Farewell, Christian Drosten: May You Podcast No More Forever
On Tuesday, 29 March, virologist and foremost German Corona astrologer Christian Drosten went on indefinite hiatus from Coronavirus Update, his noxious state media podcast. The show was introduced on 26 February 2020, with Drosten as its centre. He starred in about 80 of its 113 episodes; from September 2020, he began alternating appearances with virologist Sandra Ciesek. Lest the oracular pronouncements of these luminaries be lost to history, Norddeutscher Rundfunk lovingly transcribed their utterances into a downloadable 1446-page document. There is every reason to fear that, one day, this monstrosity will be issued in print for the Scientific Faithful as a boxed set.
I confess that I’ve only listened to about 20 episodes of this elaborate exercise in propaganda. I can’t imagine how anybody could handle more than that. Probably never before in history, has there been a radio show so heavily promoted by the national media, that is simultaneously so devoid of content, and also so destructive to the cult of expertise, as something that can ever exist outside of politics or culture. For in all the ponderous hours that I listened, I never heard Drosten say anything that fashion-forward Twitter accounts, media pundits, and Tomas Pueyo hadn’t already said a little bit earlier.
Drosten was initially agnostic about the wisdom of closures, but after Neil Ferguson published his panic model on 16 March, he lobbied hard for lockdowns and preached the necessity of non-pharmaceutical interventions at every opportunity. In the earliest days, he didn’t think children and schools were all that important to infection dynamics; when school closures became policy, he developed a deep obsession with the virus spreading of children. No sooner had Germans elected a new, more containment-hesitant government in September 2021, than Drosten discovered a fresh interest in naturally acquired immunity, and suggested that infections in the vaccinated would be essential to building more robust immune protection.
Plainly, Drosten’s celebrity has been little more than a publicity exercise, arranged to provide scientific endorsement of whatever pandemic policies the German government alights upon. This is what, in the end, all that following the science amounts to: Governments get to do whatever they want, so long as they first find some well-credentialed scientists to say that whatever they’re doing is what the science demands. This turns out to be a lot easier than securing popular or parliamentary support for policies.
Now, for follow-the-science government, not just any scientist will do. You need an especially authoritative Media Scientist, who meets public and journalistic preconceptions of how scientific authority is enacted and embodied. Thus, the German press has spared no effort in establishing Drosten in the minds of the regime faithful as one of the world’s most eminent scientists. A deceptively worded paragraph in Zeit, for example, gave rise to the pervasive myth that Drosten discovered the SARS virus in 2003:
Drosten completed his training at the Hamburg Tropical Institute, where he managed a scoop in spring 2003: In Frankfurt, a virologist friend gave him cell material from a doctor in Singapore who had contracted SARS. Drosten raced back to Hamburg in his old Opel Omega with the cell culture in a salt block and worked for 14 days, on hardly more than three hours of sleep per night, to identify the previously unknown coronavirus – thus making it possible to fight the deadly lung disease.
Drosten did not discover SARS. He thought the pathogen was a metapneumovirus; by the time he worked out he was wrong, American scientists at the CDC had published an electron micrograph of the coronavirus responsible. He was left to create primers for PCR tests to identify the new virus. Drosten mysteriously reprised his role as test developer in January 2020, when he developed the first PCR test for the novel Coronavirus responsible for viral pneumonia cases in Wuhan – precisely as China needed infection statistics that Westerners would find credible. This shady work laid the foundations for mass testing in the West, and remains his most significant contribution to science around the pandemic. He has also loudly resisted suggestions of a lab leak, going so far as to co-author an openly misleading paper about the likelihood that the furin cleavage site in SARS-2 originated naturally.
Like many people granted an artificial renown, Drosten has proved unworthy of it, and over the past two years he has given us many odd moments.
In an early podcast episode, he confessed to a strange fear of draft beer; to avoid viruses, he said, you should stick to bottles. More recently, he revealed a bizarre lack of metaphorical aptitude, claiming that anyone who believes he can train his immune system with infection, must necessarily also believe that he can train his digestive tract by eating steak.
In May 2020, he threw together a sloppy study arguing that children are just as infectious as adults. The purpose was to provide Merkel’s government with some “research” that would speak against reopening schools, but the paper was so bad, it drew critique from other virologists as well journalists at BILD, and couldn’t be formally published for a full year. As the controversy unfolded, Drosten avoided any open exchange with his critics and defended himself dishonestly on sympathetic media platforms.
Some months later, Drosten was invited to give the Schillerrede, a speech on the occasion of Friedrich Schiller’s birthday, where he embarrassed himself anew. He claimed that Schiller would’ve been an avid mask wearer; and proposed, in an awkward allusion to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, a Pandemic Imperative, according to which everyone should live his life as if he had just tested positive for Corona and all his contacts are old and vulnerable.
While Drosten is a state media scientist who will say almost anything, on a few points he has been constant. Nothing has angered this small man more, than the Great Barrington Declaration, drafted by Martin Kulldorff, Sunetra Gupta and Jay Bhattacharya. In the year and a half since its publication, he has resorted to various slurs, not always veiled, on the qualifications and abilities of its authors. His last tweet, posted on the day he recorded his final podcast episode, equates its publication with sabotage. Given the relative unimportance of the GBD, and its failure to end the catastrophic policies that Drosten and the other Corona astrologers have supported, his animus seems strange. I can only imagine that when you have been paid to lie, it is a humiliating experience, to find yourself confronted by more honourable colleagues, who can afford to speak the truth.
Now, Drosten will not podcast anymore. He says it is because he needs time for his research. I incline to the optimistic interpretation, that he is being deliberately retired from public view, lest he persist any longer as an eternal advocate of lockdowns and vaccination mania whenever the Corona news takes a turn for the worse. Whatever the case, it can be no accident that this happens precisely as most of the other restrictions Germans have endured for the past two years have come to an end. Masking, green passes, closures, and Drosten too – all of them were part of the same political program, the same system of social, cultural and intellectual strangulation, from which we have now been released.