Life as an Extreme Sport

An Ebolanoia Anniversary–Or, The Emperor’s [Lack of] Disclosures

It’s the Ebolanioa anniversary! Over at Slate, Tara C. Smith takes us through a quick walk down memory lane, and the utterly outsized reactions and political theatre America went through a year ago: quarantines and threats and Daesh-licking doorknob villains, oh my.

Hulk-hits-Thor-after-defeating-alienOne thing still sticks in my craw: the utterly ludicrous suggestion from respected epidemiologist Michael T. Osterholm that we were all just afraid to talk about Ebola becoming airborne, but it was a real threat. Even though multiple, well-respected virologists and Ebola experts immediately corrected Osterholm’s panic piece, the panic piece is what took life, with other news outlets repeating him word-for-word–and few people questioning why such a respected epidemiologist would even propose such an outlandish thing, let alone in the pages of a New York Times op-ed rather than in a respected, peer reviewed publication.

While it pains me to point this out, because Osterholm was quite complementary of my anthrax- and NSABB-related posts, someone has to play the fool and point out the emperor has no clothes. Or in this case, the emperor has a pretty glaring conflict of interest, neatly laid out for all to see if they just take a look:

Do you see it?

3M, a “leading underwriter” of CIDRAP, where Osterholm is (and has been) director, is also a leading manufacturer of N95 masks. The sort of mask used for personal protective equipment if you’re treating a patient with an airborne infectious disease. The sort of mask that is typically advocated by those who have more than a little paranoia when it comes to disease in general.1 The sort of mask all over this National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health website.

Look, I completely understand the need for funding journalism, and as a whole I really enjoy CIDRAP’s reporting.2 Having been in publishing and journalism for over a decade at this point, I understand the need for funding, and just about everyone knows I have no lost love for the University of Minnesotta in general. But when you accept funding from outside sources, you have to start thinking about how that funding influences what you think, support, advocate for and write about. We know that it doesn’t take much to subtly, subconsciously, or consciously influence opinions, and major funding from a source of masks that would block airborne Ebola? That’s a pretty big conflict of interest that should be disclosed in any “but what about mutations” panic discussions in the public sphere.3

It’s been brought to my attention that Osterholm et al’s mBio opinion piece, which I didn’t directly refer to here but waved a whole bunch of shade at, was amended in April of this year to “address” perceptions of conflict of interest. Unfortunately for CIDRAP and Osterholm et al, this attempt at damage control is pretty piss-poor. Their objection to being called out on the 3M conflict of interest boils down to what we’ve heard in other situations: the money goes into a giant pot at the university and we don’t know what dollars from them affect us, and besides, it’s unrestricted and they have no say!

Well. Except that if, per CIDRAP’s donation page, only 2% of their funding comes from the University proper, and they know who gives what to such a specific degree that they can list The Benson Foundation as a principle underwriter and 3M as a leading underwriter, then you can’t really say that “it just all goes into a pot and we don’t know which particular dollars 3M touched.” Because what you do know is that if 3M hadn’t touched a significant chunk of the money in that pot, it wouldn’t be there.

You, as an individual, know if you have $30 or $100 in your wallet, and you definitely know if $70 of the $100 came from a particular place. Trying to claim that a business that requires their donated money to function has no operational knowledge of where the money comes from is insulting to basically everyone’s intelligence.

The mBio amendment also attempted to claim that since they don’t talk about respirators in the piece, certainly they can’t be relevant to a piece talking about fears of an airborne mutation. I leave this to the audience: Do you think respirators are relevant, at all, to protection from airborne disease, even if not directly mentioned in an opinion piece? Hmm.

Look, it’s a common misunderstanding that noting a conflict of interest is akin to admitting guilt or bribery or corruption. It doesn’t have to be like this, and this perception exists in large part because so many people try to pass off their COI as no big deal. But the literature has shown, time and again, that it is a big deal, and that no one is immune from the influence that things as little as pens or as big as unrestricted checks can have on perceptions. If you-the-scientist want us-the-reader to give weight to your opinion paper that, say, Ebola might mutate to become airborne and ZOMG, then perhaps you-the-scientist should give weight to the multiple peer-reviewed papers that say your center funding presents a conflict of interest that requires a necessary disclosure.