People of the pandemic: The French infectious diseases expert fighting viral fake news

Portrait of Nathan Peiffer-Smadja, expert in infectious diseases at Paris Bichat hospital, on July 20, 2021
Portrait of Nathan Peiffer-Smadja, expert in infectious diseases at Paris Bichat hospital, on July 20, 2021 © Aude Mazoué

Nathan Peiffer-Smadja, an expert in infectious diseases at Paris Bichat hospital, has joined a United Nations team fighting coronavirus misinformation online. This is the fourth installment in a FRANCE 24 series about people who found a new calling during the pandemic.


Nathan Peiffer-Smadja's modest desk at Paris' Bichat hospital is a mess. So is his thick brown hair. But the 31-year-old’s mind is sharp, orderly and methodical. Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, Peiffer-Smadja, an expert in infectious diseases, has been on the frontline of the fight against the novel coronavirus in the hospital's research lab – and on social media.

In late 2019, the young doctor was working on his PhD at London Imperial College, where he specialised in digital medical prescription tools. "When we first heard the news from China, we quickly understood the scale of the epidemic," Peiffer-Smadja told FRANCE 24. He was called back to France and began clinical research on potential treatments in January 2020.

The Bichat hospital received its first wave of Covid-19 patients in the spring of 2020. "It was hard at the beginning because we saw a lot of people dying. And they died quickly. We’re not used to that in infectious diseases departments, because we generally have treatments to offer, depending on the pathologies," added the young doctor.

Peiffer-Smadja quickly realised that the fight against Sars-CoV-2 would play out both in research labs and on social media. As scientists worldwide raced to find a vaccine or a treatment, French microbiologist Didier Raoult shot to fame by claiming that the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was effective against Covid-19. His endorsement unleashed a wave of Internet comments praising the "miracle" treatment. Any doctor warning against the drug's unproven benefits was harshly criticised on social media.

"It was really hard to fight this rumour because this misinformation came from a well-known medical research unit," explained Peiffer-Smadja, without referring directly to Raoult's Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée Infection (IHU). "The medical and scientific communities were slow to realise the scale of misinformation about hydroxychloroquine."

Twitter, ‘an effective tool for doctors to share scientific data’

After working long shifts at the hospital, or on the weekends, Peiffer-Smadja used his Twitter account to publish reliable information about the novel coronavirus. The young doctor saw it as his duty, even when it meant admitting that there was no effective treatment against Covid-19. He also used Twitter to read posts written by researchers from all over the world.

"Twitter is a very effective tool for doctors to share scientific data, especially during a pandemic. It's also a great way to tell the general public about our latest findings on the virus," Peiffer-Smadja told FRANCE 24. He said that he learnt to deal with raging social media controversies by remaining calm and ignoring ad hominem attacks.

As a doctor active on social media, he ended up attracting media attention. Several journalists sent him private messages on Twitter asking him to comment on the health crisis. "Doctors have an ambiguous relationship with journalists. When you appear in the media, you run the risk of being criticised by your colleagues or accused of trying to grab the spotlight for yourself while patients are dying at the hospital," said Peiffer-Smadja.

But sharing reliable information is critical during a pandemic. That's why Peiffer-Smadja joined "Team Halo", a United Nations campaign bringing together some 20 scientists from different countries to share their expertise through social media. Their task is to restore trust by disseminating the latest established facts on the virus – and the ways to fight it.

In 2021, online controversies have moved from hydroxychloroquine (which was discarded after several scientific studies) to anti-Covid vaccines. Once again, Peiffer-Smadja is on the social media frontline – TikTok, YouTube and Twitter – to counter a wave of fake news about vaccination. Reassuring people about vaccines is his way of fighting the pandemic, by persuading as many people as possible to be inoculated.

Preventing future pandemics

The development of effective anti-Covid vaccines brought hope. But, for infectious disease experts, the current pandemic should also be an opportunity to research complex human-nature interactions, to reduce the risk of another virus crossing the species barrier.

"With Covid, we have the proof that a pandemic risk can appear anytime because of people moving, wars, global warming, urbanisation, deforestation ... Beyond the current crisis, which could be solved if the entire global population gets vaccinated, we should think about the broader concept of ecology," said Peiffer-Smadja.

An optimist by nature, the young doctor said the French health system ended up weathering the coronavirus storm.

"Public hospitals and physicians in private practice, which regularly draw criticism in France, have shown they can react quickly and effectively. The crisis has shown that not all countries have the public resources that allow anyone to be cared for, regardless of their income", said Peiffer-Smadja. "We must preserve our healthcare model at all cost."

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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