On Sunday (April 25), NDTV invited ‘epidemiologist’ Eric Feigl-Ding to discuss about the 2nd wave of Coronavirus in India.
During the interview with journalist Vishnu Som, Eric Feigl-Ding claimed, “The data in India is very poor. The number of deaths is not being reported properly. India is well on its way to million deaths by August 1.” He also predicted that the death toll might not even be 1 million but surpass 5 million by August as well. He asked the Indian government to splurge free aid to people and enforce curfews in the country. An ‘epidemiologist’ by profession, Eric Feigl-Ding also called for a ban on political rallies.
The ‘expert’ also claimed that there is a 20 times to 50 times deaths in crematoriums than what is being reported by the Government. He does not appear to be aware that Covid-19 is not the only cause of death in the world and people can die from other diseases as well.
For further context, around 27,000 people die in India every day from all causes. Between now and August, there are three months which is roughly 90 days. That is, on average, roughly 2,430,000 will die between now and August from all causes in India. According to the expert, Covid-19 deaths alone could surpass 5 million by August.
During an interview with India Today on April 16, the ‘epidemiologist’ went on to claim that the total number of cases in India could actually be 5-10 times higher than it was being recorded.
Who is Eric Feigl-Ding?
According to the Harvard TC Chan School of Public Health, Eric Feigl-Ding is a public health epidemiologist, nutritionist, and health economist. But there is more to him than what meets the common eye. His prolific rise as a ‘star expert’ on Coronavirus was uncharacteristic of any health researcher/epidemiologist or scientist. He chanced upon to read a research paper on Coronavirus and predicted the outbreak of a pandemic in January last year. He is also not an infectious disease expert, he is a chronic disease epidemiologist.
In a tweet (which now stands deleted), he wrote, “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD—the new coronavirus is a 3.8!!! How bad is that reproductive R0 value? It is thermonuclear pandemic level bad—never seen an actual virality coefficient outside of Twitter in my entire career. I’m not exaggerating.” The tweet went viral and the number of followers rose from a paltry 2000 to 1,60,000. Thus, Eric Feigl-Ding surpassed all other epidemiologists, featured in CNN and other liberal TV networks, and talked at lengths about the Coronavirus pandemic.
After his rise to fame, several epidemiologists have come forward to question his credentials. Under the condition of anonymity, one epidemiologist told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Eric Feigl-Ding has zero background in infectious disease research. He accused Ding of peddling a ‘bunch of half-truths’. Another epidemiologist regretted, “Everyone is very frustrated with him and regretting that we didn’t band together to discredit him.” Marc Lipstisch, the Harvard professor of epidemiology, has even labelled him as an ‘unqualified publicity seeker’.
On March 19 last year, Lipsitch tweeted that epidemiologists such as him don’t like a ‘charlatan exploiting a tenuous connection for self-promotion.’ In a now-deleted tweet, he opined that Ding’s analysis of Coronavirus was based on 80% conventional wisdom, 20% promotion of pseudoscience, and 100% derivatives. He added, “To be fair, given % above, most of what he says is not wrong. But he gets something spectacularly wrong sufficiently often that you just should find other parts of the firehose of info to drink from, and you will get better water.”
Nutritionist turns Coronavirus expert: The case of Eric Feigl-Ding
Lipsitch further emphasised, “There are dozens of good lists of actual experts in some relevant topic out there to listen to on COVID. Eric is an expert on nutrition. Eric does have training in epidemiology, but it’s a big field.” Interestingly, the Chronicle of Higher Education also found that all of Eric Feigl-Ding’s academic articles focused on the health effects of exercise and diet. One of his listed research papers was about wearable devices that could help track physical activity. His scholarly articles were also based on the effects of childhood obesity, consumption of red meat and cancer risk, etc.
His academic interests centered around nutrition, for which he was appointed as an ‘unpaid visiting scientist’ in the Nutrition Department of Harvard University. Interestingly, such appointments last for only about a year. Nevertheless, he was warned ‘many times’ to stop promoting himself as someone equipped with ‘specialised knowledge’. However, the pandemic proved to be a perfect opportunity for Eric Feigl-Ding to taste success and fame.
Harvard Epidemiologist continues to shine despite several U-turns
To make things worse, Eric Feigl-Ding was not even the first to warn netizens about an impending pandemic. While speaking to NPR the previous day, Epidemiologist W. Ian Lipkin cautioned, “The outbreak is going to be much larger…we need to move very quickly if we’re going to contain this virus.”
But, Ding got the recognition only because he happened to quote excerpts from the research paper mentioned earlier. And even in the said tweet, he falsely claimed that R0 of SARS-Covid-1 (which led to pandemic in 2003) was 0.49 compared to the realistic figure of around 3. He had to later explain to his ‘new followers’ that he was not an infectious disease expert or epidemiologist.
Eric Feigl-Ding was forced to delete the very tweet that made him famous, owing to serious questions posed by netizens about his credibility. He also had to delete other tweets, suggesting genetic similarities between HIV and Coronavirus. He also once ended up equating ‘re-infection’ with that of ‘virus reactivation.’ He had also suggested that N-95 masks cannot prevent healthcare workers from contracting the flu and is of no use against the Wuhan Coronavirus as well. However, just weeks later, he was at the forefront of the Twitter campaign #masks4all.
Eric Feigl-Ding and ‘damage control’ mechanism
The Harvard ‘epidemiologist’ has tried to whitewash his double-speak or his sudden U-turns on his claims (such as the one on masks.) “We all misread a detail or a Y axis or an X axis. I feel like I’m pretty good at synthesizing what I read and trying to be able to translate it for the public,” he justified. Eric Feigl-Ding also took offence to comments made by Marc Lipsitch. “It’s pretty insane to make a claim that 20 percent is pseudoscience. I do not want to dignify all this pettiness in the middle of a pandemic,” he said in his defence.
Not an expert in infectious diseases but still felicitated as top Covid healthcare professional
Eric Feigl-Ding also said that he was not an expert in infectious diseases and that he had never misrepresented his credentials. Furthermore, he said that his knowledge is based on his degree as a ‘general epidemiologist.’ While talking about his Twitter theatrics, he said, “A lot of my followers, unless you spoon-feed it to them, they won’t read it.” Despite no background in infectious diseases, Eric Feigl-Ding was placed second on the Covid list of top 100 Healthcare professionals.
He also enjoyed considerable support from the President of the Federation of American Scientists named Ali Nouri. “I think some of the criticism has to do with his style rather than the substance…It’s not typically what scientists do, but it’s been working for Eric,” Nouri emphasised. Even the Democratic Governor of New Jersey Phil Murphy had vowed to take his help to flatten the Curve in New Jersey.
NDTV, Harvard, and a non-expert in Coronavirus
His outspoken nature, lack of domain expertise, his association with the Harvard University, and the ability to make outlandish claims such as 5 million Covid-19 deaths by August in India made him an ideal guest for NDTV. For Indians, who require continuous brainwashing from foreigners to understand their own problems, Eric serves as the right candidate.
While India is facing a surge in Coronavirus cases, a ‘non-expert’ in Coronavirus was thus the need of the hour for NDTV. With his political commentary feeding the anti-Modi lobby, Eric set the platform to peddle more fear in the minds of the Indians distraught for the Chinese virus.