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Coronavirus

Allan Randrup Thomsen speaks to reporters non-stop: »I'm really scared of making a fool of myself«

Interview — Few people had heard of the virologist Allan Randrup Thomsen in February, but since March he has become one of the most cited researchers in the Danish media. This puts him in a vulnerable position, especially because he talks out about a virus that no one really knows.

Allan Randrup Thomsen’s phone starts ringing at six-thirty in the morning. It will continue to do so until nine in the evening.

It has been like this almost every day since the coronavirus began to spread.

At first, he rushed to pick up the buzzing phone nearly all day. But as the days have passed, and the storm of calls from reporters has become a part of his daily life, he has taught himself to accept that he cannot answer all inquiries, he says.

It can still be difficult to relax.

»I have to stop and think. Even before just opening a bottle of wine. Because when you drink a glass, you cloud the mind. Because when you drink a glass, you cloud the mind. Sometimes I get questions that can be politically delicate, and that means that I have to be clear in my head,« says Allan Randrup Thomsen, professor of experimental virology at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen.

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For Allan Randrup Thomsen – even more than for most people – there is a pre- and a post-coronavirus situation.

From being completely outside the top 20, the professor climbed to second place on the ranking of the past year’s most-cited researchers from the University of Copenhagen, published by the University Post last week. 622 out of a total 753 appearances in the media in the past 12 months were from March or April.

If this trend continues, it is only a matter of time before he is the most cited researcher at the university, full stop.

In other words: Where he used to work in the laboratory doing research on something few people had ever heard about, most Danes today know who he is.

Breaking the rules

What is unusual, however, is that Allan Randrup Thomsen has to respond to so many questions from journalists that he barely has time to think about the research group he leads on a daily basis. A research group that, by the way, is hard hit by a lockdown that prevents them doing their experiments in the Maersk Tower.

It is also unusual that the professor has to relate to a virus that has emerged so suddenly that science has not yet been able to dissipate the fog of mystery that surrounds it.  No one knows how the coronavirus will behave in the coming months, not even Allan Randrup Thomsen. This is unexplored territory.

I have to stop and think. Even before just opening a bottle of wine. Because when you drink a glass, you cloud the mind.

Allan Randrup Thomsen, Professor in Experimental Virology

So when the professor goes there, and speaks out about the virus, he cannot draw on the weight of evidence. He must assume things, draw on his background knowledge, and build up his train of thought on as qualified a basis as is now possible.

»Normally, I would have some precise data to deal with, but here I have to make my conclusions on a looser basis. That’s not what you normally do in science. After I have spoken to the media, I often wonder whether there is something I have forgotten or have not taken into account. Is there something that reveals that I haven’t given it proper thought? This leads to a certain amount of stress.«

He offers an example:

Right now, scientists can’t say for sure what an antibody test being positive actually means. From previous viruses, it is known that the body makes antibodies after the infection, that gives resistance to this particular virus. But for now, you just has to assume that something similar is true for Covid-19.

READ ALSO: Promising drug given to first Danish corona patients

The next question then is why do you do the antibody tests at all, when you are not able to say what they actually mean? The answer, of course, is that we do them to learn, one step at a time, but this is a  »strange, unfinished situation« to speak out about, says Allan Randrup Thomsen.

When he speaks out about antibody tests – or about possible re-openings of everything from kindergartens to restaurants, and about the first and second waves of the virus – he cannot help but fear how his statements will be received:

»I’m really scared of showing myself up, and of making a fool of myself. I feel particularly vulnerable because my colleagues will easily be able to point to me if I say something stupid. I have already violated the rules of the game by speaking out about something that has not been scientifically proven.«

Why do you choose to speak out in most cases anyway?

»It’s simply because we are in the midst of a crisis. It made a lot of sense when Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said that she would rather act quickly than not act at all. This is my perception also. We can’t just sit around doing nothing. I have to say something so that people get as much clarification as at all possible, while making sure that I also remind them of the uncertainty.«

He compares his role to the profession for which he was originally trained: the medical profession.

