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The Coronavirus signals need for reform of U.S. policies for approval of vaccines and advanced cures

I sent a message similar to this essay to Robyn Dixon, author of an article on Russian science and vaccine development in the Washington Post yesterday, February 9. 2021. The Dixon article cited scientist and journalist, Irina Yakutenko, saying that “you should do everything according to the protocols. It takes a long, long time. It takes a lot of money”. That has been true for U.S. policies that have required ten years to release new vaccines*. But the “miraculous” speed of vaccine development in 2020 tells us that those medical policies are grievously outdated and need to change. I copied this message to Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, encouraging them to explore reforms with Senate colleagues and NIH Director Francis Collins. Republicans would likely agree about the importance of reform.

The length of time needed for vaccine development is due to the extreme rigor of U.S requirements for them and other critical cures. This in turn is attributable to concern to minimize adverse effects. The positive potential of a new vaccine can be confirmed in a dozen cases, but to rule out 1:1000 adverse effects may require years and trials with 6000 persons. The FDA operates in the world’s most litigious nation and is risk-averse. We saw what happened in 2020 when excess cautions were swept aside because of the emergency created by the coronavirus. The speed of the approval was startling for our system, but other nations produced vaccines in the same time frame. Sixty-three coronavirus vaccines have been reported in clinical development. Because of the U.S.’s overwhelming dominance in research funding and the rigor and reputation of the National Institute of Health, the sponsor of federally supported trials, our protocols are widely adopted in Germany and other EU nations.

A new vaccine can cost $500 million to $2 billion. This leads to exorbitant treatment costs and a lack of attention to rarer diseases that could be cured. An example is my wife, Lucy, who has a rare “SCA 8” ataxia that could be readily cured by gene editing – but it can’t get attention.

A sleeper factor also holds back treatment in America. The Washington Post article mentions scientific publication as being desirable for Russian medical development. To the extent that they report new knowledge and advances, scientific publications play critical roles.  But the U.S. suffers from a flood of excess clinical publications. Reports offer many promising new treatments “for the future” while there is a dearth of new treatment opportunities today. The reason is that it is more advantageous for medical researchers to apply for research funding and get their names in print or in the news for promising developments than to take the risks of moving to formal treatment. The latter receives little public recognition while it incurs major risks for lawsuits over new procedures. Risk adverseness operates on clinics as well as clinicians.

In 2016 I became personally familiar with a pioneering Austrian heart surgeon who saved the life of an American composer who had a heart attack while attending a concert in Vienna. Dr. Werner Mohl** developed a procedure for restoring heart tissue damaged in heart attacks. The American would probably have died in the U.S. because the procedure would not have been authorized until clinical trials proved its efficacy.

*Vaccines, 5th Ed., Philadelphia, Saunders 2008.


American history Journalism Policy and Politics Science and education

When NPR shut down its user comment line in 2016 it missed a major opportunity


NPR’s comment line was obviously troubled when it was shut down in 2016. But there had been no  guidelines for contributions to it. Nor were significant corrections made when abuses began clogging the system. As the premier U.S. public radio news network I suggest that NPR should have taken on a generic problem facing comment lines nationally – especially for news media. Rather than giving up it should have developed strategies and led in raising national standards for comment lines. I suggest it can be successful if it readdresses the problem in a new comment line.


History: On August 23, 2016 National Public Radio shut down its comment line. According to a statement by NPR’s ombudsman (Jensen, 2016) NPR took this action after reviewing  statistics showing that in July 2016 there were 491,000 comments from only 19,400 commenters. Letting cliques of users treat NPR’s site like a personal chat line was clearly not tolerable.

NPR statements: NPR claimed it lacked money for moderators and that other news programs had taken similar action. It suggested social media like Facebook might be better sites for discussion. I find these arguments inexcusably superficial. They overlook the rhinoceros in the room: is it a good thing for the federally supported, premier U.S. public radio network to eliminate opportunities for meaningful public comment and discussion?

Sure, viewers can send an email to NPR program managers or hosts, getting a form response like “thank you for your expression of opinion”. But let’s be realistic. Most people with meaningful things to say will no more choose to waste their time sending mail to faceless administrative staff than to participate in the earlier comment line – degraded as it became by trivial input or worse. Lack of meaningful input through NPR’s current contact addresses may lead program managers to assume that there little need or useful value in reopening channels for public comment. Wrong!

I don’t say NPR has the same policies as the, a leading Russian radio program that delivers sanitized news and commentary. However, it now shares a no-public-input  policy with the Russian program.

Critical omissions: NPR placed no limits on contributors. Ombudsman Jensen reported that in June and July of 2016 4,300 commenters contributed an average 145 comments apiece! Correction of this kind of problem could be straightforward: Kojo Nnamdi’s WAMU radio interview show from Washington D.C. limits comments to one a month. It doesn’t require live moderators to monitor comment frequency. That can be done by software.

Neither did NPR provide clear guidelines for contributors, e.g. stating  priority for comments offering corrections, alternative arguments, new information, or personal experience. Expressions of gut-level opinion can be found on a vast number of web sites. On NPR’s website such expressions add no value. On the contrary, they guarantee that though many people may be attracted by the site (NPR recorded 33 million unique users in July 2016) people with meaningful things to say will not read or contribute to the comments line. As with repeat commenters, software could go far to screen out brief, crude posts or, say, a report about a sick cat.

When problematic posts began to clog the system NPR leadership did not take meaningful action. It apparently learned nothing from 2016 because in March 2018 NPR also ended its Science Commentary Blog (Jensen, 2018).

