In a guest essay for the New York Times, Zeynep Tufekci, Associate Professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), gives a thorough review of facts and theories surrounding the emergence of SARS-CoV-2.
“Once a rare event, like a pandemic, has happened, one has to consider all the potential paths to it,” Tufekci writes. “It’s like investigating a plane crash. Flying is usually very safe, but when a crash does happen, we don’t just say mechanical errors and pilot mistakes don’t usually lead to catastrophes and that terrorism is rare. Rather, we investigate all possible paths, including unusual ones, so we can figure out how to prevent similar events.”
Whether the virus’ origins are even confirmed, Tufekci says the world can learn important lessons about the need for safer biomedical research practices and better preparation for outbreaks.
“Scientists and government officials need to weigh the benefits and dangers of how we work with bats and viruses, in the field and the lab, especially since other public health investments may do much more to prevent a pandemic,” she writes. “It might be more effective to institute rigorous surveillance where threatening pathogens are known to thrive, and better prepare our institutions to react quickly and transparently to the first sign of an outbreak. . . Finding a dangerous virus in a cave or a petri dish might be useful, but it’s a bit like poking a bear we are trying to avoid.”
In addition to her appointment with SILS, Tufekci is a principal researcher with Carolina’s Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP). She will be a visiting professor at the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at the Columbia University School of Journalism during the 2021-22 academic year.
She has garnered extensive praise for using her writing and influence to help improve the public’s understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic, staring in early 2020. She was named Tar Heel of the Month by the News & Observer and the New York Times lauded her for “Getting the Big Things Right” so frequently on a number of topics.
She co-authored “Ten scientific reasons in support of airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” published April 15 in the medical journal Lancet, which presents overwhelming evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is predominantly transmitted through the air.