Dr. Nicholas Christakis (MD, PhD) is an American and Greek physician/sociologist known for his extensive research on social networks and on the socioeconomic, biosocial and evolutionary determinants of behaviour, health, and longevity. Educated at Harvard Medical School and at Yale University, Dr. Christakis has, alongside his academic research, published multiple books and presented various TED talks. In 2009 he was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He is also known for his defence of freedom of speech in university campuses. Room for Discussion had the pleasure of having him over as a guest on their special COVID-19 podcast.

The interview began with a brief overview of the coronavirus outbreak timeline, as seen by the scientific community. Dr. Christakis then explained his collaboration with Chinese colleagues to track the expansion of infection through the use of mobile data. The interviewers asked him to place himself in the shoes of President Trump and suggest an alternative to the current management of the situation, which led to an in-depth critique of Trump’s diminishment of academic knowledge, through the proposal of false methods to combat the virus. However, China fared no better, receiving condemnation for the suppression of freedom of speech regarding coronavirus. On the issue of Sweden, he was keen on mentioning the high human costs such hands-off measures will have on the population. Moreover, Dr. Christakis praised South Korea, Taiwan, as well as Greece for their fast and effective responses. On the other hand, he warned those countries not to let their guard down, as they must now brace for further waves of the virus.

Concerning methods of fighting the pandemic, Dr. Christakis stressed the existence of a handbook on how to do just that, written fifteen years ago, in which two approaches are outlined. The first, centred around behavioural changes, contemplates social distancing alongside the closing of borders as effective methods to help flatten the curb, essential for avoiding a collapse of healthcare systems. On the pharmaceutical front, the development of drugs to increase life-expectancy and vaccines aimed at neutralising the nefarious effects on humans would be the go-to procedures. Nonetheless, Dr. Christakis mentioned his worries that rushed vaccinations would cause unnecessary side effects among the population. In the small chance that vaccination was unattainable, he stated that inevitable herd immunity as the only way of returning to regular life. He speculated that 18 months would be required for a vaccine to be ready.

When asked about necessary reactions to China’s lack of transparency in dealing with coronavirus, Dr. Christakis was quick to suggest sanctions as a method of forcing the communist government to allow external investigations. Moreover, he suggested tackling fake news not through censorship, but rather through enhanced government communication. He highlighted German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a positive example of an effective educator, that keeps the German populace appropriately informed. With regards to the naming of the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”, Dr. Christakis largely dismissed the issue by mentioning the long history of naming viruses after their place of origin, but also emphasised that this could easily be changed. Finally, when asked to give a timeframe for an eventual return to normality, he stated that four years would probably be required to vanquish the virus.

Given the current COVID-19 crisis, this interview took place as a podcast in collaboration with UvA Radio. For all those interested, you can find it as a video on demand on Room for Discussion’s Facebook page by clicking here. It will also be uploaded to Spotify and Soundcloud as a podcast.

We hope you tune in soon!