Yes, it’s a widespread problem: Ombudsman Jensen was right in referring to other news sites that had dropped comment lines. One of the early sites to take this action was Popular Science (2013). Others are CNN, NBC, and VOX, It’s not just an American problem. Stephen Pritchard, editor of The Guardian, a left of center UK newspaper, wrote in an article that at one point the paper’s comment line ballooned to a hopeless 65,000 emails (Pritchard, 2018). Pritchard said that in the future

“Subjects such as race, immigration and Islam too often attracted toxic commentary, so henceforth they would only have comments open if a moderated, positive debate were deemed possible – one without racism, abuse of vulnerable subjects, author abuse or trolling”.

It appears that as in the case of NPR The Guardian did not have strategies in place to minimize “toxic” posts and chose to give up on an open comments line.

A perceptive Australian economic blogger describes toxic comments as a problem of incentive structure (Murphy, 2015):

For some idiot with anti-social views, this is his one chance to get his views amplified. The pay-off here is high. Normally he can’t get anyone to listen. But if he quickly writes something inflammatory, he can spend a happy afternoon jousting with people he made angry.

Murphy advocates the solution used by Reddit (Wikpedia, 2018), an American website that features aggregated websites on a variety of subjects. Its solution to undesirable comments is to have up or down votes. Up votes will raise the visibility of comments. Down votes will lower it and 5 down votes extinguishes a comment.

There are two problems with Reddit’s approach for more thoughtful news and commentary sites. Popularity has never been a reliable criterion for vision in statesmen or quality in comments on complex or controversial issues. Abraham Lincoln was widely reviled in 1863. Further, the Wikipedia article describing Reddit notes that the site requires significant effort from moderators.

NPR’s leadership responsibility and opportunity: There’s no getting around the fact that contemporary public response to comment lines of serious news and commentary media is often problematic. Crude or thoughtless comments not only drive away thoughtful readers. They can add to an unrealistic sense of social chaos and fragmentation because respondents attitudes may disproportionately reflect attitudes held by radical fringes not representative of the majority of audiences.

In my view the first thing needed is for program managers to openly address the realities. In seeking to restore a comment line they need to call on listeners for input on guidelines and to help make the opportunity to present comments  substantive and useful. Relatively simple and cheap measures can filter out a large proportion of posts that don’t meet stated standards. However I also suggest that even contributors of coarse or trivial posts should be treated courteously and invited to come back in the future, taking advantage of constructive suggestions. 

Another measure to attract useful comments may be a category for superior comments. Meaningful posts too long to meet normal guidelines may emerge if more serious and knowledgeable individuals begin to be attracted. Instead of simply cutting off their inspirations, contributors who go past standard length limits could provide summaries that will be posted on the main site while the full comment can go to a special address. Such comments might involve documentation for alternatives challenging ideas of commentators or guests. I often find that talk shows nominally featuring “both sides” of controversial issues overlook important factors. This may be a way to get these into the discussion.

No doubt, robust comment systems need managers committed to bringing in valuable input from the public. Why give up and say they are unaffordable? I argue that a first-rate comment line could enhance the value of NPR and provide a model that may help upgrade comment lines more generally. Wouldn’t that be a worthy goal for National Public Radio? PBS gets support for ambitious programs from a large group of wealthy individuals and foundations. Would not the prospect of restoring meaningful public comment to NPR attract culturally oriented foundations or organizations like the Pew Trust?


Jensen, E. (2016, August 17, 2016). NPR website To Get Rid Of Comments. Retrieved from

Jensen, E. (2018). Shifting Opinions: NPR Ends Science Commentary Blog.

Murphy, J. (2015, 2015/09/14). Thomas the Think Engine. from

Pritchard, S. (2018, Jan. 13, 2018). The Observer: The readers’ editor on… closing comments below the line, The Guardian. Retrieved from

Wikpedia. (2018). Reddit. from

Journalism Policy and Politics

A premature goodbye to Gwen Ifill, stellar journalist

I was shocked beyond words to lose Gwen Ifill so early, so prematurely at 61. Quite aside from being a pioneering African American Gwen was a towering presence among journalists. It was impossible to determine what her political views were, because she was equally perceptive, candid, gracious but no nonesense with people of various political persuasions. She asked core questions – didn’t skate around the peripheries or push human interest conflict. She wanted to KNOW, and let viewers understand. And at the same time she was human. Her signoffs to her Washington Week shows were personal and regretful, not pro forma. She would have liked them to continue and I did too.

Someone said no one could interrupt more graciously than Gwen. I’d like to know what the family influences were that could shape such a balanced, keen and warm person and intellect. She took advantage of the breakthrough achieved by the MacNeil-Lehrer show. It was not only the first balanced political show. They also showed that the leaders weren’t one-of-a-kind. They could clone balanced, even-handed news analysis hosts. We realize it takes work and the skills must be honed. I remember that initially Judy woodruff wasn’t the polished professional she is now, but subtlely showed liberal biases though she tried hard not to. That was even true of Jim Lehrer who had to really exert efforts not to display his distaste for Richard Nixon when he interviewed him after Watergate.

I still think our news journalism is far from what it needs to be, but Gwen was in the vanguard, and if one had suggested that our public TV and radio could break new ground in getting beyond horse race journalism and a thumb on the scales for sensation she could have been the person to pull it off. I’m a policy researcher and an senior male but feel like I’ve lost family and have been intermittentlly teary off and on since the news broke.

Finally, congratulations to the News Hour for recognizing and giving us so much of Gwen. Please be out there looking for younger talent – especially African American – who can follow in her footsteps. Is there a foundation or a one percenter out there somewhere who could sponsor scholarships for bright high school students who show promise of cultivating the kind of talent and humanity that she had?.