They are the faces of the crisis, the scientists explaining nightly to anxious audiences how the governments they advise plan to contain the coronavirus. Unknown to most a few short weeks ago, many have since become household names. But who are they?
When Angela Merkel talks to the nation about Covid-19, she is usually flanked by the head of the Robert Koch Institut, Germany’s central public health institute. The country’s real face of the coronavirus crisis, however, is Christian Drosten, the head of virology at Berlin’s Charité hospital.
As one of the scientists who discovered the infectious agents responsible for the Sars epidemic, Drosten has immaculate credentials. The curly-haired 48-year-old also has a natural talent as a communicator that have led the Süddeutsche Zeitungmade to describe him as “the nation’s corona-explainer-in-chief”.
A daily half-hour podcast in which Drosten fields questions about the virus has attracted millions of listeners since he started it with the broadcaster NDR in mid-February. On social media, there have been joking calls for him to run for chancellor and riotous fan fiction: “Touch my face, Christian Drosten”.
Drosten made his Sars research public via the internet before it was published in scientific journal, and he has favoured similar levels of transparency during the current crisis.
He has been more pessimistic in his assessment of the risks than other virologists, suggesting up to 70% of the German population could catch the coronavirus. He has, however, also been more relaxed about what he sees as appropriate social responses given the current level of spread in Germany.
Last weekend he recommended Germans go for a walk and enjoy a good beer – although bottled beer was safer than draught, because the glass may not have been washed properly. Philip Oltermann
For the second time in Spain’s recent history, all eyes are on Fernando Simón. The lanky, unassuming epidemiologist stepped into the spotlight in 2014, after a nurse in Spain contracted Ebola when a priest was repatriated to Madrid from Sierra Leone.
The infection, the first outside Africa, put 15 people in quarantine and led to the monitoring of dozens more. As health officials scrambled to quell the spread of the deadly disease, Simón, who heads the country’s health emergency centre, conveyed calm.
As Covid-19 began its advance around the world in February, Simón stepped up again. “You can’t imagine the satisfaction that rippled through the press room when he entered,” said a journalist with La Vanguardia who praised his clear, concise explanations.
Simón has since spoken to Spaniards nearly every day. As Spain became the hardest-hit country in Europe after Italy, he has come to embody the toll the crisis is taking. Exhaustion lines his face have deepened, his wavy hair has become ever more unruly and his rasping voice has almost given out.
Spanish authorities have faced criticism for being slow to react, allowing tens of thousands to gather for International Women’s Day rallies and pack into a Madrid football stadium a week before the country went into near-total lockdown, and there have been calls for Simón to resign.
“The country is in intensive care and the doctor treating it has committed too many errors,” one researcher wrote on Twitter. Others have defended Simón by highlighting the volatility of the virus and its spread. Ashifa Kassam
Tested by Donald Trump, who demands loyalty over facts, Anthony Fauci has earned praise from the US public for telling the truth about coronavirus, even when it means contradicting the president.
As a member of the White House taskforce, Fauci has been unusually frank in his frequent news appearances and briefings. A senior figure in the government’s research agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), he was applauded after he corrected the president about how quickly a coronavirus vaccine could be made available.
Fauci, who has reported to six presidents, told Politico earlier this month: “You should never destroy your own credibility. And you don’t want to go to war with a president … But you got to walk the fine balance of making sure you continue to tell the truth.”
The Brooklyn-born doctor has been at the NIH since 1968, turning down repeated requests to lead the agency. In 1984, he was made head of its National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which researches infectious diseases such as HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and Ebola.
Some of Fauci’s most influential work contributed to the understanding of how HIV destroys the body’s defences. In a 2019 analysis of Google Scholar citations, he was the 41st most highly cited researcher of all time.
At 79, he is among those most vulnerable to developing severe coronavirus symptoms, but is reportedly working 19 hour days. A dedicated runner, he told a Yahoo News reporter that he continues to log more than three miles a day. Amanda Holpuch
The coronavirus has made the precise yet avuncular figure of Jaap van Dissel, the head of the Centre for Infectious Disease Control at the National Institute for Public Health, “Dutch doctor-in-chief”, according to the NRC Handelsblad newspaper.
During regular television appearances, his “calm authority lends credibility to the measures the government has adopted to slow the spread of the virus,” the paper said, naming him its man of the week last week.
A professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at Leiden university medical centre, Van Dissel, 62, has also been a member of the Dutch health council’s infectious diseases working group and vice-chair of the European Medicines Agency’s anti-infectives scientific advisory group.
White haired and bearded, he is frequently called upon to explain why the Netherlands is adopting a resolutely different approach to containing the coronavirus more comparable with the UK’s than many of its continental neighbours.
He explained last week to the Nieuwsuur TV programme that the aim was for the virus to “circulate among people who will not have much problem with it, while simultaneously protecting vulnerable groups as far as possible”.
