 Nick: Yep.
14:06 Peter: But, and of course, going to medical school does open up a whole lot of other great opportunities to you because then it’s much easier for you to work directly with patients, though a lot of our basic scientists work very, very closely with clinical colleagues who provide a lot of materials.
14:25 Though, of course, if you do medicine, particularly in Australia, and you want to do science, it can take a lot of your time, but a lot of these people are incredibly smart people and they’re enormously effective.
14:37 So, but if you go down the strictly research scientists road, well, you’ve got to be flexible and you’ve got to be prepared to work in other countries. I mean, anyone who goes into basic biomedical science, on the whole, it’s not invariable, because we do have exceptions, but it’s a good idea to spend a couple of years working in another country. I mean, that broadens your horizon and it’s actually one way you get to travel and work in another country with all the barriers going up.
15:05 Just be flexible and follow your main chance in this. And not everyone who sets out to do science is going to make it. Most don’t and they never have, but many of them go into all sorts of other activities where they’ve been enormously effective because if you learn how to do science, you learn how to handle data, you learn how to generate data, analyse it, and write it up.
15:28 Actually, it’s a very data driven exercise — in experimental science, at least — or for the people who do much more mathematical — what we call Insilco research — it’s very mathematical and statistical and it leads to the side — if you do that sort of research, you get the type of skills that would fit you to be in the banking industry, or if you really want to go to the dark side, the gambling industry. So, you know, you can make a lot of money out of that or you can do something useful.
16:00 But the biomedical researchers — I mean, you see them go on to have jobs in banking and sometimes in — I know of one who was a very distinguished high school principal. Some of our — one of our young PhD graduates went straight into an additional programme for school teaching. She loves it and she’ll end up as a high school principal somewhere, I guess.
16:26 Another one of our young people did the same thing and hated it and came back to the lab. So, you know, and then there are business things. So, science is more and more pervasive throughout our culture. Also, a number of people who have done say PhDs in biomedical science have gone back and do law or something like that or business.
16:44 Nick: Yeah. So, your biography on the Nobel Prize website concludes with the following lines, “Intellectually, I march to the beat of my own drum and have little interest in competing in races. There are too many — too few people working in the area of viral pathogenesis and immunity. Too little funding, too many problems and too little time.” What do you think of those last three reflections in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?
17:10 Peter: Well, that’s — it’s pretty much still spot on. I think the level of interest in viral immunity has gone up but we had to work hard at that. Also things like SARS coming along, and some of the influenza threats did put that level of interest up. So, it’s now a much more centre stage activity than it was, but it’s never really centre stage. It’s a bit of an aside in the biomedical world though. The basic molecular cell biology, the type of work you get going on in cancer research labs or cardiac labs are much more sort of central to the whole biological story. So, we’re still a bit off to the side in the disease world but there is a lot more interest now in viral immunity.
17:58 But I’ve always — I’ve never — you know, some people like races. They want to win races. It’s a feature of the biomedical scene and the research scene. I’ve never had the slightest interest in that. I thought if somebody else’s — if it’s a useful question and if someone smart and useful is going to do this, well, why would I do it? So, I’ve always followed my own line of interest and carved my own way.
18:21 So, sometimes I’ve been very fashionable in science. A lot of people have referred to our papers, and sometimes I’ve been unfashionable, and it really doesn’t bother me very much as long as we can get the resources, the research funding, to do the work.
18:34 Nick: Yeah, and you’ve spoken about yourself being a bit of an outsider sometimes in the scientific community.
18:39 Peter: Yeah, yeah. It’s a bit my personality, I suppose. I don’t — I’m not political. I’m useless politically and whenever I get involved in any sort of political thing, I’m not helpful because I’m — I just say it as it is basically. I’ve no interest in lying and, you know, if you want to get on in politics, you got to be able to lie. Of course, the President of the United States doesn’t do anything else.
19:04 Nick: Oh, we’ll come to Trump for sure, but could you maybe speak a bit about the different virology’s of COVID-19 around the world and you know, why it’s sort of, you know, showing up at different mortality rates and having different impacts all over the globe?
19:18 Peter: Well, it’s largely — it’s partly a public health question. That was really not what I work on. I mean, the same disease everywhere as far as we know, I don’t think there’s any difference in the disease. We do wonder whether it’s having less severe effects in some hot tropical countries, but from some of the low incidence reporting we’re getting from say Africa and Vietnam seems to be doing very well. We don’t know quite what’s going on but it’s terrible in South America. So, some of those countries are pretty hot countries
19:48 No, basically, it’s — there are several things in it. Firstly, I think we don’t have quite the level of tourists — though we think we have a lot of tourists, it’s nothing like the people travelling through that you have in the United States or Europe from, say, Asia. So, I don’t think we had as heavy an exposure early on.
