Dr. Steven Templeton: How Media Frenzy and COVID Panic Made America Obsessively Risk Averse and Germophobic
America has a “safety culture problem,” says immunologist Dr. Steven Templeton. “We want to mitigate risk to the point where there’s no risk.”
The pandemic response—from harsh lockdowns to school closures—has been characterized by a “self-destructive” overreaction, says Templeton, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
And the rise of safety culture and mass germophobia in America could have devastating consequences down the line—just like the overuse of antibiotics, Templeton argues.
“I didn’t want to look back on this and say that I violated my conscience and didn’t speak up when someone really needed to.”
Jan Jekielek: Dr. Steve Templeton, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Dr. Steve Templeton: Great to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: Steve, you’ve been an immunologist for a number of years, and you’ve been watching some very interesting changes in society over the last few years and have been documenting them. Before we start with all that, tell me about your work, your acumen in the field of immunology.
Dr. Templeton: Well, I was trained at the University of Iowa doing some viral immunology, actually with a model coronavirus back when no one cared about those things. That changed in 2003 when SARS-1 came out, and there’s a lot more interest obviously, and a lot more interest now obviously. After that, I went to the government, worked for the CDC for about four years at NIOSH which is an Occupational Safety and Health Research Institute.
There I got into doing fungal exposures in inhalation models, studying aerosols and things like that. That was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There was a lot of interest in that type of research. So a lot of lung inhalation, inflammation, that type of thing. And then 10 years ago, I came to Indiana University. I do infectious disease research, mainly with opportunistic infection that’s a fungal infection—Aspergillosis. So I have a hand in a lot of different areas and experience in a lot of different areas.
Mr. Jekielek: So basically infection is your key research area.
Dr. Templeton: Right. The immunology of infectious disease in multiple areas. Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: And of course, as all of us were, you basically watched coronavirus and the response to coronavirus unfold in America and around the world. When did you first notice that something was amiss, you started having questions in your mind?
Dr. Templeton: Well, I think the first week when … it was March 12th, 13th, when there was really a spike in New York city and other places were deciding what to do about that. There were some cases in Washington. They started to shut down. I had a sister there in Seattle that was telling me all about how that situation was developing.
I was very concerned that there was a lot of fear that was going to drive the response. And I could see this at the local level as well. And I had this sort of feeling that based on just my basic understanding that this was already something that couldn’t be fully suppressed, but I felt like the public wasn’t buying that. They thought that we could basically stop this, and we had a lot more control over it than we did.
So I became very concerned that this would become a very self-destructive response. And I began to take local actions to try to keep schools open and things like that. That obviously didn’t work very well. So I got involved in the type of messaging to… which I felt was directed at trying to relieve fears of local people and officials, and trying to take the pressure off of them. This expectation that they had this control over what was going to happen. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure on them.
Mr. Jekielek: So this is really interesting. You mentioned you were working to try to stop school closures because you’re not approaching this just as a scientist, but also as a father with kids in schools.
Dr. Templeton: Well, I’m like a lot of people, active on social media, and I started to see the responses that local people were having. Some of these are very educated people, some of these are teachers and I felt like it was not reflective of what was really happening and what we knew at the time.
Even though that was very incomplete, I really didn’t want to hurt children because we did know at the time that children weren’t affected by a severe disease as much as older folks and people with comorbidities. So I thought that that would be ultimately harmful to close schools precipitously, because then you wouldn’t know when to open them and when to come out of that shutdown situation.
So initially, our local district was hesitant to close down which I appraised, but obviously the state gave them no choice to shut down just a few days after that. So that was what I focused on. And then because of my background, local journalists became interested and asked me for my opinions, and I gave them. At the time they weren’t very controversial.
Mr. Jekielek: Early on, what were these opinions that weren’t controversial and became controversial?
Dr. Templeton: Well, just the idea that this is something that couldn’t necessarily be completely managed or stopped. And that the public had an expectation that it could just by staying home, by not going out and not interacting with other people, obviously might break the chain of infection. That makes sense to a lot of people.
The problem is it’s not sustainable. It’s not something that everyone could do because some people have jobs where they have to interact with others. Working class people can’t work remotely. So the idea that these were sustainable, I think, was something that people were not really accepting. And I tried to bring that to the attention of the local folks, and if any, mixed results.
