Forums
Featuring guest Francis Collins

Francis Collins | Coronavirus Updates with NIH Director

Francis Collins answers questions from listeners about the current scientific knowledge of the virus and talks about how he views the pandemic through the lens of his own faith. 


Share  
Twitter
Facebook
LinkedIn
Print
1 Comments
1 Comments
image of the Sars Cov 2 virus from NIAID

Francis Collins answers questions from listeners about the current scientific knowledge of the virus and talks about how he views the pandemic through the lens of his own faith. 

Description

With an overwhelming amount of news about the coronavirus coming out daily, we thought it would be best to go all the way to the top, with updates on the coronavirus from the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins. Francis Collins is also the founder of BioLogos and a committed Christian. In this conversation with Jim Stump, he answers questions from listeners about the current scientific knowledge of the virus and talks about how he views the pandemic through the lens of his own faith.

This conversation originally aired as a live video conversation. 

  • Originally aired on April 09, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

We’ll get right to it: Young people today are departing the faith in historic numbers as the church is either unwilling or unable to address their questions on science and faith. BioLogos is hosting those tough conversations. Not with anger, but with grace. Not with a simplistic position to earn credibility on the left or the right, but a message that is informed, faithful, and hopeful.

Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Transcript

Stump:

Welcome to the Language of God podcast. I’m your host Jim Stump. 

If you’ve been a regular listener to the podcast, you’ve probably noticed our recent episodes have been a little different in an attempt to respond to these strange times we’re living in. Well, today’s episode will sound a little different too. Rather than a studio recording like we usually do, this was originally a livestream event BioLogos put on about the current state of COVID-19 research with the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins. He was at his house in Washington DC. I was at mine in Indiana. And BioLogos president, Deb Haarsma, started the event from her house in Michigan. We connected, like so many people are these days, over a video feed on our computers. You can see the unedited video version of this conversation on the BioLogos Facebook page or YouTube page; you can find a direct link in the show notes. 

For this podcast episode, we cut right to my conversation with Francis, and then Deb joins us at the end. Besides getting the inside scoop on the latest scientific and public health issues connected to COVID-19, Francis also very openly shares about his faith and how difficult a national and worldwide crisis is. Our conversation is raw in places and authentic throughout. 

We’ll be back to more regular episodes for the next several weeks, but we think it’s important to respond to the coronavirus too so you can expect more like this in the future as well.

Let’s get to the conversation…

Interview Part One

Stump:

Thank you, Francis, for joining us. We’re very happy to be talking to you again, though, of course, we grieve the circumstances under which we’re meeting now. So how are you and your inner circle of loved ones doing now?

Collins:

We’re doing okay. Although it is a very strange time indeed, I’m here in my little home office and trying to run the NIH and all of the COVID-19 responses right here from my own little desk, surrounded by all kinds of materials, and spending a lot of time on Webexes and Zooms and everything else.

But I don’t know that I’ve ever worked harder because I got up at 4:00. I’ll be up for a few hours after this podcast. And then we’ll do it all again tomorrow at about the same time. There’s so many things that we’re trying to do to get ahead of this terrible plague and to develop the treatment and the vaccines that everybody’s waiting for.

Stump:

Yeah, so I assume that NIH can’t just stop all of the other projects it has going now, can they? But this probably does become the focus of things?

Collins:

Very much. So we have a hospital to run as well, a hospital where patients only come if they’re on a clinical trial of some sort, and now that have COVID-19, that are also in clinical trials to test some of the new therapies. And we have a lot of other research that’s going on, I’m sorry to say, I had to send most of those researchers home for their own safety. So a lot of things that would be going on in terms of research on cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease, or diabetes is kind of gone into hibernation while we’re waiting for it to be safe again, for people to gather together, because labs are places where people are in close proximity. And, right now, that’s really not what we should be doing to keep everybody safe.

Stump:

Well, what can you tell us that the scientists and researchers have learned about this virus that, say, we didn’t know a month ago or so?

Collins:

And it’s all so fresh. You know, if somebody told me in the middle of December that we would be in this circumstance, and we’d be having this conversation early in April about a virus that came out of nowhere, and has now threatened the entire globe, and taken far too many lives with, unfortunately, maybe the worst to come in the United States, I wouldn’t have possibly imagined it could happen. We all knew that we were overdue for some kind of pandemic. We thought it would be influenza. We knew about SARS and we knew about MERS because they are also coronaviruses. And they scared us when they happened. But they burned out fairly quickly, or were contained by careful public health measures, and never had the stretch across the globe that we now see with COVID-19.

Stump:

So is the difference with this?

Collins:

You know, I think the major difference is: this is a virus, it’s incredibly infectious. And it can be transmitted by people who don’t even have any symptoms. Some of them aren’t even going to get any symptoms at all. They’ll have the infection and never feel sick. Some of them are infected and they are spreading the virus for a few days, and then they start to feel sick. But it makes it very hard to try to figure out how to stop the transmission when you don’t know who’s got it until they’ve already passed it on. That was not the case with SARS or MERS. But that’s the case with this.