20:09 Basically the disease was running — we now know it was certainly in France in December, okay? So, we had our first case on January 25th. So, it was running in France in December in kind of the background and in the community for at least a month or six weeks before they got onto it — two months even.
20:29 Nick: Yeah, wow.
20:31 Peter: I think much the same thing happened in the United States. So, it was really everywhere in a lot of communities in Europe before they really started to react. We reacted right from the beginning. So, we were able to keep the amount of community spread very, very, very low. Luckily, as you know, we’ve been locking up people for two weeks in hotels to make sure that they don’t add to that, but in the US it was really everywhere before they reacted.
21:00 Then of course in Europe, there have been varying levels of success but if you wait too long, then the thing is everywhere. Even with the big shutdown they attempted in northern Italy, it’s been very, very hard to pull it back.
21:15 Nick: So, could you maybe reflect then on those different public health responses because, you know, you’ve got the example in Sweden of having a less restrictive response, you know, too little too late in Italy, as you just mentioned, but then also New Zealand, which is sort of proactive and, you know, very draconian and effective and it’s lockdown, to the point that now they’re on the brink of elimination.
21:36 Peter: Yes, well, you know, New Zealand and us share the advantage of being nation states and a bit off the central loop people movement line. So, I think we — you know, that that has benefited us.
21:53 Also, we’ve been used to thinking in terms of secure borders, being an island state, and that goes way back to our quarantine history and so forth. A lot of that has relaxed over the years, but it’s still there in our thinking.
22:08 I think what also — I can’t comment as much on New Zealand but what I think also has been our great advantage is we do have a public funded health system, which I think personally for publicly funded health systems is one of the best in the world. It’s a really excellent system. You know, all these systems are challenged by not enough money and all the rest, because they’re very — a lot of the drugs and things are very expensive, but I think it’s a very good system.
22:33 I think what it’s also shown here, as I’ve engaged more and more with listening to my colleagues — we have a three times a week strategy meeting — just how robust a lot of the mechanisms we had in place were. I mean, they’ve really worked well.
22:50 But it’s also shown us some other defects in Australia, and that is losing so much on manufacturing has been a problem. We may need to think about bringing some of that back and being a bit more independent of the globalised trade system because with some things, we’ve definitely been on the end of the supply chain and we still are. I think we need to think a lot about that. I hope this — the one good thing that will come out of this is a sort of massive reset in the way we and other countries approach the way the world works and our place in it.
23:28 Nick: Yeah, for sure. I definitely will come to that and a couple of questions as well, but I’m just wondering if you could speak a bit about how the vectors that give rise to pandemics — so increased trade and travel through globalisation, rising urbanisation and population density, and factory farming — are all prominent features of the 21st century. So, are we more likely to see, you know, more lethal pandemics as the century unfolds?
23:53 Peter: I would — if you’d asked me that question a couple of years ago, I’d say yeah, it’s kind of likely but we haven’t anything much yet but now I know that we have. Actually, I’ve been I think a little bit complacent about our capacity to respond.
24:09 Yes, we will do. Factory farming is not involved in this pandemic. This pandemic has come out of — possibly — out of live animal markets. We’re not absolutely sure and I don’t think the Chinese are absolutely sure quite frankly, and there will need to be an investigation — a scientific investigation — after this is all over to try and nail that down a bit more strictly because we don’t really know whether it came out of that live animal market in Wuhan or whether someone was already infected who was spreading it in the market, but it does seem to have a focus there. So, the Chinese will get onto that but they are busy like us trying to deal with the pandemic and it really doesn’t matter at this stage. Though the one that comes out to us through factory farming or has the potential to is influenza.
24:57 Nick: Right.
24:58 Peter: The 2009 one came out of pig farming. There were two pig viruses that got together. The other big risk is a large scale chicken production in Asia, where you’ve got chickens, where they’re exposed to aquatic birds, which are the primary carriers of this virus. So, it’s very important that if you’ve got those large factory farming operations, you don’t have a duck pond anywhere near it and you have netting to keep flying aquatic birds out of the chicken operation.
25:31 Nick: So, what other kind of things can we put in place to avoid this kind of thing in future and other in particular, you know, early warning systems and the sort of cooperation of the global scientific community, you know, through the World Health Organisation for instance.
25:46 Peter: Well, the World Health Organisation is absolutely vital. I mean, it is a UN organisation. Anyone who’s had anything to do with UN organisations knows there’s a certain cumbersome character to it because of the fact that there’s so many nation states involved and it’s kind of politicised at the high level of reappointments.