Mr. Jekielek: At some point, you started becoming more vocal, like outside of just the kind of local sphere. And this is already, you’re getting more information, there’s more, there’s now data that has been gathered on how this virus functions and is popular in different places and among different groups of people. Of course the vaccines come on the scene at some point. So you’re somehow getting more active. You’re starting to voice your opinion. You’re starting to write. Again, how does this all transpire?
Dr. Templeton: Yes. So I wrote a series of articles for the local newspaper to kind of put out a little bit different perspective, what I was seeing in the news media, which was very catastrophic type stuff. I couldn’t believe the level of negativity that’s been shown … and the U.S. news especially is more negative than anywhere else in the world on this pandemic coverage, which is, I think, very interesting.
So I try to counteract some of that. And so I wrote a series of articles for the local paper. I would get positive feedback from some people that were like, I agree with you, but don’t tell anybody type thing. And then I would get vocal negative feedback from some people. I wrote one article criticizing the state response because there were tendency of leaders to blame the public for the spread of the virus within their states, and this was all a behavior driven pandemic, it could be contained if we just did the right things, if we listened to the experts, that type of thing.
My point in the article that I wrote was, these respiratory viruses we cannot avoid, and it’s the price of doing things that humans do. It’s the price of being human, it was the title of the article. And that one didn’t necessarily go very well, because I did mention that there were things that people thought would have a serious positive effect in containing the pandemic like universal masking.
The evidence based on what I had seen prior to 2020 was very mixed in terms of the confidence and universal masking to have a significant effect on pandemic spread. But that was not being acknowledged at all. It had become very controversial to say anything about that, but I did mention it. There are very limited things we can do and we have to accept that we can’t suspend human activities.
So I was very proud of that because I think that really had the crux of the problem, part of the blaming and shaming, and I wanted that to stop. I became more involved in the local school advisory committee and things like that. And I had to prepare some presentations.
And so I prepared a presentation about universal masking. I prepared one about schools, about children, the low risks to children. So I did a lot of research for those presentations and I decided this is actually pretty interesting stuff, and I felt other people would find that interesting. I started the Substack site with that in mind. So the very first few posts that I had on that Substack site were derived from those presentations that I gave. They ended up being a lot more well received than I could have even imagined.
Mr. Jekielek: So this is of course the Substack fear of a microbial planet that you’re talking about. Yes?
Dr. Templeton: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: So, I mean, this is a very interesting angle. I’ve been interviewing a number of people on related issues here on the show. But this particular angle, we haven’t really discussed. Your position is basically, there isn’t much we can do to stop the spread of the virus, nor do we necessarily even want to do that across all of society. I mean, am I reading that correctly?
Dr. Templeton: Well, obviously if we could find a way to do something magically, we could stop it. But at this point, one of the things that I think would work is improving ventilation in every building. If you could do that very easily, there are supportable air cleaners and things like that, and I think those are useful in places like assisted living facilities and other places where you have a lot of vulnerable people. And so I’m all for targeted interventions. I think that’s probably the best option for vulnerable people, is increasing the ventilation. This is an airborne virus. There’s lots of evidence of that now.
Surfaces are not a major route of transmission, but these things are how much you can change in every single indoor space. You’re always going to go into a different indoor space that is less ventilated at some point. Obviously, people who are living in poverty or lower income families, disadvantaged people, aren’t going to have access to buildings that have advanced ventilation, things like that. So that’s one solution that’s for targeted response or mitigation, but in terms of a universal application, it’s not necessarily something that’s going to be done as some people are proposing.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes. I mean, your message basically has been like, there’s nothing we can do about this thing going through society.
Dr. Templeton: Yes. I mean, the vaccine seems to limit disease, the severity of disease, and that’s very important again in vulnerable populations. But the whole efficacy of the vaccine for transmission and preventing mild infections, it doesn’t have this sterilizing effect that people expected. So even vaccinated individuals are going to have at some point a coronavirus infection, as much as they do with the other coronaviruses, which are currently in circulation, that’s going to always be around.
Mr. Jekielek: So you talked about a lot of that, that could strike fear into the hearts of many.
