In the United States, vaccination rates continue to rise and COVID-19 infections continue to plummet. States all across the country have begun easing pandemic guidelines and returning to some semblance of normalcy. But the picture is not as rosy for other parts of the world, particularly in India where the pandemic continues to surge. An average of 237,352 cases per day were reported in the last week in India, compared to a total of 162,507 cases in the last week in the United States.
Many members of Gladstone’s community are from India or of Indian descent, and the surging pandemic weighs heavily on them. One such scientist, Ujjwal Rathore, PhD, has taken his expertise to YouTube to speak directly to his community back home, providing vaccine education, dispelling common COVID-19 myths, and answering frequently asked questions around the pandemic. His YouTube channel has already reached more than 10,000 viewers and he has recently appeared on a Hindi news channel with more than 20 million subscribers.
Rathore shares his story about what inspired him to fight COVID-19 misinformation and his approach to outreach.
I grew up in Delhi, India, and did most of my schooling in the Hindi language. Later, I moved to Bangalore, India, to do my PhD in molecular biophysics at the Indian Institute of Sciences where I designed vaccine candidates for HIV. During my PhD training, I realized that for vaccines or therapies to be successful against challenging diseases, we need to better understand the genetic basis of host immunity. That’s why I approached Alex Marson, MD, PhD—a leader in utilizing genome-editing approaches to probe the human immune system and associated disorders.
Alex was excited about using his CRISPR gene-editing methods to develop a better understanding of existing and emerging viral infections. So I moved to the United States in 2018 and joined his lab at UC San Francisco (UCSF) as a postdoctoral scholar. Even before Alex’s lab moved to Gladstone, I was already stationed at Gladstone Institutes as a visiting scientist in the lab of our collaborator Nevan Krogan, PhD, because my work on viruses required accessing Gladstone’s Biosafety Level 3 facility. I was able to learn from both these excellent scientists but also be part of the broader social initiatives that their labs were pursuing.
Later, other UCSF and Gladstone colleagues such as Joe Hiatt, Jessica Cortez, Devin Cavero, Robyn Kaake, and Mir Khalid motivated me to look beyond the confines of my labs and taught me ways to contribute to the community in general.
My wife is also a postdoctoral scientist at UCSF. However, the rest of my family is in India and I would have found it very difficult to stay away from my family during this time of crisis without the excellent support from my colleagues.
Early in the pandemic, I realized that despite me being a virologist, my own family members and friends were being swayed by conspiracy theories they read on social media. I was shocked when I heard my father dismissing the coronavirus as a hoax, and my friends asking if the COVID-19 vaccine can make them impotent.
This made me realize that virus experts like myself need to help clear up doubts and stop misinformation, particularly within communities that have a shared language or similar cultural heritage.
The second wave of COVID-19 in India has been getting more and more personal, claiming a close friend and many of my family members. This further motivated me to act, both to minimize further personal loss and to support my home country even though I cannot be there physically.
Moreover, the supportive environment at Gladstone has empowered me to actively reach out to those in need and come up with innovative ways of science communication. Alex and Nevan have not only been inspirational as scientists but as conscientious leaders striving for betterment of the society, and I draw my motivation from them.
My strategies have changed as the scale of the pandemic changed. My outreach activities started with explaining the basics of COVID-19 transmission to a small group of family and friends over phone calls. Here, the main focus was to help differentiate between high-risk and low-risk activities. Some of them were really worried about getting an infection from grocery stores but attended big fat weddings!
In April 2020, a picture of me working with COVID-19 samples for a project from the Marson Lab was published in The New York Times. Some of my old school teachers and the social organizations I work with noticed the photos and invited me to give Zoom talks on COVID-19.
Talking to small- and medium-sized communities on various platforms made me realize that my strength lies in communicating complex ideas in a simple manner, using regional Indian languages. I understood that to debunk conspiracy theories, it’s important to give relatable examples and establish a connection with people.
One of the organizations I work with live-streamed my talk on YouTube. That’s when I realized that a lot of people are comfortable accessing videos on YouTube rather than other platforms. So, I made my own YouTube channel and started uploading videos.
YouTube has several advantages over other platforms since the videos have a much wider reach, are easy to share, and can be watched again and again. The other major advantage is that people can ask questions directly in the comments, which I answer with help from a group of scientist friends.
I also found that YouTube can reach a very diverse group of people. Some schools and organizations are using my videos as a resource to counter fake information and to increase vaccine awareness in their own circles. I was also contacted by a gamer community to deliver a COVID-19 talk followed by a Q&A session on their gaming app platform. I would have been comfortable talking to a science magazine or science news channel, but what are the odds of those outlets reaching an artist in a suburb of New Delhi or a cook from Punjab?
Recently, I was contacted by an Indian media outlet whose journalism I admire because of their largely consistent practices on countering fake news. I made a YouTube video with them on COVID-19 vaccines that has reached more than 400,000 people in 4 days! Now, I am regularly approached by outlets to fact check claims about COVID-19.
Judging from the feedback I’m getting, I think the biggest impact of my work is reducing vaccine hesitancy. Another response I usually get is that my videos help reduce panic among people because they understand the basics of the disease much better and know that it’s possible to manage most COVID-19 cases at home without getting excessively worried.
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