26:04 But when you get down to the people who are actually salaried appointees, who are not that type of appointment, it’s a highly professional service. We do see some variation in the top group at times. I think, sometimes we have outstanding leaders, sometimes we don’t. They’ve made a couple of mistakes that Trump has used to attack them. I mean, Trump is always about, “Look over there, don’t look at me.”
26:32 Basically, I mean, they were slow to announce a pandemic. There were reasons for that, that have nothing to do with China that go back to the history of the eight, seven and nine pandemic. They were slow to announce it, but they were putting out the warnings very, very, very clearly and there’s no doubt that the United States and everybody else was getting those warnings. Then they made a statement about live animal markets being — should open. I mean, I think they could have just avoided that one.
26:57 So, sometimes they made — but they’re absolutely essential on the point of view of coordinating validation of things and so forth. They — you know, they have no funding to do research, they’re just an information organisation. When we have our WHO Influenza Centre that’s part of — one of six worldwide that decide on the different flu vaccines and analyse the flu viruses from the region. But those centres are all funded by the national governments. I mean, our flu centre — WHO is funded by a federal government for instance.
27:32 Nick: You mentioned. You go.
27:32 Peter: So, that’s one thing — world health. I mean, the other is just the general information exchange between public health people and scientists. The other thing is our science is now fantastic. I mean, there was no problem here with getting onto this virus fast, identifying it fast. I think, if you go back to 1917 and 18 influenza pandemic, we didn’t isolate the first influenza virus — any influenza virus — until I think 1933, okay?
28:01 Nick: Right. 15 years on.
28:03 Peter: Then SARS, I think it took us a couple of months to work it out and that was the World Health Organisation influenza people, as a network of people who were involved in virus respiratory disease, were very prominent in sorting that out.
28:19 With this one, it was worked out almost immediately because we’ve had a couple of these viruses circulating and also because our science is now so fantastically better. We can we can diagnose things very quickly, even if it’s something quite different. The fact that we’ve already got vaccines well through — with some of them right through clinical testing, and into humans — within months of knowing about this is really extraordinary.
28:45 But what that also has shown us is when it comes to vaccines and specific antiviral drugs and treatments and so forth that are specific for the virus — and that’s the problem with viruses — we don’t have any broad spectrum antibiotics because they’re not cells — then it still takes time.
29:05 That’s the problem, that we have the product, it’s been tested, we could give it, we could make it in massive batches right now and give it to people but we don’t know it’s safe and we have to make sure it’s safe.
29:16 Nick: Right. Right. So, I was wondering, I mean, you mentioned Donald Trump and you’ve tweeted a bit about him and I suppose being critical of him. In your, you know, field of expertise and I guess professional work as well, you would know some of the key figures who are advising Trump such as Dr. Fauci and the other sort of medical advisors in his team. What do you think it was about the US response that has been — you know, that has sort of drawn the criticism of so many in the scientific community and in the media as well?
29:50 Peter: Well, I know Tony Fauci very well. I’ve known him since 1981 when he first came on the scene as a big — with the AIDS thing. He’s been a wonderful figure in America. He was — basically George Bush — first George Bush’s favourite biomedical scientist and he had him in all sorts of roles. Then his — GHW Bush also, he’s been there for years. Enormously respected, enormously sensible and smart man.
30:21 Of course, then he ran into Trump. You know, the whole ethos of Trump is he hates evidence. I mean, he hates evidence about anything. I mean, he’s a magical thinker. He’s — Trump is basically the star in his own soap opera where he’s the star, he writes the script and if the reality doesn’t suit him, he just rewrites the script. That’s the way he thinks. So, he can’t think outside that box so he just makes it up as he goes along. He’s a disaster.
30:50 But the lack of rapid response in the US is not totally down to, you know, Trump and his incompetence — and he is highly incompetent and also divides the country against itself and propagates hate. That’s the way he works. That’s the way he’s always worked. That’s what he is as a man, if you can call him that.
31:09 So, basically they missed it early on. The CDC, which is the agency that’s tasked with developing tests and it’s a National Agency, unlike us. We don’t have a national agency. We have the — that does diagnosis and public health. We have — it’s all state based. We have coordinating committees of various sorts, but everything is state based but in their federal system, they have the national agency called the United States Public Health Services which actually has field offices out in all the big cities. It has one central lab, the CDC — the Centre for Communicable Diseases and Control — in Atlanta, Georgia.