Dr. Templeton: Right. I try to give the message that’s kind of the other way around, whereas if there’s something you don’t have control over, that should actually be reassuring because you should be able to let go of that need for control if you don’t have that.
Mr. Jekielek: And so this is so interesting because you’re basically … in society and through the messaging from the government and other places, it’s almost like we’ve created an expectation that this can and should be controlled. Whereas you’re saying the reality is it really can’t. So the types of pressure that people are feeling, which you mentioned earlier are self-inflicted. And so it’s like you’re saying we’ve been heading in a very, very wrong direction here. So how do we right the ship here?
Dr. Templeton: Yes. I mean, for some people, it seems to be a moral failing when you get an infection. And that’s just really a horrible way to look at it. Again, it’s just as humans, we are going to get respiratory viruses, our social interactions, which are necessary for our functioning as human beings. We’re going to give each other viruses and it’s not something that should be blamed or a suggestion that it can be completely cut out for long periods of time. Obviously, this is going on for a lot longer than anyone expected, and I think that validates that way of thinking.
Mr. Jekielek: So your blog Substack, it’s called “Fear of a Microbial Planet.” And the thing is, you talk about things like, we actually need to get infected by things as human beings, as part of our growth, as part of our process of our immune system actually figuring out how to function properly in the environment that it’s in. Right?
Dr. Templeton: Right. Sure. So in the Spanish flu pandemic, for instance, one of the reasons that older folks were less susceptible, even though they might be in poor health was thought to be because there was another influenza pandemic in 1890, and they had this, what we call heterologous immunity or cross immunity that gave them some protection or just enough to keep them from getting severe disease. And the younger people didn’t have that. That combined with the fact that you had, maybe for the first time in history, this mass movement of people around the world, as a result of the end of World War I, was a perfect storm of conditions for that pandemic.
But there was a strain that circulated earlier, a flu also before the major waves of that pandemic that gave some people immunity as well. The whole idea of the immune system being in, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, is definitely true, other than someone who is a vulnerable person who has a higher risk of severe disease. For healthy people, it’s not something that we should think about because naturally these exposures do make us protected to other potentially other viruses that may be worse in the future.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, a couple of things I learned recently, just get you to comment on them. One of them is that people who have had SARS-1, there’s some cross immunity to SARS-2. I remember reading about that. And two, I think I just heard about this last night that there are a few people left who are around during the first, the Spanish flu pandemic, who have, and I think they somehow tested and they found that they actually have immunity, some cross immunity to the flu as we speak. The immunity lasted 100 years, or something to this extent. What do you think about that?
Dr. Templeton: Yes. Well, the original 1918 strain is still circulating. I mean, it’s obviously not as severe, it doesn’t cause a severe disease as it did, but over time, things become less virulent, less severe disease causing, and the same thing will happen with SARS-CoV-2. It’s just obviously a longer process than many people envisioned or would like to admit what’s going to happen.
Mr. Jekielek: So the virus will be with us. But you’ve talked about how fear has been driving public policy at the same time, I think public policy has been driving fear, kind of goes in both directions. And so again, I guess the question is, how do we right the ship?
Dr. Templeton: Yes. I think that’s a very difficult question for me to answer. But I think some of the goals of the … my “Fear of a Microbial Planet” Substack site is to get people out of this safety culture type thinking, which I think there are going to be some lingering. I guess, germaphobia is a word for it that will be built up that may need to be alleviated, because you start hearing people talking about if we can improve the ventilation of buildings, we’ll never get respiratory viruses infections, or how do we avoid just basic colds and things like that, and I don’t think that that’s quite the right way of looking at things.
It’s not just about the pandemic, but just about the idea of the mass germaphobia, which I’m seeing is actually … it goes back to times when we’ve overreacted or at least developed a new technology and then maybe took it too far, like antibiotics being overused and not thinking at all that there was a downside to that.
