Public health expert Leana Wen skips talk because of “credible threats”


Many of you know who Dr. Leana Wen, MD, Research Professor of Health Policy and Management at George Washington University, is because she is one of the current voices in public health issues. She has written two books and she has been outspoken during the COVID-19 pandemic. She was also the CEO of Planned Parenthood.

However, you may be like me, and you may have never heard of her before. It’s possible I read something about her in the past, but I just don’t remember it.

Unfortunately, she has been a target of both sides of the political spectrum — during the first part of the pandemic the anti-mask and anti-vaccine community despised her because she supported COVID-19 restrictions. Lately, she has supported the relaxation of those restrictions and has been attacked by some who think that those restrictions should remain, especially masks.

To be clear, I support keeping COVID-19 restrictions, at least through this winter, but I do not advocate violence against anyone, including Dr. Wen. No matter what the source of the attacks is, and I am embarrassed that it is my side that is the attacker, attacking scientists is against everything I stand for.

This week, Dr. Wen was supposed to speak at a panel discussion at the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting in Boston that focused on countering backlash against public health. Ironic, isn’t it? At any rate, she withdrew because of “credible threats” against her.

Whether or not you support her public health policy statements, and I know a lot of my friends don’t, she is a credible scientist that shouldn’t be forced from an important public health forum because of reasons.

So what happened to Leana Wen?

Let’s discuss how we got here. As I wrote above, Dr. Leana Wen seems to have angered both sides of the public health policy debates about COVID-19. To me, that means she’s encouraged thoughtful consideration of how we deal with COVID-19. However, this isn’t a discussion of her policy statements, it’s about threats against her.

In February 2022, Scott Eli Harris pleaded guilty to sending violent messages to Wen related to the vaccine. “Never going to take your wonder drug. My 12 gauge promises I won’t .… I can’t wait for the shooting to start.” Harris was sentenced to six months in prison in August 2002.

Two days after that, charges were unsealed against Massachusetts resident Philip Lee Sullivan, Jr. for allegedly making threats against her. Sullivan allegedly sent Wen an email that said,

Keep pushing your thoughts and you will end up in pieces. This is a promise from ‘a specific cartel.’ We have been paid half to keep eyes on you.

Each of the threats was based on her support of COVID-19 vaccines and medications.

And like I mentioned above, it wasn’t just the right-wing crazies who were involved in threatening Dr. Leana Wen, people, ostensibly those who have supported public health issues during the pandemic, have gone after her for advocating that we can “relax” COVID-19 public health restrictions.

During the past year, Dr. Wen has followed along with what the Biden Administration has been saying about the pandemic, that it’s over (a statement I completely disagree with). She’s not a radical thinker who is anti-vaccine or anything like that — in fact, she is solidly pro-vaccine (both for the flu and for COVID-19). Like many scientists, her ideas are nuanced and I honestly have a hard time trying to see how her statements are that different from what the CDC is saying.

Nevertheless, her more moderate views on how to deal with the pandemic angered groups that wanted to continue the public health restrictions. I honestly didn’t know there were many anymore, but here we are.

A petition, which had over 600 signatures from a broad range of students, scientists, and others, described Wen, a professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, as a “keynote speaker” for the meeting and called for replacing Wen with “someone whose work is consistent with anti-racist, anti-eugenicist public health practices and community health.”

What the f? Implying that Dr. Wen is pro-eugenics? Is racist? I’ve read several public statements and articles from Dr. Leana Wen, and I got zero impressions that she was either racist or pro-eugenics. Not once.

Eric Widera, MD, of the University of California San Francisco, tweeted:

You can disagree with @DrLeanaWen on her stances on opening schools or mask mandates, but connecting her to eugenics in an effort to get her canceled from the @PublicHealth annual meeting is morally reprehensible.

NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan, MD, also stated in a Tweet:

I don’t agree with Dr. Wen but she is qualified to speak, her views coincide with what Biden administration seems to be doing or not doing, making her a mainstream, not fringe, voice, like it or not. Engaging her views not censoring her is the right course.

These detractors have argued that removing COVID restrictions will hurt the most vulnerable populations in the U.S., amounting to eugenics by causing more deaths in these susceptible populations. All I can do is shake my head at this logic.

Dr. Wen was one of three panelists for a session titled “Backlash,” moderated by American Journal of Public Health editor Alfredo Morabia, MD, Ph.D. The goal of the panel was to discuss challenges faced by public health officials in highly charged political environments. This is a topic that is so important today, and, ironically, this petition and those “credible threats” caused her to end her participation.

a woman in red scarf holding a megaphone
Photo by Edmond Dantès on Pexels.com

This is the new normal

Before the pandemic, public health officials were apolitical (except for the support of vaccines, but 2019 anti-vaxxers are nothing compared to 2022 anti-vaxxers). They were also quite anonymous. I would know the names of the Director of the CDC and Surgeon General, but I could barely name another public health person in the whole country. I didn’t even know the name of the head of California’s Department of Public Health, and I usually know this stuff.

My friends, David Gorski, MD, and Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, who are very public on social media about their support of vaccines, are regularly attacked by politicized anti-vaxxers. I don’t know how many times their institutions have been contacted to fire them both, but I’m guessing it’s in the dozens. And I’ve heard about messages left for them at their offices — not fit or publication.

But the attacks on public health officials have reached all new heights. They’re getting harassed and attacked. So far, no one has been physically attacked, but you know that is coming soon enough here in the USA.

In fact, the groups who pushed that petition against Dr. Wen planned to create a scene by shouting down speakers and preventing the panel from continuing. This is not how science is done.

Dr. Leana Wen is not a crackpot pushing homeopathy or COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous. Maybe I don’t agree with her on how we should deal with the pandemic (especially masks), but from a scientific point of view, she’s still mostly within the mainstream of public health policy.

But it’s more than that — science should always include a free, unhindered flow of information so that a scientific consensus can be developed. Science should apolitical, period, end of the story. Yeah, I am naïve, and there’s always a large dollop of politicization of science, but it shouldn’t be like that.

In science, there is no debate. If you have an alternative hypothesis, bring science. Since most people can’t, after they jump into denialism, they resort to violence or threats.

I don’t know anything about Dr. Wen’s politics, but her science doesn’t appear to show any political leaning. She may not be my favorite advocate on COVID-19 public health, but she’s really kind of mainstream.

And remember, the panel discussion wasn’t about the science that motivated her thinking, it was about how public health has become politicized. Again, talk about irony.

It’s too bad that this went so wrong.

One last point

I want to be clear that I do not support Dr. Wen’s attitudes towards the pandemic (except for her strong support of vaccines). About 75% of what she writes appears to be mainstream public health policy, very much in line with what the President and CDC are saying. The other 25% of her statements seem to be over towards the anti-mask fringe.

I always take issue with people who seem to get science for a majority of their views but take one issue and go the wrong way, or at least what I perceive is the wrong way.

The point of my article wasn’t to spend a lot of time on Dr. Wen, and more on how people in public health are strongly attacked, not just in public debate, but by violent threats. The AHPA hasn’t told us what the “credible threats” were, but if they were violent, then I am strongly condemning it, whichever side is represented by the threats.

The point of this article was to condemn those threats, not to pass judgement on the value of Dr. Wen’s public health opinions or science. Unfortunately, some of her opinions don’t seem to be based in good science, but I still don’t think she should be physically threatened for them.

Of course, I think our side should not embrace the tactics of the right wing lunatics. But here we are.

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