Award lauds truth and courage during the pandemic

VIN honors veterinarians for communicating best science in trying times

December 3, 2021 (published)
Photo by Lily Valeika
Dr. Steve Valeika has worked tirelessly since the beginning of the pandemic to understand and share the latest COVID-19 science with his veterinary colleagues and clients. Many conversations are gratifying, he said, but some are frustrating, even maddening. One way he unplugs and relaxes is on hikes with his family in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

On most days for the past 22 months and counting, Dr. Steve Valeika checks in on message boards focusing on COVID-19 and frequented by fellow veterinarians. He'll hunt around until he sees what he's come for. Sometimes it's a simple question, such as whether infection or vaccination provides stronger immunity. Other times, it's a blending of fact and fiction, like applying legitimate concerns about a herpes vaccine in chickens to COVID-19 vaccines when there is no evidence for doing so. And then there are the links to straight-up conspiracy theory videos with the message: “Watch this.”

Valeika feels his heart race a little.

Then, he'll open a new document to write a response that gives free range to his expertise and gut reactions. He knows he won't post it, so he lets himself vent emotions or go deep into the data. Next, he pauses. "Then I go through and just erase tons of stuff and rephrase it," he said. His aim is not to make anyone feel bad or to win an argument. He simply wants to share the latest science as he understands it.

It's important work. The spread of misinformation about COVID-19 prevention and treatments are an "urgent threat" to public health that's putting lives at risk and prolonging the pandemic, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy reported in a July 2021 advisory. "Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort," he said.

Valeika is joined on the front lines by another veterinarian, Dr. J. Scott Weese. Since the beginning of the pandemic, they have worked to curb COVID-19 misinformation in online forums, on social media, as public health advisers and in everyday interactions. Often they are met with engaged discussion and appreciation, but they also face rudeness, anger and, in Weese's case, threats of financially ruinous lawsuits or death.

In honor of their work, the Veterinary Information Network will present them next week with the first VIN Veritas Award for advancing evidence-backed science with compassion and integrity.

In brief

Both are consultants at VIN, an online community for the veterinary profession and parent of the VIN News Service. As consultants, they are paid a small honorarium to answer questions on moderated message boards available to members only. In that role, they provide rational discussions of virology, immunology, vaccinology and epidemiology based on the best data available at the time, said Dr. Paul Pion, co-founder and president of VIN, which has more than 89,000 member veterinarians and veterinary students, including 268 consultants, around the world.

Valeika, a small animal practitioner in Asheville, North Carolina, has a doctorate in epidemiology and is a former assistant professor at the University of Georgia College of Public Health. Weese, a zoonotic disease expert who heads infection control at the University of Guelph's veterinary teaching hospital in Ontario, specializes in emerging infectious diseases.

"I don't know how we would have gotten through the last year-and-a-half without them," Pion said of the duo.

Their tireless efforts inspired him to create the Veritas Award, named for "truth" in Latin and featuring a rampant lion to symbolize courage.

Dr. Kate White, an Illinois-based veterinarian who works part-time for VIN, expressed her gratitude in a long thread about ivermectin, an antiparasitic that's been widely and inaccurately touted as a preventive and treatment for COVID-19.

"I am sure it must feel like you're up against brick walls and other bitter and unnecessary challenges at times in this pandemic," White wrote, directly addressing the two consultants. "But what you do really matters. And it is appreciated more than I can properly express." 

Valeika and Weese intersect and interact on the VIN message boards, however, their spheres of influence and pandemic experiences have been different. They recently talked to VIN News about what it's like to navigate the flood of COVID-19 misinformation.

A voice of reason

Valeika first came to Pion's attention a couple of years ago for helping colleagues in toxicology discussions identify whether a particular mushroom was poisonous. "I had no idea really of his background," Pion said. "When COVID came up, he emerged as the voice of reason."

Valeika earned a veterinary degree from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine in 2001. He followed in 2008 with a doctorate from the University of North Carolina School of Public Health. During his studies, he worked with the state health department on an outbreak investigation related to one of the earliest U.S. cases of SARS, a viral respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus. 

So when COVID-19 emerged, Valeika aimed to stay current on the science and help others navigate information overload, including clients and co-workers at the animal hospital where he worked until recently.

