George Will, Fox News, and the Beginning of an Ebola Conspiracy

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will implied in an interview that Ebola may be airborne. He’s no scientist or public-health expert, but he’s fueling conspiracy theorists.

The Daily Beast

George Will is many things. He’s a baseball enthusiast. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. He’s a regular talk-show panelist on one network or another.

What George Will is not is any kind of expert on public health, which he was all too happy to demonstrate this past Sunday.

Following an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Will and his fellow panelists on Fox News Sunday had a nice chat about the ongoing issue of Ebola in the United States. It was during this discussion that Will said “There are now doctors who are saying, we’re not so sure that it can’t be in some instances transmitted by airborne.” When his fellow panelists pushed back, he proceeded to pooh-pooh all those “experts” who have said otherwise.

As of this writing, the number of patients diagnosed with Ebola in the United States can be counted on one hand, and the number who have died on one finger. The dozens of people who were in close contact with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who was the index case in this country, have had their quarantine lifted, not having contracted the illness despite breathing the same air as he had. There is no evidence that airborne Ebola exists anywhere outside of fear-mongering headlines. Yet despite this, Will was happy to insinuate otherwise on a network that gets upward of 2 millions viewers every day.

Later in the same segment, Will went on to say “We’re getting used to people declaring scientific debates closed over and settled. They rarely are.” But there is no “debate” in this case. There is no indication that Ebola is spreading through the air, and no controversy within the infectious-disease community about it doing so. Will’s reckless implications to the contrary, in order for there to be a scientific debate there has to be some kind of disagreement about the evidence at hand, not merely the idle speculation of a pundit using up his airtime.

This kind of irresponsible running of the mouth is precisely how medical conspiracies start. Someone with the air of authority is given a platform with which they undermine the integrity of people who have dedicated their lives to public health, and their idiotic or downright dangerous ideas take hold and spread. Will, famously conservative, is Exhibit A that this is kind of nonsense isn’t limited to one side of the political spectrum or the other. I’m sure Robert Kennedy, Jr. is grateful for the company.

Of course, what this does is make the job of everyone actually responsible for safeguarding public health harder. It’s the reason that parents who’ve never been to Sierra Leone, or met anyone who has, ask me if their child could have Ebola when they see me for a cold. It’s why schools in Ohio closed down, because someone who worked there might have ridden on a plane previously occupied by a nurse later diagnosed with it. Sure, doctors may have said this was unnecessary, but who are you going to believe: Doctors or George Will?

Both Texas Presbyterian Hospital and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come under fire for their handling of his care and the initial lack of clear protocols for dealing with Ebola in this country. The former has gone so far as to take out ads apologizing for its lapses. But one can question the preparedness of a hospital or the information made available to health-care providers without stoking public fears about the disease spreading in ways that it doesn’t, or giving viewers the impression that there’s a plot to suppress the information.

The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is an ongoing tragedy, though with small bright spots as both Nigeria and Senegal have been declared free of the disease. There may yet be additional cases within the United States. But regardless of what happens next with the disease, it serves no purpose to spread fear by implying it can spread through the air. All George Will accomplishes by saying otherwise is making it clear he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.