I can find articles from the late ’40s, early ’50s, where journalists were saying you’re going to put antibiotics in toothpaste and lipstick and things like that. There’s no limit to the things that we can put antibiotics in. No downside. Obviously food and agriculture, animal growth is enhanced by antibiotics—we all know this. So it took a while to realize that there might be a downside to those things. And I think that the idea that there are tradeoffs to any intervention is something that’s been lost, particularly in the last year and a half.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes. Now, I mean, absolutely. I keep thinking, when I look out at how we seem to be approaching the pandemic as a society, especially with the lockdowns question, for example, like there’s this inordinate focus on the potential harms of the virus even arguably highly exaggerated, especially in certain populations, and then not a ton of thought to the arguably massive collateral damage, I think, which we’re already being able to see demonstrated. It’s kind of an unbelievable thing to watch.
Dr. Templeton: Yes. And that’s part of the, what I call, a safety culture problem, where we want to mitigate risk of something that’s very pressing and something that’s very publicized to the point of ignoring the risks of other things. And I have one of my posts likens this to an autoimmune disease in a person.
You want to have a balance of a response to an infectious disease. But you don’t want to go too far because then if you go too far, you start destroying your own tissues. And I feel as if that’s very analogous to how we handle the pandemic response, in a way that was self-destructive. If we were considering our country as an organism, as a whole, there was some collateral damage from overreactions, much like an immune response.
Mr. Jekielek: And this is really fascinating because in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, they compare preventing children from being able to experience difficult situations where they have to problem solve something to not training an immune system. I mean, roughly that’s my recollection.
Dr. Templeton: Sure.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s been a while since I read it. But, I mean, almost ironic that this is what they talked about a few years back.
Dr. Templeton: Yes. It seems like many of these things used to be taken for granted or once common knowledge, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger type thinking, has eroded to the point where it’s … and they do talk about this in the book, what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker or something like that. They’ve sort of turned it on its head. And I feel like that’s very appropriate and they’re both analogies that are … the immune system versus raising a child to be able to handle adversity and young adults to be able to handle different points of view. Those challenges are very important.
The immune system has to be challenged with microorganisms, otherwise it doesn’t know how to function. You can raise mice completely germ free in the laboratory and their immune responses don’t develop the same way. So we’re the same way. We have to figure out how to live in that balance of being in a microbial world, not inviting too many serious infections that will cause chronic illness or death, but at the same time, not going too far and trying to eliminate the normal course of microbial exposures and infections that people get.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, it just occurred to me that something that I watched appear on the scene and become very prevalent is these antibacterial wipes and everything antibacterial. You know what, I kept thinking with my background in biology, aren’t we driving the resistance strains of things here faster than what happened normally? And so what are your thoughts on this?
Dr. Templeton: Yes, I mean, there’s studies where, if you’ve heard of triclosan, which for a while was in everything, in the antibacterial soap. They would advertise this contains triclosan, and now I think it’s being banned in some countries. I’m not sure if it’s banned here or not. I don’t think it is. But I remember it was in everything. I think we were even putting it in toys for a while, just like a layer of some antibacterial residue on toys. And I always thought was not probably the right way to think about it.
And they’ve done some studies now where they have shown that children with triclosan can find it in their bloodstream. If they have been exposed to larger amounts of it, they’re also more likely, and this is just the correlation, but they’re more likely to have asthma allergies, things like that if they’re exposed to more levels. That suggests that they have a home environment where they’re exposed to a lot of these types of antimicrobials.
And again, this sort of, it’s not a true causation type thing, but they’ve done experimental studies with these types of things as well. They do disrupt gut microbiota and could have potential health consequences. So that’s definitely a very interesting area of research that I follow.
Mr. Jekielek: So let’s talk about the current state of the immune system vis-à-vis COVID-19, and given the literature that’s out there, which I know you pour through. Where are we at right now?
Dr. Templeton: Yes, I mean, that’s a tough question. We know that natural immunity is very strong. If you recover from an infection up to the time that we can measure anyone who’s been infected, they have an immune response that will protect them, especially from not only reinfection, but a severe reinfection. There are studies with SARS-1 that individuals who recovered from SARS-1 still have immunity SARS-1, but also would protect them from SARS-CoV-2 as well, give them some protection.
There are some individuals who have cross immunity possibly from other viruses, it’s difficult to say which viruses, that may protect them from severe disease as well. But the idea that these are completely sterilizing immunity is not something that is long-term, particularly in individuals who have these comorbidities, they tend to have less durable responses.