"The [pet] owners who knew I have a PhD, we'd spend five minutes talking about their animal and 10 minutes talking about the pandemic," he said. "And then, of course, employees of the clinic couldn't avoid my constant running commentary on COVID."

He also served on his county public health advisory board and helped his daughters' school develop COVID-19 guidance.

Last month, Valeika left the hospital to take a break from clinical work before starting his own practice. Now, he'll ostensibly have more time to track COVID-19 research and share what he's learned.

Already his posts are so thorough and data-laden that he has been chided by fellow veterinarians for providing too much information. "The people criticizing me, they get really mad when I just throw facts at them," he said. "It's like, well, this is science. There's factual information; that's what I'm going to put up there."

He avoids weighing in on political topics as much as possible and focuses on what he calls "legitimate scientific questions."

One strategy he relies on is contextualizing. He explained that many times misinformation has a kernel of truth to it. "But it's just so narrow and so out of context," he said, "brushing those broader strokes is going to kind of put that chunk of information where it belongs."

When he discovers he's made a mistake or thinking changes, Valeika corrects the record or explains how his understanding has evolved. He also includes lots of caveats. 

"I think probably hundreds of times I've said, "This could totally change, and my opinion on this can totally change, if new evidence comes through,'" he said.

Reaching for the persuadable middle

Photo courtesy of Dr. J. Scott Weese
VIN Veritas Award recipient Dr. J. Scott Weese of Ontario is a go-to source for many with questions about COVID-19. This week he was barraged with questions following reports of the first confirmed SARS-CoV-2 cases in white-tailed deer in Canada.

Weese's prominent role in separating COVID-19 fact from fiction on message boards and beyond surprised few at VIN, where he's been a consultant for more than a decade. Weese is a professor and internist focusing on infectious diseases at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Canada, where he earned his DVM in 1996.

Since early in the pandemic, he has been a member of the Ontario Science Table. The independent body has been meeting twice a week to discuss the latest COVID-19 research and developments in Ontario to make recommendations to the province. 

Beyond these duties, Weese maintains a public communications presence on Twitter (@weese_scott) and via his Worms and Germs Blog. The blog includes summaries of the current understanding of COVID-19 in non-human animals, and posts like Six Reasons Why Not to Steal Your Pet's Ivermectin to Prevent or Treat COVID-19

With these platforms, Weese has at least two distinct audiences: veterinary colleagues and the public.

When he's writing for veterinarians, he tries to prepare them to talk to their clients because pet owners will ask their practitioners all sorts of questions.

If a client comes into a clinic "and just heard something strange that got them freaked out a little bit, we're just one of the many people that can help bring them back," Weese said. "Getting people in general practice more comfortable with the information that's there can help."

With the public, Weese's approach is not to try to convert conspiracy theorists, vaccine detractors or COVID-deniers. "You're never going to change their opinion," he said. "I'm talking to the people they're talking to."

He's aiming for the persuadable "middle ground." He said: "We're just trying to give them some more balanced information to say, 'Maybe that's not the real story.' You plant a seed.”

He breaks it down. "If it's people that we think haven't been informed, we're trying to inform them. If they've been misinformed, we're trying to show them the counter side," he said. "And then there are the ones that are just lying; sometimes you have to say, 'This is not true.' "

Such is the case with a recent conspiracy theory about molnupiravir, an antiviral pill from Merck. This week, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel recommended by a 13-to-10 vote that the drug receive emergency-use authorization as an oral outpatient treatment. Based on a study, molnupiravir showed some reduction in the risk of hospitalization and death. 

In October, social media users, including on Facebook, asserted that molnupiravir is simply repurposed ivermectin. The claim, which has been widely refuted, morphed from another conspiracy theory that Merck was hiding evidence of ivermectin's effectiveness as a COVID-19 treatment because the company couldn't make as much money on the drug, which is available as a generic. 

"There's absolutely no similarity whatsoever. That's crap," Weese said with the directness of someone who doesn't have time to suffer nonsense. "Someone's making up a story."

Like Valeika, Weese strives to be accountable for what he puts out in the world. In April, he wrote a post for his blog grading his early COVID-19 posts – earning As and Bs, but also more than a few Cs and Ds.

Keeping calm and carrying on

The VIN Veritas Award recipients admit to feeling frustrated, especially with the way debunked theories are recycled ad nauseam, even as scientific understanding of the virus evolves.

