Standing Up for Science During an Epidemic

Ilaria Capua, virologa, Milano 2021

Before COVID, before the swine flu, there was the bird flu outbreak of the mid-2000s. An international group of scientists came together to combat the deadly virus, including Dr. Ilaria Capua, a virologist, and now Director of the One Health Center of Excellence at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Capua played a key role in helping to quell the outbreak, but little did she know that experience would not be the most trying moment of her career.

In 2013, Capua was elected to national office in Italy, the only scientist to do so up until that point. However, her triumph was short lived as she was charged in a criminal case accusing her of illegal trafficking of viruses. While the legal process dragged on, Capua was recruited by the University of Florida, Gainesville. A few weeks after moving to the U.S., she was cleared of all charges in Italy as the accusations were baseless with no facts to back them up.

In this episode of AGU’s podcast Third Pod from the Sun, AGU chatted with Capua about her work with viruses, overcoming a smear campaign, and the value of being surrounding by great peers and team members. 

This episode was produced by Kelly McCarthy and Shane M Hanlon and mixed by Kayla Surrey and Shane M Hanlon.


Shane:              Hi Nanci.

Nanci:               Hi Shane.

Shane:              It’s good seeing you as always.

Nanci:               Good seeing you via video again, yes.

Shane:              I know. I know. So, we’re still in a pandemic but do you mind me asking, are you vaccinated?

Nanci:               No, fine to ask. Yes. Got my second vaccine last weekend, so by this coming weekend I’ll be good to go I guess.

Shane:              That’s very exciting, yeah.

Nanci:               How about yourself?

Shane:              Yes. Yeah. We did a two shot one, [00:00:30] my partner and I, and we… Actually, yesterday, as of this recording, was our two weeks. So, we’re officially out in the world. What’s yours? I want to ask you, what are you going to do? What’s on your list, the first thing you’re doing once you can?

Nanci:               We were talking about that and I think it’s like you’re still kind of hesitant to do things even so.

Shane:              Sure.

Nanci:               Which is kind of funny. But we are planning to go on a trip to see my mom.

Shane:              Oh, okay.

Nanci:               Haven’t seen her in over [00:01:00] a year or whatever it is. So, I’m going up in a couple of weeks to see her. So, that will be nice. We can actually go inside and have dinner and hang out.

Shane:              Yeah.

Nanci:               So, yeah. What about you? Were you like, “We’re doing this when we’re good to go?”

Shane:              I want to go to the Drafthouse.

Nanci:               To see a movie?

Shane:              Or something. Yeah. Yeah. So Nancy and I lived close to each other outside of DC and there’s this theater that’s a staple in our neighborhood and it’s like a dinner theater type thing. You can see movies or shows or whatever. And I haven’t been there in yeah, [00:01:30] like a year and a half and they’re doing like small capacity and all of that, but yeah, I think we’re going to try to do something coming up soon. Try to make the best of it.

Nanci:               Yeah, we talked about you know Dune is coming up in the fall and so Richard’s like the biggest Dune fan. So definitely go to the movie is which was a regular staple of ours, so yeah, same.

Shane:              Maybe we’ll make post pan… or at least for us, post-pandemic date of it.

Nanci:               Yes.

Shane:              [00:02:00] Welcome to the American Geophysical Union’s Podcast about the scientists and the methods behind the science. These are the stories you won’t read in the manuscript or hear in a lecture I’m Shane Hanlon.

Nanci:               And I’m Nanci Bompey.

Shane:              And this is Third Pod From the Sun.

                        Okay, so we don’t need to regale everyone with our plans Nanci. We can take that, as the corporate folks say, offline. I’m disgusted with myself. I wish people could see the face I just made. But we are talking [00:02:30] about the pandemic, not just because we’re in it, but because our story for today is about another type of I guess non-human pandemic. Another type of-

Nanci:               Outbreak. It was a… Yeah, yeah yeah yeah. Disease outbreak, I guess.

Shane:              Right, and so it’s bird flu. So to bring us more on this, we want to bring in the producer for this episode, Kelly McCarthy.

Kelly:                Hi Shane. How are you? Hi Nanci.

Nanci:               Hi Kelly.

Shane:              So yeah, why don’t you just let us know what we’re chatting about today.

Kelly:                [00:03:00] Yeah. So at the European Geosciences Meeting in 2019, we sat down with a virologist turned member of the Italian parliament who’s going to talk about her science and kind of her path today.

Ilaria:                Hello. My name is Ilaria Capua. Ilaria is the Italian for Hillary. It helps people remember. I’m the Director of the One Health Center of Excellence at the University [00:03:30] of Florida in Gainesville. My favorite virus and the viruses I would say that I spend most of my career working with are influenza viruses. I was very active during the bird flu crisis, which occurred around the mid 2000s, and actually bird flu is still a significant problem in many parts of the world.