And the vaccine appears to work for vaccines, they seem to work for limiting severity of disease, but then it’s less clear how durable those immune responses are. And obviously there’s breakthrough infections with vaccinated individuals and I think he had a lot of politicization of that as well. People on different sides trying to say, this means they work and we still have to force individuals to have vaccinations. And people who opposed say, he promised it was going to be 95 percent effective, what did that mean, as clearly as some question of whether the initial press releases were accurate. I think those criticisms are valid.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, because how could you know how effective something that was developed so quickly would be? I mean, that is the question. Right?
Dr. Templeton: Right. And it’s even in a large population, even in a study, you’re going to miss some things. Obviously it’s a press release, so they want to report that it works. Science doesn’t move as quickly as people want it to, and that’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is.
Mr. Jekielek: So I keep seeing pop up in my Twitter feeds, I know where you and I have been watching each other’s feeds, but I keep seeing in the trending or recommended or something like that, fact checkers say that vaccine immunity is better than natural immunity. I keep seeing that popping up. Everything I’ve seen up to now, and I’m, of course, not being an expert, tells me otherwise. What do you think?
Dr. Templeton: Well, I mean, that’s also a difficult question, because again, we’re still assessing how long-term immunity develops. There are different vaccines. There are individuals who respond differently to the vaccine. There are individuals with previous immunity to different infections, previous immunity to SARS-CoV-2. Now they’re mixing and matching vaccinations. All these things complicate the story a little bit. I do know generally that natural immunity is durable for several reasons, and one of them is because the route of infection is the route that would provide the most protection against the reinfection.
That’s a direct introduction of the virus into the lungs. You have a local response in the lungs, and there are tissue specific immune responses that you don’t necessarily get when you inject a vaccine into somebody’s arm. So these are all things that were not controversial in 2019. And that’s the reason why people are trying to improve vaccines and develop inhalable vaccines, vaccines that have attenuated viruses, so there will be some replication in airways, like with the flu, there’s a flu mist vaccine that does some of this, and that you inhale.
The other problem is that viral infections tend to leave what we call an antigen reservoir. So there are some expression of proteins and it really isn’t … I don’t think it’s entirely clear how this happens, but you’ve heard obviously that people who test positive can test positive for a very long time, even when they’re not symptomatic, they’re not infected, they can’t transmit it to other people. And that’s interesting because I think that signifies that there is some activity that may be stimulating the immune response to develop a strong memory. You just don’t get that with the vaccine.
There’s a transient spike in the expression of the spike protein in the muscle cells. There’s probably some spread through the lymph nodes and maybe blood vessels, but then it gets cleared within a few days. So it’s a tradeoff. I mean, obviously if you have a natural infection, some individuals are going to have collateral damage. I mean, they’re going to have long-term effects, and we don’t really understand those either.
If you infect hundreds of millions of people, you’re going to have a significant number of them have some very odd things happen. Sometimes people are going to have odd things happen that are related to being affected or being vaccinated. It’s just a matter of coincidence. So sorting through all of that is very, very complicated and difficult, and I think it’s necessary to not jump to conclusions based on what we want to see or what we want to hear.
Mr. Jekielek: You had mentioned that you feel children are not nearly as vulnerable as other groups. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Dr. Templeton: Yes. And this is something I always thought was shocking to me, how people always just assumed that schools were going to be this major driver of community spread. But early on, children weren’t seemed to be affected hardly at all. So until widespread testing became available. So one of the early studies was in Iceland. I don’t know if you recall this, but where they actually sequenced viruses from individuals.
If you could sequence a virus from multiple individuals, you can actually tell what direction infection happened, even within a family, because there’s a set mutation rate in the virus. So one of the things a primary investigator, a principal investigator said in that study is that they couldn’t find an example of where the mutation went from … suggested any sort of transmission from children to adults even in the 1800 cases that they had.
So I felt like that was a really interesting finding, and it didn’t seem to suggest with other things that children were really going to be important to restrict in any way. There was a study that came out of South Korea that suggested that children could spread as well as adults, and that was in summer of 2020, perhaps. And that was highly publicized. I mean, New York Times article on it and many people within my own community were citing that study.