Weese has a 24-hour rule to avoid posting in anger. Valeika begins with the assumption that people who post misinformation aren't acting with nefarious intent; this makes it easier to be patient.

Plus, Valeika has his tried-and-true editing process, though he admits there have been times when his "edit function" failed him as in his response to someone who referred to childhood COVID as inconsequential. "Even after I put up the statistics of how many kids have actually died and how many kids have been hospitalized, they kept doubling down," he said. "I couldn't take that. Even though COVID is much milder in kids … milder doesn't mean harmless." He said he was more terse than he wanted to be. 

In another conversation about people using veterinary ivermectin to treat COVID-19, he opened up about his struggles. He wrote:

"I feel torn all the time ... but also wonder what set of educational failures and life events lead someone to squeezing out a 'pinky finger tip' amount of highly concentrated horse ivermectin onto their finger while believing that the vaccine is part of some sort of government population control scheme. Rage and compassion are constantly occupying the same space in my brain, and it is exhausting.

"Ram Dass talked about unbearable compassion, compassion that is hard to bear because things are so bad, but also compassion that is hard to bear because you don't want to feel compassionate towards the sufferer. Covid is [a] major test of this idea, one that I fail often."

Regulars on the COVID threads at VIN praise Valeika for working through some difficult conversations. Dr. Maureen Dorsey, who owns a veterinary hospital in Oakland, California, recently wrote on VIN: "Steve's fortitude to venture into all these various threads to update and continue to provide factual assessment of the pandemic is inspirational. [He] makes me want to be a better, more patient doc."

Despite the challenges, Valieka told VIN News that he doesn't "want the picture to be painted of me going into battle every day on these boards, because that's not how it seems to me at all. There are certainly people who disagree with me all the time. When I see that they've posted something, I'm kind of happy and like, 'Oh, good, this will be an interesting discussion.' "

Upping the stakes

The image of a battle is more apropos for Weese. As a professional communicator with a public profile, he has experienced more serious consequences.

In July, Weese co-wrote a letter to the university denouncing the "factually incorrect and misleading information" about vaccines being disseminated by a fellow faculty member. Signed by more than 100 current and emeritus faculty members, the letter criticized the institution for failing to clearly and effectively respond to the misinformation.

After the faculty letter went out, Weese was threatened with a defamation lawsuit. He said the threats followed a typical pattern for high-profile anti-vaccine activists and their lawyers: They crowdsource the funds to bring lawsuits they know they're not going to win simply to make life difficult for critics and burden them with legal costs.

"That's one way that they can effectively control some conversation," he said. "I've been a target of that. It doesn't shut me up, but it makes me a little more careful."

Weese has also received death threats through social media and at his office email and phone for calling out purveyors of misinformation. Although he has talked to the police, he thinks the threats are no more than a headache of being on social media.

"Basically, anyone who is doing science communication is dealing with this type of thing," he said.

Dr. Dorothee Bienzle, a veterinary pathologist at the Ontario Veterinary College who also co-authored the letter, called Weese a highly respected expert in infectious diseases and epidemiology. "He is perfectly placed to assess the available information regarding the pandemic and communicate it in an accessible and accurate manner to the general public,” she said. “And he's done so despite serious threats."

Bienzle said she was very happy to see her colleague be recognized by VIN "because he is standing up against misinformation under at-times adverse conditions.”

Pion said he knows Weese is under stress, but "Scott just takes it in stride; every time I check with him, he's fine."

Pick your experts carefully

Pion hopes this year's award conferral is the first of many. Supporting clear and courageous science communication in the veterinary profession has been a cause for the VIN co-founder for a while.

Well before COVID-19 made the need for trustworthy sources a matter of life and death, Pion had been urging colleagues to find experts they could trust. In the process, he developed a colorful truism for veterinarians that is now a truism for the general public.

When he was younger and lecturing, he said, he often told his listeners not to take his word for whatever he was saying but to read the primary literature.

"That was stupid," he said recently. "They didn't have time to read the primary cardiology literature or whatever I was talking on. That's when I realized everybody's got to be a baby bird. If you're not an expert in the area, you've got to take most of your information pre-digested. The secret is: Be careful who you let puke in your mouth. You've got to pick your mama birds carefully."

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