Speaker 5:        China mobilizes resources to combat a new strain [00:04:00] of bird flu after a third death is reported while fears spread wider and faster than the disease itself.

Speaker 6:        Two-thirds of the 400 people who’ve contracted bird flu have died.

Ilaria:                And thanks to European leadership in their research division, my group, which was based in Padova in Italy, became over the years one of the leading groups in influenza viruses [00:04:30] that could jump from animals to humans. And we were very active.

Shane:              I love this idea. This is like the scientific ideal, this collaboration and people working together coming to solve this giant problem. This is exactly how it’s supposed to work, right?

Kelly:                Exactly how it’s supposed to work, except as with any well-intentioned plan, people can misinterpret things and there can be some unintended negative outcomes.

Ilaria:                [00:05:00] As it happens in life, you get sometimes unexpected requests and in 2013, I was asked by the Prime Minister in office at the time to run for election in the national elections. The reason why I was asked was because at the time, Mario Monti recognized that there was a very [00:05:30] significant need of people coming from different areas of society and who were successful in their field to join the political debate. And so I agreed to do it. I ran for election and I was elected.

Kelly:                Were there any other scientists who were running at that time?

Ilaria:                No, I was the only one who was running at that time and I was very flattered that I was elected [00:06:00] and I was very, very motivated to do things around a more meritocratic approach to science, around improving the way that funding was allocated. Again, trying to do things from a more meritocratic point of view. And then I was working on topics of relevance to me and of my areas of expertise, [00:06:30] so mainly on emerging infections.

                        Suddenly I was phoned up by a journalist and I was informed that there was this criminal case and that I was believed to be the criminal mind behind an illegal traffic of viruses and that I was being… I was basically [00:07:00] trying to make personal profits out of my scientific profession. And of course this wasn’t… I mean, this wasn’t true and the criminal court case ended two-and-a-half years after the information was leaked to the press with verdict, which was that the facts never existed and therefore there [00:07:30] was no case to answer, and actually that most of the facts that were narrated in the legal documents were non-existent or reality had been transformed.

Shane:              I can’t imagine, one being elected as a policymaker, that’s just-

Kelly:                The Prime Minister being like you should run for [00:08:00] parliament

Nanci:               And you’re the only scientist on this board on people.

Kelly:                Yeah, and you win.

Shane:              Yeah, and then during this process being accused of something that you didn’t do.

Kelly:                Right, I mean that whole situation is just wow.

Shane:              Yeah.

Nanci:               Very frustrating.

Ilaria:                I had decided to run as a member of parliament, not because I wanted a political career, but because I wanted to do things for science. And so what I did was I was [00:08:30] approached by the University of Florida who was looking for a director of their One Health Center. The University of Florida has recently developed to this preeminent recruitment campaign where they recruit scientists from different parts of the world and they were looking for someone with my experience and they were offering me a very interesting job. And so I [00:09:00] decided to take it, although I had to say to them that I had this investigation which was pending on my head in Italy. I resigned as a member of parliament. I moved to Florida and after three weeks, the judge for preliminary investigation reviewed the papers and said that the facts were non-existent.

                        And so three weeks after I got to the United States, I was completely [00:09:30] cleared from all the accusations.

Nanci:               Well, I mean that’s great. She went to the University of Florida with this stuff kind of hanging over her head, but they, not took a chance on her, but they knew that perhaps that the things weren’t true and they were confident in her.

Kelly:                I mean they reached out to her specifically because of her background and she talks a little bit about how grateful she is for the support from that team.

Ilaria:                I have to say that I have great gratitude to [00:10:00] the University of Florida, to Jack Payne in particular, and Doug Archer, who are the people who wanted to recruit me. They did due diligence and what I found quite surprising was the fact that they did a few checks and they immediately figured out that it was all fake. And in fact, the investigation was so superficial that they mixed up [00:10:30] the name of one virus with the name of another virus. And so it was clear that they didn’t really have a grasp of what was happening. And so for lay people, H7N1 and H7N3 are like similar viruses, but they’re not. They’re completely different viruses in our world.

                        These things happen to scientists. Actually, there’s a prize which is awarded every year. It’s called a John Murdoch’s prize. And it’s [00:11:00] in the name of the former editor of Nature and it’s about standing up for science and you would be surprised to see how many people are actually attacked or criminalized for doing their science.

Kelly:                How do you influence that world now? Do you feel a responsibility having had that experience yourself [00:11:30] to continue to advocate for scientists around the world who might be experiencing this?

