Former National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins was at the center of the nation’s COVID-19 response. His agency helped fund the research that led to the vaccine rollout and he personally grappled with controversy, consternation, and difficult decisions surrounding the reaction to it all.
Collins, a self-described evangelical Christian, discussed these elements in an interview with Faithwire and revealed an area in which he feels officials and scientists failed: communicating about the ebbs and flows of the pandemic.
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“We probably didn’t do a good enough job early on saying on, ‘Here’s the best recommendations we’ve got from what we know right not, but they might change because we’re learning about this virus day after day,'” Collins said. “And then recommendations did have to change as we learned more, and then the virus changed, and we had to change the recommendations again.”
He continued, “People looked at that like, ‘These scientists don’t know what they’re doing; they’re jerking us around.’ No, we were trying to give the best information at that moment. But I don’t think that was explained very well.”
It’s no secret that frustrations have abounded over the government’s and medias’ shifting tones and proclamations on masks, the vaccines, and other elements of the COVID-19 response.
And while not everyone will agree with Collins’ views, handling of the pandemic or his general statements, his admission that pandemic communications were potentially insufficient is notable.
Collins on the ‘Hardest Part’ of Navigating COVID-19
The scientist also revealed that navigating the reaction to COVID-19 vaccines was the most challenging part of the overarching ordeal. He called the vaccines an “answer to prayer” and expressed dismay at the hesitancy many have had to get jabbed.
“I have to say the hardest part was what happened with the vaccines which were produced by the scientific effort in remarkable speed and with remarkable safety and efficacy,” he said. “I will tell you, when I saw that data in November of 2020 when the trials were completed, it was overwhelmingly wonderful. It was an answer to prayer.”
Collins said the research brought him to “tears.” He felt convinced at that moment that the country would be able to “vanquish this terrible virus.” Flashforward more than a year and COVID-19 is still with us.
“But it didn’t happen partly because of new variants, but in a large part because of people who were simply not interested in getting vaccinated, many of whom were in the church,” he said. “Thirty to 40% of White evangelicals are still resistant to vaccination despite the fact that more than 100,000 people have died unnecessarily because of rejecting this way that they could have saved their lives.”
Collins said he didn’t expect this reaction. It was clear from his comments that he sees the vaccines as a gift from God to humanity, though not everyone is as convinced this is the case.
“That’s what breaks my heart … we have thanks to God’s grace and the ability to understand how nature works,” he said. “An answer to all of these prayers of people who were fearful of dying, and yet people are dying anyway because of the way in which this has been turned into a polarized, weaponized argument. It’s just not the way it should be.”
Speaking of the current cultural battles unfolding, Collins warned that he believes the division and chaos in modern culture are coalescing to cost people their lives.
“The great tragedy of this, of course right now, is that this is not just a disagreement or a culture war that is unfortunate because it has bad rhetoric,” he said. “It’s also taking people’s lives now.”
Collins’ Faith Background
Often speaking of his Christian faith, Collins has continually worked to bridge divides between religion and science. He founded BioLogos in 2009, an organization devoted to “faith and science working hand-in-hand.”
Many Christians will disagree with the scientific conclusions the organization comes to, though Collins seems to welcome that, especially on issues like evolution and climate change.
Collins’ organization recently created a curriculum called “Integrate,” which offers units of study for Christian parents, educators, and ministry leaders. He wrote the book “Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” in 2007 to try and bring together religion and science.
“There has been this sense that there might be a conflict between science and faith and particularly in evangelical churches,” Collins told Faithwire. “[I was] aiming to show how, in fact, from the perspective of somebody who spends his professional career as a scientist, but who spends the rest of his time as a Christ-centered believer, that these things are in fact not in conflict.”
Collins said he is devoted to helping the two sides come together to dialogue, but he doesn’t shy away from perspectives sure to ruffle some feathers.
When asked if he could understand Christians, in particular, taking a skeptical view of people who advocate for multitudes of genders and other such issues — elements that contradict biblical creation and truth, he said he “hears” the pushback. After all, some critics would argue: If they believe such things on gender, why should they be trusted on other issues surrounding important issues like COVID?
“I hear that and, again, the, I think, the best response is to recognize that those are stereotypes that don’t really apply to an awful lot of either community,” he said. “Forty percent of working scientists believe in a personal God to whom you might pray in expectation of an answer. That surprises a lot of people in the church.”
Collins said very few scientists are “strict atheists” and argued that activists like Richard Dawkins have somehow made it look like this is the case.
“Unfortunately, the New Atheist movement, people like Richard Dawkins, have created this sense that the whole scientific community is basically trying to tear down religion … which is utterly unjustified,” he said. “BioLogos aims to say, ‘No, that’s not the case.'”
Controversy Surrounding Collins
Considering the controversy surrounding COVID-19 and other issues Collins has addressed, Faithwire asked if he ever worries about his positions being incorrect and, in turn, harming people’s faith.
“Absolutely, I worry about that every day,” he said, speaking of the importance of “scientific humility” and humility within his Christian belief system. “A person of faith has to have that as well.”
It should come as no surprise that many do point out the areas in which they believe Collins is wrong, particularly on theological issues of concern. Collins’ interview with Faithwire came around the same time Megan Basham of DailyWire published an article critical of Collins’ beliefs and actions.
“Other than his assertions of his personal Christian faith, there is almost no public stance Collins has taken that would mark him out as someone of like mind with the everyday believers to whom he was appealing,” Basham wrote.
The article noted that Collins partnered with prominent pastors to spread COVID ideals, explored the problems associated with that dynamic, and listed many issues that would make Collins appear left of center and out of pace with Christian ideas.
From Collins’ views on embryonic research and embryonic tissue to a 2021 Pride Month statement in which he described himself as an “ally” and celebrated the LGBTQ community, there was no shortage of controversial material from which to pull.
“As a White cisgender and heterosexual man, I have not had the same experiences, but I am committed to listening, respecting, and supporting those individuals as an ally and advocate,” Collins said in that latter statement. “I know that developing allyship is critical as we continue to make NIH, and the world, a more inclusive place for all.”
There are also reports about emails showing Collins and Fauci purportedly rebuffed and downplayed the plausibility of a lab-leak theory surrounding the origination of COVID-19. Many espousing the lab-leak theory or pondering it were treated as though they were conspiracy theorists, though the idea has since been treated as a possibility.
Collins certainly has a fair bit of controversy that would cause pause to many, though his perspectives offer insight into the pandemic, views on faith and science and other important ideas with which Christians should be familiar.
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