31:52 The essay that the CDC put out didn’t work properly, so they didn’t have a decent essay out of there at the beginning. It was a mistake and that cost them and then Trump didn’t lead. Since then, of course, he’s put out this extremely confusing messaging, hasn’t backed his medical professionals. Basically, our Prime Minister and all the premiers are basically listening to the chief health officer who gets all the advice from the scientists and the medical professionals and Trump hasn’t done that. In fact, you know, Fauci has been vilified by his supporters for actually trying to put out factual knowledge. Of course, he has to contradict Trump. So, Trump is a total disaster and many, many, many, many more Americans will die than will have needed to have died because of Trump.
32:51 Nick: Yeah, but I mean making the connection between, you know, Trump and the proliferation of conspiracy theories as regards to the Coronavirus in terms of the whole question about, you know, Bill Gates and 5G, and there was a recent reporting that came out that said one-eighth of Australians actually believe that, you know, the Coronavirus is somehow involving Bill Gates and 5G. How does that kind of square with, you know, what you just indicated about the advanced scientific capability and capacity to deal with this virus in a preventive sense, and then also to quickly develop some kind of, you know, anti-viral…
33:26 Peter: Well, you know, it shows you that a lot of people have no concept of engaging with evidence. They don’t understand it. You know, some of us have been trying to communicate this. You mentioned the book I wrote on the beginner’s guide. That was the first of six books that I’ve written, trying to talk to people about an evidence based worldview and how science works in language that hopefully people can understand.
33:56 The one that’s most useful, I think, to read if you’re interested in that is “The Knowledge Wars” which was published in 2015, which tells people who don’t know anything about science, may not even like science, how they can engage with it, and get some idea of the validity of what’s being said for themselves where they can look for themselves but nobody much will take this on.
34:18 I think there’s several things to it. It’s something to do with basic education, something to do with the predominance of magical thinking and magical thinking — from my mind, for instance, when you say, “Oh, it’s raining very hard and it’s flooding and that’s because we’ve all been wicked,” that’s magical thinking. I mean, there’s no connection to anything you do, except where you build dams and so forth that collapse and natural events. A lot of people are embedded in that. Of course, some of that comes through religion, but whether that’s the responsibility of religion-type thinking or whether that’s just because that sort of thinking is very easy for some people to engage with.
35:07 So, a lot of it is lack of education, poor education. I think either people just aren’t very smart or they’re extremely intellectually lazy that will not engage. I think intellectual laziness and refusal to engage with anything that looks a bit different is a pretty sad characteristic.
35:30 Peter: But, you know, people are magnificent, too. I think those of us in the biomedical and research community say enormous thank you to the Australian people and to our leaders at the federal and state level for doing the shutdown.
35:46 Nick: Yep.
35:45 Peter: because that allowed us to put in place — it’s allowed us the time to develop the technologies that will help to protect people, and it’s allowed us the time to put in place the medical resources in the hospital that will both hopefully protect the broader public and also protect the medical workers themselves, because they are very much in the front line.
36:07 You know, there are hospitals in Spain, for instance, where 15 of their doctors have died of this. So, I think we really owe thanks to people for doing that. Some countries haven’t done it. You know, they’ve got mass graves, and it’s Brazil, now it’s into the indigenous population which we’ve managed to keep it out of there. So now we’re in the difficult time though, as we take off the controls and as people relax more about this, and it’s still out there. Can we keep it contained? That’s — we are much better equipped to do that than we were and that’s why I think the shutdown will have saved many lives. But in the end analysis, it’s still out there and people who are older particularly should still be very careful until we know what’s happening.
36:53 Nick: You made the point about scientific education and literacy, but I also wonder about, you know, historical awareness as well because it seems to me that we don’t remember, you know, the Spanish Flu of 1918/19 and it’s 50 million dead around the world and the massive impact and suffering that had on society in the same way that we remember, you know, even comparatively minor wars of the 20th century. So, do you think that plays a part too?
37:16 Peter: Human beings like to have enemies it seems and this is what Trump plays on. Bad guys. We like to think there are bad, evil guys that do everything. In my — I mean, there are bad evil guys, but most of the things that go wrong aren’t due to bad evil guys, they’re due to mistakes or incompetence or something like that.
37:37 I mean, it’s — I very much believe in Murphy’s Law, which is everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Murphy actually designed rocket powered sleds for the US Army. So, you can imagine what happened when it went wrong. It would have been pretty spectacular.
37:55 So basically — I mean, there’s also the Peter Principle. Everyone is promoted to their level of incompetence. That’s also a very powerful dynamic.
38:05 Nick: I’ve heard that one.
