'How to sell an epidemic': a Marc Van Ranst conspiracy theory, explained

'How to sell an epidemic': a Marc Van Ranst conspiracy theory, explained
Credit: ESWI/vimeo screengrab

A much-discussed video of a lecture given by prominent Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst, in which he details his experiences as the country’s flu commissioner in 2009, has found itself at the heart of a conspiracy theory.

Excerpts of the video shared online - making it seem as if Van Ranst is explaining how to use a pandemic for personal gain - have sparked accusations that he is supposedly manipulating the public.

Edited clips on social media

For some time now, parts of the video taken out of context, showing Van Ranst giving a lecture at the Chatham House think tank in January 2019, have been circulating on social media.

On Youtube, a video was posted - titled 'How to sell a pandemic' - showing longer parts of Van Ranst's speech. On the first slide of the presentation shown in the video, however, a title was added to say "how to sell a pandemic/vaccine."

In the last months of 2020, several Flemish newspapers also published articles about Van Ranst's 2019 lecture, commenting on how the video corresponds to how he managed communication in the event of a new health crisis.

Mid-December, former president of the Flemish extreme-right Vlaams Belang party, Filip Dewinter, posted a compilation video with excerpts from Van Ranst's conference in London.

Van Ranst, however, replied to the tweet with a link to the complete video, adding that Dewinter's tweeted showed "a misleading compilation."

What actually happened?

On 22 January 2019, Van Ranst took part in a conference of the "Centre on Global Health Security" at Chatham House in partnership with the European Scientific Group on Influenza (ESWI).

The conference was held "to mark the 100th anniversary of the influenza pandemic and to discuss future challenges," Chatham House told RTBF. "It was a full-day event with guest speakers, including Marc Van Ranst, who spoke about communication in the event of a pandemic."

In his speech, which lasted just over 23 minutes and can be watched in full here, Van Ranst explained how he managed crisis communication during the outbreak of the swine flu in 2009.

Back then, the authorities were very concerned about the swine flu - the H1N1 virus - and they took great precautions, including the mass purchase of vaccines. However, the announced epidemic proved to be much less severe than initially feared.

In front of an audience of experts, Van Ranst explained how he made sure he was the reference point for various media during that period, using the slogan "one voice, one message."

"You have to be omnipresent, the first day or days," he said. "In order to attract the attention of the media, you make an agreement with them: you will tell them everything, and if they call you, you pick up the phone."

He explained that, by doing so, there will be maximum coverage, and the media will not look for alternative voices. "If you do that, it will be much easier to convey the message."

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Contrary to what Van Ranst is accused of, however, his aim was to have calm communication with clear explanations, in order not to overly worry the population, he told RTBF.

He stressed that this strategy had worked very well in Belgium at the time. "Our population was not as anxious as in England, France or the Netherlands, for example. Communication was well managed," he said.

"I was invited to explain the Belgian experience of managing the situation at the time, and to speak about crisis communication, because it was very much appreciated in Europe that there was no great use of fear or anxiety in our country," Van Ranst said.

"Our Belgian approach was not alarmist, we only bought one dose of vaccine and not two, and as communication manager, I explained what we were going to do, which is what you usually do with the seasonal flu. No more," He added.

Daily death count

At the conference, Van Ranst uses a light-hearted tone to talk about the necessity of preparing the country for the fact that there will be influenza-related deaths.

"Obviously, it's unavoidable. I have used that in the media: 'Seven flu deaths a day at the peak of the epidemic would be realistic'," he said. "That is true for every year, yes. That is a very conservative estimate."

However, talking about deaths is very important, according to Van Ranst, because it leads people to consider the fact that fatalities can happen. "This was a necessary step."

The whole lecture focuses on how to communicate effectively during the onset of a pandemic, not planning for one, or exaggerating the situation, as has been suggested by many.

Additionally, Van Ranst’s light-hearted tone is nothing unusual, according to Chatham House's press service. "This seems to be Mr Van Ranst's personal way of engaging his audience and provoking commitment,” they told RTBF.

While the think tank has a specific confidentiality rule in place that can be applied in different contexts during meetings or conferences, it did not apply to the conference that Van Ranst took part in, as it was filmed and a report was written afterwards (Van Ranst's contribution can be found on page 20).

What about Van Ranst's shown conflicts of interest?

Another element raised by several critics following the videos is the slide displaying the virologist's conflicts of interests. In a list displayed at the beginning of his presentation, the following firms can be seen: GSK, Sanofi-Pasteur, Merck, J&J, Abbott and Biocartis.

"I am an expert and professional in this field so I work with a lot of firms to develop and test vaccines," Van Ranst said, adding that if he is paid, it is for conferences organised by circles of general practitioners with a fee of around €100 to €250 per seminar of about one hour.

"These relationships are declared on Mdeon. It is a platform to manage relations between scientists, doctors and firms," he said.

Additionally, Van Ranst stressed that he has not received one euro of the funds paid by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The funds given to the KU Leuven are dedicated to the research work of Johan Neyts, another virologist at the KU Leuven, on antivirals to combat Covid-19.

Maïthé Chini

The Brussels Times

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