And one of the things I remember discussing with my wife who’s in public health is, how did they know that the children were transmitting? They weren’t sequencing the virus like they did in the Iceland study. And later on, it came out that they admitted they could not define what direction transmission was happening within their study.
So they had to issue a correction also in the New York Times a month later, but the damage had already been done. Schools had been closed. People had decided to go remote, and this obviously affected different populations differently. Obviously people would tell me, your kids are going to be fine.
And I would say, well, I know that, but it’s not just about my kids because I live in an area where there’s a lot of poverty and there are a lot of children who I would say school is the safest place for them to be, and when they’re deprived of that, they will suffer. Remote learning in that population doesn’t work as well as it does with children of means. My kids were fine, but you could tell when they would get online, there were lots of kids that were not in those classes—virtual classrooms.
I talked to some social workers that worked with children in our area, and my wife did as well, and all of them were horrified at how this was affecting children. One told me that she had to spend a lot of time going and specifically trying to set up the WiFi and making sure that they … I mean, they ended up policing that and trying to make sure children had connections, and it was with mixed results with so many kids that were not able to engage in remote learning in the way that it was designed.
And now I’ve been told by people who are running camps and other teachers that children are way behind, and studies have shown, in some places four or five, six months behind in their education. And my point is, that part was preventable. The scope of the pandemic, maybe the timing you can delay these things the way that things are spread, but ultimately, how we respond we have control over that. And I feel like as far as kids go, we failed. We failed.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, there’s also an element to what you just told me, which is interesting. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot, is that there’s a disproportionate cost to certain groups of people in society and a much lesser cost, even though to your kids, like you said, there’s probably a cost, distance that remote learning isn’t the same as in-person learning, but it was not new nearly at the same scale. Sounds like that’s what you’re saying.
Dr. Templeton: Right. I mean, their dad is a scientist, right? So I got a microscope from work and we looked at tissue slides that the medical students look at, and I had them collect water from lakes and ponds and things like that, and test it for bacteria. And for a while, things were shut down, we’d have like Science Friday.
I’m fully aware that nobody else had that experience probably in my area. And the whole time I tried to dispel some of the things that they were hearing in their minds. I think I was very successful with that. But I could see in other children, their friends, their friends’ parents, there was a lot of fear. And even though I knew these people in person, I had a minimal effect on a lot of that, which it’s unfortunate.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. You’re a very thoughtful, careful person. As you’re speaking to me, I can see that. And I guess, probably you were sharing what you figured out, your information based on your expertise to some extent, and then research that you had done in a similar way. What was the reaction of your community, and then also of your peers to doing this?
Dr. Templeton: Yes. So it was such a cognitive dissonance from what people were hearing when they were isolated and watching the news and reading articles, and the coverage was so negative. And so always taking the worst case scenario and presenting it in a way that it was more likely to happen than it really was likely to happen. And so talking to people in the community, I got that sense that it’s not that they wanted to dismiss what I was saying, but it was so different from what they were seeing and hearing. They just couldn’t really believe it. It was frustrating. It was incredibly frustrating.
Trying to get communities to help one another, churches, things like that. This is the time I said, if there is a time to help people, this is it because people need it. But the whole mandated, and if you’re responsible, you’ll stay away from people. You will work remotely. Those are things that are now noble, that really hurt local efforts. And I think the gap between individuals and communities like mine increased even more. And this happened on a scale everywhere. I’m talking about my own experience, but I know that there were individuals in many other places that tried to draw attention to these things, and unfortunately, there were mixed results there too, from my understanding.
Mr. Jekielek: And what about your peers? How has been the response from people you’ve worked with?
Dr. Templeton: Yes. Well, a lot of my fellow scientists don’t … they don’t know I’m involved in this. The ones on Twitter do and I’ve been unfollowed by some of them. But I didn’t want to look back on this and say that I violated my conscience and didn’t speak up when someone really needed to. And I think I’ll be able to say that, and that’s actually more important than making a difference, I mean, which it should be, because as I’ve mentioned several times. I’m not sure how much of a difference I personally have made, but for me, it’s the fact that I made the effort and I spoke up when I felt like I had to.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and so this is the obvious question. There’s so many people out there that either are not taking a position, people who are familiar with the data, or are assuming a very opposite position, or the conventional position, that the position seems to be, everyone needs to be vaccinated and mandating that is legitimate and reasonable. Why is that?