The objective was to flatten the infection curve and avoid the health system being overwhelmed, while also ensuring the virus did not “bounce back” in the future, he said – meaning some 50% to 60% of the Netherlands’ 17.4 million people might need to catch it.
The approach is far from universally accepted in the country, prompting some to call Van Dissel a “mad scientist”. Jon Henley
The British public may only just have discovered Chris Whitty as the calm, clear-headed expert at the helm of the nation’s strategy to fend off coronavirus, but he has long been regarded as a star in medical circles.
A former epidemiologist, Whitty, 53, was professor of public and international health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) before being appointed chief medical officer in England and the UK government’s chief medical adviser a few months ago.
He spent much of his childhood in northern Nigeria – his father, who was shot dead in Athens when Whitty was a teenager in an apparent case of mistaken identity, worked for the British Council – and he still speaks warmly of Nigeria, colleagues say.
That may have shaped a passion for global health. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded him $40m (£31m) in 2008 for malaria research in Africa. A year later, he was appointed chief scientific adviser to the Department for International Development (DFID).
Whitty works hard. He puts in 16-hour days and has still found time to study a law degree and an MBA in his spare time. He is also accustomed to the spotlight. He was acting chief scientific adviser to the government during the novichok poisonings in Salisbury in March 2018.
“He’s an absolutely extraordinary, brilliant man,” said David Mabey, a fellow LSHTM professor. “They couldn’t have a better person in charge. He’s exactly the man we need.” Ian Sample and Lisa O’Carroll
Prof Jérôme Salomon has emerged as France’s Monsieur Coronavirus, appearing every day to give serious and credible updates on the situation.
“The prime minister wanted transparency and a permanent connection to the French people in whom they would have confidence,” a government insider told L’Obs. “Very quickly he realised Jérôme Salomon was the right person for the job.”
Salomon, 48, has been number two at the French health ministry since January 2018. He is responsible for the government’s health policy and overseeing any health crises.
He is a doctor who has specialised in public health and previously worked as a clinical manager and a hospital specialist in infections and tropical diseases. He has also carried out research into emerging diseases and epidemics, working on the 2009 H1N1 bird flu outbreak.
Salomon represents France at the World Health Organization and has worked with several French health ministers. Tipped for that job when Emmanuel Macron was elected, he lost out to Agnès Buzyn, who recently resigned to stand for election as mayor of Paris.
The former Socialist health minister Bernard Kouchner, for whom Salomon worked as an advisor in 2000, said the professor was “extremely brilliant, and has a more serious look about him than others”. Kim Willsher
Walter Ricciardi is a member of the WHO’s European advisory committee and the Italian government’s coronavirus adviser. A former president of the country’s National Health Institute, he has urged draconian measures to try to contain the virus.
A few days before the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, put the entire country under quarantine, Ricciardi told the Guardian: “The fact that the epidemic is still increasing substantially obliges us to take these measures, which of course are very extreme. I don’t think they have ever been taken in any other democratic country.”
Both principled and outspoken, Ricciardi resigned as the NHI chief in early January 2019 over the then populist government’s “anti-scientific” policies, particularly regarding vaccinations.
“It’s clear that when [Matteo Salvini, then deputy prime minister] says he, as a father, believes there are too many obligatory, useless and dangerous vaccines, that’s not just unscientific, it’s anti-scientific,” Ricciardi said at the time. “It’s an approach taken by populists who have great difficulty interacting with science.”
The previous government was led by a coalition of Salvini’s far-right League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which is now in power with the centre-left Democratic party. All parties, including the opposition, have fully supported Italy’s drastic quarantine measures, which have not, unfortunately, prevented Italy overtaking China as the centre of the largest outbreak. Angela Giuffrida
Brendan Murphy, Australia’s chief medical officer, has become a fixture on the country’s television screens, appearing alongside the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and the health minister, Greg Hunt, at daily news briefings about the coronavirus.
Murphy was supposed to step down from the role of principal medical adviser at the end of February and take up the role of health department secretary, but as Covid-19 cases climbed and the first deaths from the disease in Australia were recorded at the beginning of March, he was asked to stay on until the crisis passes.
A nephrologist, or kidney specialist, who has worked as a doctor, researcher and in health management for 40 years, he is accused by some of being unclear in his advice for managing the outbreak, including recommending that it was fine for people to continue to shake hands hours before Morrison told the country there were to be “no more handshakes”.
There was also consternation when Murphy issued advice that the prime minister and cabinet did not need to self-isolate, despite having met the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, three days before he tested positive for the coronavirus.
Dutton is believed to have contracted the virus while on a trip to the US, and those on his return flight, which occurred two days before the cabinet meeting, were asked to self-isolate. Kate Lyons