38:05 Peter: So, there are many of these things, but — I mean, there are bad guys. I mean, there are crazy guys. I’m not sure they’re bad. A lot of them are just nuts. I mean, you know, terrorists of various types and conspiracy theorists — these people. I mean, they’re barking. Basically, you know, we don’t institutionalise people. Social media gives them an enormous platform for their insanity and basically, it tells you that well, a lot of people are kind of nuts quite frankly.
38:32 Nick: like Pete Evans, the celebrity chef with his funny…
38:37 Peter: Well, that’s another phenomenon. I mean, basically people who are, you know, fundamentally uneducated but are good at what they do and become celebrities, for one reason or another, suddenly become authorities on all sorts of things they know nothing about. I mean, some of them are great. They follow the right line but generally — I mean, if you look at them, they’re the people who say in the USA, they do have a college degree. They’ve actually had some formal education. A lot of the people who speak with great authority on these things know nothing. I mean, they’re really — they’re really totally ignorant.
39:11 Nick: It’s been extensively noted in the histories of plagues and pandemics that society has changed in significant ways during and in the aftermath of plagues. So, people attribute the Black Death for the decreased influence of the Catholic Church and the increasing secularisation of society, which led to the Renaissance. How do you think society will or should change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
39:34 Peter: Well, I hope it’ll cause us to rethink a lot. This is nothing like — it’s not nearly as bad as 1917/18 because, you know, a lot of fit young adults died. The other reason that this could be bad if it was just allowed to go on and on and on and on because, you know, we’ve got — what is it — half a million people now infected worldwide but we have 8 billion people on the planet. So, even if it’s even if it’s 5 million infected — okay, 5 million affected and 300,000+ deaths, probably much more like probably half a million too.
40:15 So, basically — but there’s 8 billion people on the planet. So, you know, if it just went on and on — and we have say a 60% herd immunity rate, you’re talking about, you know, maybe a billion people or 500 million people dying. So, that won’t happen because we’ll get out there fairly quickly by those standards with a vaccine, drugs and all sorts of other things and we’ve understood what’s happened.
40:47 So, it’s not like the Black Death either. I mean, the Black Death killed a half to a third of the inhabitants of cities. I hope — because the main impact here — I mean, a lot of people will die but the main impact is basically going to be economic. Basically, that should cause us to rethink I think. Business as usual is just not the right way to go from any point of view.
41:11 The other thing the Black Death did was increase the power of labour because it made labour short. Of course, the power brokers closed that down as quickly as they could but it also changed a lot of the dynamics in society.
41:27 It also helped to bring the English language to the fore. I mean, it used to be the aristocracy and the church used Latin or French in Britain and then English crept in as well. Anglo Saxon crept in. That’s why the English language is dominant, because it has French, Latin, Anglo-Saxon and various languages all built into it.
41:45 Nick: Yeah, right. The final question for the interview today is what do you hope for the world in the next five, ten to fifteen years as we, you know, come through this immediate kind of relief and response of the pandemic and in Australia and ultimately get through this once in a lifetime crisis? What sort of world do you hope for?
42:03 Peter: The best hope is for a world where the political leaders and people with power are much more oriented towards evidence based views and not into magical thinking and not into extreme nationalism and hatred of the other, which is one of the ways the world goes at times. That’s the Trump direction.
42:27 So, I hope we reject that totally and we think in terms of a world where the stated goals of the United Nations and all those organisations basically are a decent world where everyone has a decent prospect of at least basic food and housing and medical care.
42:47 There’s enormous wealth in the world but it’s massively distributed to very few people. I think we need — I think personally we need to work out how to start redistributing some of that wealth, how to give better lives to people in developing and poorer countries and how best to protect ourselves, to put people at the forefront, not the wealth of extremely few individuals. But breaking the power of those individuals — and some of them have done great things like Gates. They make an enormous contribution and we’re grateful to them, but in some way we have to have a more equitable world that basically has us working more together and not against each other.
43:33 I think that’s very naive and very visioned but I hope we can at least make things a bit better, even if it’s from self-interest, make the planet work a bit more for human beings rather than for the ultra-wealth few. I think a world where we regard people as only products of — units of production and consumption leads to a kind of quite despicable world quite frankly.
44:03 Nick: Professor Peter Doherty, thank you so much for your time today and thank you for all your service in the community with the Peter Doherty Institute and your own lifetime of work as well in the field of medicine. So, thank you so much and have a lovely day.
44:16 Peter: Thanks, Nick. Great to talk.
44:18 Nick: No worries. Take care. Bye.
44:21 Peter: You’re welcome.
Originally published at https://www.nickfabbri.com on May 22, 2020.