Dr. Templeton: I think that people believe, and this is, a fair thing to believe, that communicating nuance is hard to the public. I believe it’s necessary, but there’s some people who don’t believe that. They think it’s more important to have as many people vaccinated as possible than to even think about individuals claiming or testing them to see if they have protective immunity from a natural infection. So that’s simpler. I mean, the point is to get as many people vaccinated as possible, let’s not worry about who’s recovered.
And then the mandates are obviously something that’s controversial, and I believe a lot of scientists don’t believe that these things should be mandated, especially for children. These are political questions, not necessarily scientific ones. But scientists are human too, so we get involved in politics. We can’t help it, but everything we do is affected by that.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so let’s talk … you’ve of course talked about the politicization. I think you’ve written specifically on this topic. Just tell me your thoughts on this and broadly speaking, what happened?
Dr. Templeton: If you go back and look at everything that was published before 2020 and come to this completely different conclusion that you would, if you read the things that were published later on in 2020 about masks or the ability of lockdowns to stop spread indefinitely, or long-term lockdowns, not having devastating collateral damage, that type of thing. Then you realize how politicized this really has become, because the idea of talking about the tradeoffs of any of these interventions, that’s the part that people think is beyond the pale. You can’t talk about the tradeoffs because we’re in a crisis right now.
You can’t say, this has some limited effect, or it’s not proven, or we have to just do these things because they might help, because they’re a symbol that we’re all in this together, that type of thing. It’s kind of an amplifying effect where we go from one thing, is just one possible tool that we don’t really understand if it works or not, to this thing is a moral obligation that we have, that we must force two year olds to wear masks. There is no evidence to support that.
And just evidence just becomes a tool for a political argument, the way that many of these things have been politicized, has been frustrating, infuriating, but also fascinating in psychology—human psychology sense. And yes, although I’m an immunologist, the way that this is developed and with large populations thinking all one way and migrating to something else very quickly, faster than science backs up is very fascinating to me.
Mr. Jekielek: What’s driving that?
Dr. Templeton: Fear and then also the need to be a part of some collective action. I think people are very interested in banding together and fighting. They use this war analogy. I think that people who are very much in favor of mitigation and shutdowns and things like that, we all need to band together like we’re fighting a common enemy.
And I don’t really like that analogy as well as thinking more about a pandemic as of a natural disaster. You don’t hear politicians say, when there’s a hurricane, if we all work together, we can stop this hurricane. You have to prepare for it. Yes. You have to make sure that the damage isn’t as bad as it could be, but it’s just something that has to be survived and endured. And I believe that was the case here and it was not how people looked at it. They looked at it more of a war type footing and that’s what they wanted it to be.
Mr. Jekielek: So there’s an interesting element to me here, as we finish up. It’s almost like there’s this lack of an appetite for telling people, this is something you’re going to have to endure.
Dr. Templeton: Yes. I mean, if you were an elected official or an appointed public health official, there’s a certain amount of, what does the community expect of me? And I think that’s where the safety culture comes in. I think many of these individuals think rightly so that the public expects them to give them solid steps of everything they can do to completely avoid becoming infected, and their ability to actually do that was obviously limited. But they were willing to sell an illusion that people wanted, because that was the way to placate them really—the public.
Mr. Jekielek: But then you got to pay the piper.
Dr. Templeton: Right. I mean, and that’s something that’s going to be discussed for a long time. But I don’t blame any individuals. I don’t want to single out one or two people who are in charge of how this response was handled. I really think that some of it was human nature, some of it was the point that we’re at in our culture right now, where we want to mitigate risk to the point where there’s no risk—complete risk aversion.
Confusing risks with hazards, with a risk, there’s a possibility for reward, but we don’t use the term risk like that anymore. We use it more like a hazard, something that’s absolutely dangerous. The probability of something happening is less important now than the possibility it will happen. And the possibility is reason enough to act, even if there’s a tradeoff. So I think it’s a combination of human nature plus I think where we’re at right now in society, I guess.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Dr. Steve Templeton, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Dr. Templeton: Thanks. Great to be here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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