Ilaria:                So I know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to have your reputation literally ripped off from you and I think it’s one of the worst things that can happen to you. And that’s why I talk about it. I mean, it is important to share these experiences for how hard it can be, because it’s never easy to talk about this [00:12:00] sort of, let’s say bumps in the road that you’ve had in your life. However, you also have to have the guts to behave as a senior scientist. I am a senior scientist and therefore I talk about the difficulties scientists can encounter. Because it is part of my job to inform younger scientists and mentor other [00:12:30] faculty on issues like this.

Kelly:                So I had the opportunity to watch all of these young scientists come up to Ilaria after this talk she gave at the European Geosciences Union meeting, and it was really cool to see all these people from way outside her field just wanting to talk with her more and share their own stories. And she’s clearly an advocate and a mentor.

Nanci:               Yeah, that’s great and it’s also interesting that like, obviously on this podcast and AGU, you think of oh we interview geoscientists, [00:13:00] earth and space science, but it’s so broad. I guess the point is that all these science issues people have in common, but we also, geoscientists can help people learn about different… You know, it’s not just confined now anymore we realize to just studying one particular thing that has no effect on anything else. We have like stuff like geo health, how climate change is going to affect people’s health. It’s like a big emerging field and things like that.

Kelly:                Exactly. Yeah. And she actually [00:13:30] shared a really good historical example about how that functions and working across disciplines.

Ilaria:                Let me give you an example. John Snow, who is not the guy of the Game of Thrones, but is the father of epidemiology who was an English man who discovered that cholera was transmitted through water. And he was the person who closed the water pump [00:14:00] that was collecting water from the infected basin and overnight the deaths for cholera stopped. However, what is amusing is that John Snow, at his time, didn’t know that cholera was caused by a bacterium. I mean, they didn’t even have the tools to see what they were fighting.

Kelly:                Okay.

Ilaria:                But he had an intuition and the people [00:14:30] who fixed the cholera problem were not scientists. They were the mayor, they were the police officers, they were a series of other people who were not involved in the medical profession and actually fixed the problem. And so where do I see us going? I see us going towards [00:15:00] solutions that are not going to be driven only by the scientific community. They’re going to be driven by other people as well. And that’s why we need to engage. And this is something that I think scientists forget to tell their audiences, that we are scientists because we believe in a better world. And that is what motivates most of the scientists. And we should never forget this, regardless of what people [00:15:30] out there say.

                        So I think that scientists need to reposition themselves as how they are imagined by society. So I would like to launch a call to action to scientists [00:16:00] in that okay some of us are nutters. Some of us are a little bit coo-coo. Some of us are nerds and geeks. But we are people who are motivated and are inspired by curiosity and about natural mechanisms of how things work. And so I think that we should actually, [00:16:30] even if we haven’t achieved as much as we would’ve wanted, which happens in life, but we still have to be proud about being scientists.

                        Of course not all scientists can be super scientists because that’s how distribution works. Some are good. Some are better. Some are super. But still, it’s the critical mass that makes a difference. It’s not the individual.

Nanci:               [00:17:00] So where are you falling on this distribution of scientists Shane? Are you good, better, or super? I’m going to go, you’re-

Shane:              I’m what?

Nanci:               You’re good.

Shane:              That’s fine. I actually-

Nanci:               I’m less than good considering I’m not a scientist anymore, but I know I shouldn’t put myself down like that.

Shane:              No, we’re always scientists, we’re just not always practicing.

Nanci:               Yeah.

Shane:              That’s the distinction.

Nanci:               [00:17:30] Yes.

Shane:              Yes.

Nanci:               But in all seriousness, I really like her thought here because it’s actually a lot of what… You know, in terms of the podcast, it’s this critical… she talks about this critical mass of science. Everyone has to be doing this stuff in order to move the science forward. And so you may not be the all-star science, but you are a little piece in this big scientific enterprise.

Shane:              Yeah. I mean, yeah, you don’t to be a big name or whatever else, but there’s a reason we do science and it’s knowledge, right?

Nanci:               Yeah.

Shane:              So who cares who-

Nanci:               Like this podcast. We’re just a little piece of this podcast enterprise moving the needle [00:18:00] forward.

Shane:              We are doing our part to advance science communication. All right. That’s all from Third Pod From the Sun.

Nanci:               Thanks so much to Kelly for bringing us this story. And of course to Ilaria for sharing her work with us.

Shane:              This podcast was produced by Kelly and mixed by Kayla Suri.

Nanci:               We would love to hear your thoughts. Please rate and review us on Apple podcasts. You can listen to us wherever you get your podcasts and of course always at

Shane:              Thanks all and we’ll see you next time.

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