I feel particularly vulnerable because my colleagues will easily be able to point to me if I say something stupid.
Allan Randrup Thomsen, Professor in Experimental Virology

A doctor is not blessed with an infallible X-ray vision that can provide a diagnosis for all patients’ symptoms. Often the doctor has to guess, and make an assessment on what the right treatment is based on the knowledge that he or she now has.

»You can’t say to the patient: Now you just lie down with your illness until I find the answer,« says Allan Randrup Thomsen.

A bit more bombastic

He has even spoken out, several times, in more forceful terms.

When the government decided to open nurseries, kindergartens and the smallest primary school classes, he expressed his scepticism, saying that it was »leading us up the garden path«. He later said it was »lunacy« to even consider cycling races like the Tour de France before the end of the year.

Most recently, he expressed his »annoyance« that zoos and amusement parks now intend to reopen for the masses. »Politicians should simply say: ‘Now you stop, now’,« Allan Randrup Thomsen told news agency Ritzau.

These statements may signify that he has gone deeper into the world where you express yourself differently than you do in the confines of the laboratory.

»It gets a bit more bombastic,« he says.

I have to say something so that people get as much clarification as possible.

Allan Randrup Thomsen, Professor in Experimental Virology

»And it can sometimes be hard to get all the ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’ included, especially when you’re talking to reporters who want to have it all in five or ten words.«

Given all this uncertainty, aren’t you be afraid to articulate yourself so unequivocally?

»Yes, of course. And I also believe that I have only done so, when I have been as confident as I can be that I am right,« he says.

He adds that, as far as possible, he tries to speak out in terms that cannot be seen as political. When he voiced his scepticism about the re-opening of nurseries, kindergartens and the smallest primary school classes, he deliberately refrained from saying that the decision was categorically wrong, just as he did not say what should be done instead.

He would have then spoken in a way that would place him between political parties in the Danish parliament, he says. ‘And that’s not my job.’

Conspiracy theories in his inbox

Just before we talk, Randrup Thomsen has told two journalists that he agrees with Kåre Mølbak, Executive Vice President of Denmark’s disease control body Statens Serum Institut, when he says that Danes should expect at least a year of social distance. At other times, like in the case of the zoos, he has challenged the managing of the corona crisis.

Allan Randrup Thomsen needs to strike a balance. On the one hand, he needs to think about the effect of his words: Do they mean that the general public will have less respect for the official recommendations? On the other hand, he has a duty to say what he thinks.

If people are to trust me, I also need to be able to say something that not everyone agrees with.

Allan Randrup Thomsen, Professor in Experimental Virology

»It’s a balance which I think about all the time. And if I criticise something it’s because I’ve thought a lot about what effect it has on the general public. That is another reason why it has been a stressful few weeks. I am constantly considering what I can permit myself to say, and when I have said it, I wonder whether it made sense for me to say it,« says Allan Randrup Thomsen.

»I do, however, have an overarching responsibility to be honest to both the listeners and to myself. And it is also in this context that some of my colleagues probably think I should keep my mouth shut sometimes. But if people are to trust me, I also need to be able to say something that not everyone agrees with.

Recently, he has also started getting emails from private individuals commenting on his appearances in the media.

Most of them are positive, he says. But he recently got ticked off by someone who felt that he did not take the economic consequences into account when he discouraged a too-rapid re-opening of society. He had to respond that his perspective was limited to being that of a health professional, and that he always tries to draw attention to this when he is interviewed.

He has also been contacted by people who want to know if the virus might spread across the 5G network. But his willingness to respond does not go that far:

»I just can’t relate to all kinds of conspiracy theories, when I already have trouble managing to get to all the stuff that has substance,« he says.

For the same reason, he does not have a Facebook profile, because you might well imagine that he would be overwhelmed with inquiries from concerned individuals.

A lot has happened since he was just some virologist that hardly anyone had heard of.

Translated by Mike Young

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