Exclusive: Brave and bold in the battle against fake news and conspiracy theories

He got a pie and the word “murderer” thrown in his face recently in Bruges. On social media it was reported that it should have been a cobblestone, a paving stone, vitriol, a bullet. Earlier, he and his family had to go into hiding for weeks because of death threats by a professional soldier. Welcome to the world of scientist and virologist Marc van Ranst, who will receive an honorary doctorate from Radboud University Nijmegen on October 17, 2023. We speak to him at the Gasthuisberg campus in Leuven, his working domain.
Why the hatred and incessant threats? Because Van Ranst rates science higher than the under- belly? Because during the covid pandemic he preferred the searching ratio to the unfounded “opinion-itis”. In an uncertain, pandemic time, he keeps his back straight and continues to inform people and society based on scientific information and insights. Reason enough for the centennial Radboud University to honor him with an honorary doctorate.
  A physician and a researcher
Marc van Ranst is a virologist. He studies the evolution of viruses. How do they develop, how do they evolve? Early in his career, he analyzed mainly the human papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause cervical cancer. He showed that the goodness or badness of this virus can be read from its sequence, from its genetic code. Knowledge that is still used today. After the discovery of the SARS-Cov-1 virus in 2003, attention shifted more to coronaviruses and Van Ranst sought, among other things, antivirals that could protect against the virus. The latter activity already refers to his other, more clinical task where the patient is central. Because in addition to being a researcher, he is also head of all laboratories at the Gasthuisberg campus, where the Leuven Academic Hospital is located. In 2006, the Belgian government appointed him commissioner in charge of crisis management during an emerging pandemic. Such a pandemic seemed to break out with swine flu in 2009, but it soon turned out to be not so bad. In a sense, it would be a dress rehearsal for the outbreak of the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic in 2020; the covid pandemic.
  There is no ‘ideal number’ when it comes to deaths
Were we adequately prepared for the covid pandemic, we ask Van Ranst when we speak to him at the Rega Institute in Leuven. “A lot is already happening in terms of pandemic preparedness, of preparing for a possible pan- demic, but still corona surprised us. That we had no effective drugs against the virus, no good an- tivirals, that was a very weak spot in our defense. Many research applications to develop them had been rejected in the previous years. It was not a priority. The pandemic made it clear that we do need a broad spectrum antiviral, a drug that works against multiple viruses. Of course such a thing costs a lot of money, but the cost of a pandemic is astronomical. Set against that, it is an excellent investment. The European Funding Agencies did initiate initiatives after the pandemic, but as a “veteran of a few smaller pandemics,” I know that that interest usually wanes quickly as well. That’s the organizational answer to your question. But there is also a more psychosocial answer. That says: whatever we do, it will never be enough. There is no perfect preparation possible for a serious pandemic. Because it is never completely predictable. So you sometimes have to be some- what pragmatic by necessity. Because even during a pandemic, the goalposts keep shifting. ‘Well managed’ is not a statement that fits a pandemic. There is no ideal number of deaths. Are there few, then it is said that the measures were far too strict. If there are (too) many deaths, then the response was too lax. The course of the pandemic also has its own dynamics. Those first few months are hell. You are partly in the dark. Everyone wants information, which is then hardly available. At the same time, people welcome measures to deal with the pandemic. In the beginning, applause sounds and songs of praise are made about you. But it nev- er ends that way. The moment you are applauded, the knives of the guillotine are also already being sharpened. It never ends elegantly.”
  Against racism and xenofobia
For Van Ranst, informing and educating has always been an inseparable part of his profession. “I’m quite proud of that,” he says. Earlier in his career, he received the Career Prize in Science Communication from the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for it. He also wrote a number of chil- dren’s books about viruses and vaccination that are doing well. They have now been translated in eight countries, most recently in South Korea. He has also been a regular and welcome guest on tele- vision and in the media for many years, informing and interpreting when it comes to viruses, vac- cines, health and disease. In doing so, he also lets his human and social face character speak. Because as far as he is concerned, a virologist does not have to stick to viruses alone. On the contrary. “I have - even when there was no social media - always spoken out against racism and xenophobia. Always. And very consistently. Also during the pandemic. In Belgium, a quarter vote for far-right parties. Which is not to say they are all racists. But at least that they don’t mind rac- ism, otherwise they wouldn’t vote for it. You may, no should take a stand against that. You don’t have to be a virologist to do that. That is just as much the role of the piano tuner, the cop and the high school teacher. It’s just part of what you stand for as a human being. People have never been able to convince me not to do that. Then you probably also create some ‘antibodies’ in people who disa- gree, and okay, I accept that.”
Keep calling out fake news and nonsense
They were very vicious and even life-threatening “anti- bodies” that developed in some people during the cov- id pandemic. Take the threat by Belgian soldier Jürgen Conings. On May 17, 2021, he stole heavy weapons from the barracks in Leopoldsburg and later that day posted himself near Van Ranst’s home for several hours. The virologist and his family were housed in a safehouse where they stayed for weeks until Conings was found lifeless near Maasmechelen on June 20. Take dance teacher Willem Engel and several others who filed lawsuits and their followers bombarded van Ranst via social media with conspiracy theories, false accusations and threats. Van Ranst won all five lawsuits filed against him, but it was a hefty drain on his time and belief in fairly debating opponents. After that, social media just continued to facilitate the continuous stream of mostly anonymous slurs and attacks. Continuing to respond to that is exhausting, but he won’t let it run. “You have to keep saying it! Otherwise people get the idea that fake news spreaders are in the majority and right. That’s also why it’s not wise to debate with them at Op1, for example. That is not a measured debate. The viewer quickly thinks that the truth will lie somewhere in the middle, but it is not in the middle!!! Not at all!
That’s why you do have to respond on social media, be- cause otherwise you give your entire social media field to “the wappies” [ed. Or sometimes referred to as ‘Co- vidiots’]. And by wappies I do not mean the doubting cit- izens, nor the unvaccinated citizens. Wappies are those who spread nonsense. If nonsense is just nonsense you should name it that way. For those who doubt you have to continue to point out and name that nonsense. And those who are stuck you are never going to persuade. For them it has become a religion. Just go make some- one change their religion, that’s a difficult process.”
Vaccinating against nonsense
Is there a vaccine against blatant nonsense and conspiracy theories? “Yes there is! That’s what we call education! If we explained the scientific method more there, people would better understand that there is such a thing as advancing insight. That is completely gone. Politicians know that phenomenon well. When they change their mind once, they are wind vanes, they have no backbone, they are unreliable. People are bullish on politicians. Whereas scientists are professional of- mind-changers. If new data comes along, you adjust your ideas accordingly. That is very poorly understood and we could explain that better. Also the understanding of numbers and statistics is often poorly developed. So it is both about being unnumerate and illiterate. In Belgium, there is currently a lot going on about reading skills deteriorating. If that deteriorates, then it is easier to start reading things that are not there, you are more likely to fall prey to anyone who gives an explanation that seems attractive. People begin to believe that there are alternative truths.
This is very dangerous, because the online world is not separate from the physical world. The day after Conings stood in front of my house, you got groups on Facebook and Telegram of more than 50,000 people who supported him and thought he was a folk hero and praised his goal - to kill me. 50,000 people endorsing that it should be done! That surprised me immensely and that is touching. As long as you have enough people whose heads are being talked mad, eventually there may be one who wants to do a “good deed. Who is going to shoot a gynecologist in front of the abortion clinic. Individuals and political parties that promote such a thing and call for tribunals and massacres are not without responsibility.”
Support from a broad group of people
The honorary doctorate from Radboud University is his third in the Netherlands, after those from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Leiden University. “Some- thing like this happens to you, but it is something I appreciate incredibly. This also helps my parents tremendously. My father follows everything, reads all those negative things unfortunately, sends me things. Sometimes he thinks the whole world is mad at his son, but it’s not. He was a teacher, then an inspector and al- ways very involved with education. I come from a warm family where learning was important. I was taught by my grandparents that ordinary is good enough. My grandfather was a metal worker and when I speak in the media, I aim at him. Not using overly expensive words, he should be able to understand what I am saying.
I I am also well aware that this honorary doctorate also stands for a much broader group of people who defend science against fake news and alternative truths. I am not only talking about virologists like Marion Koop- mans and other colleagues in Belgium, the Netherlands and beyond, but also, for example, about science com- munication and science journalism. I also see the hon- orary doctorate as a gesture to everyone who tirelessly kept explaining what we knew and what we didn’t know and how to interpret it. Moreover, there were people who gained a great deal of knowledge through coursework during the pandemic and made good con- tributions to the discussion. The role of these citizen scientists should not be underestimated. At all these levels, antidotes to the nonsense have been brewing. So yes, I very much appreciate this honorary doctorate. I appreciate it as support for my parents and support from the scientific community. It’s good to experience that it does exist on a broad front.”