Stump:

So what are you learning? 

Collins:

Yeah. Well, it’s such a simple little virus. You know, for me, it’s got a genome—that nucleic acid instruction book. It’s only 30,000 letters long. That’s it. Your genome and mine, Jim, are 3 billion letters long. So this little virus is 1,000th of 1% of the length of our genome. And, yet, it has rendered us in a terrible situation here in a very difficult and defensive position. So those… Yeah, those 30,000 letters are packed full of all kinds of clever protein sequences that allow this virus to get into the cells in the lung in a lock and key fashion. They have a protein on the surface of this virus, a spike protein because it looks like a spike. And it finds a cell in your body that has another protein called Ace 2, and the two of them just come right together, and then the virus jumps into the cell, and away you go. And it’s designed to replicate itself with great efficiency. And that’s what we are now seeing with such rapid spread. And, particularly, for older people and people who have chronic illnesses, then, a great danger of severe disease. Even to the point of being in an ICU on a ventilator, and, sadly, many of those people losing their lives.

Stump:

What are the most important things that you hope to learn here in the near future for how we might combat this better?

Collins:

Yeah. Well, the big push right now has to be to figure out how to treat people who are sick with this. There are some interesting ideas out there, much talk about this drug hydroxychloroquine which, unfortunately, at the present time we don’t know that much about. They’ve been some anecdotal reports of potential benefits and very small series. But for me, as a physician scientist, I would in no way be willing to say that we know that works yet. So we are in the process of running the appropriate randomized, very rigorous trials to see whether it provides benefit because it’s not a drug without side effects. There’s another drug called Remdesivir which was actually developed for other viral infections, including Ebola, but seems to have some of the right properties here. We’re running a big trial on that as well. Maybe in another month or so we might get a sense about whether that works. 

And there’s a lot of interest in using the immune system. And, particularly, to figure out if people who’ve recovered from COVID-19, could their antibodies that they must have generated in order to survive, get transferred to somebody who’s fighting the illness? So it’s an old idea from many decades ago. You get plasma from somebody who’s actually been cured by natural means, and you give that to somebody who’s struggling. And we’re doing that too. All those things in the works. 

But I would say right now, one of my challenges is I get probably four or five really interesting ideas every day from somebody who says I think I know what you need. It’s this particular compound, or it’s this particular idea about an immune system, or a new idea for a vaccine. And we have so many of these, sorting them through and figuring out which are the right ones to prioritize is a challenge. That means we got all hands on deck. I am working very closely now with pharmaceutical companies, with biotech companies, with the FDA. So we can all sort through the possibilities together and move as fast as we can.

Stump:

So some people are asking already in the comment section, how far away from a vaccine do you think we are?

Collins:

Well, my dear colleague and friend, Tony Fauci, who you have seen on every news program if you’re watching, is the most remarkable expert in infectious disease in the world and has been overseeing this kind of effort, now, for more than 30 years. So when Tony answers the question, listen carefully. You’re going to get the straight scoop. Tony is a truth teller. And we have, in terms of the vaccine approach, already broken all records in terms of getting a vaccine started considering we didn’t even know about this virus until January. In 63 days we went from the first glimmer of what the virus was to injecting the first patients in a phase one trial that happened to be in Seattle. And everybody thought, oh, we’re almost there. Well, that’s not how it works. You got to see was it safe, that it actually raised antibodies that might be protective? And then you’ve got to do a larger trial to see if it really was effective and if it prevented illness. And Tony would say, and I’ve pushed him on this, that even flat out, it takes a year, maybe a year and a half, to get a vaccine completely through the proofing tests and also to expand the capacity because we might need a billion doses of this vaccine, and that’s no small scale up. What that means is though the vaccine is going to be the ultimate solution to COVID-19, we’re not going to have it for many months, and we’re going to have to come up with other ways to cope with this current big concern in the US with many cases. And then, maybe, if we get through that, concerns about another wave that might happen in the fall if we all go back to living life in a normal way, and then discover there’s a lot of us that are still susceptible. We’re already thinking a lot about how to handle that.

Stump:

Do you know anything too, on that count, about the possibility of mutation of this virus, that we start to get different strains of it, the way we do with the seasonal flu? Is that a possibility?

Collins:

It’s a concern. So far, there’s not any evidence that that has been happening. Of course, this virus has only been floating around the world, as far as we can measure it, for maybe three or four months. Yeah, it picks up mutations. It’s an RNA virus. It’s supposed to. All of them do, but it’s not clear or providing it any different advantage as far as its danger to us. So, at the moment, it looks like, as RNA viruses go, it’s fairly typical. It doesn’t look like one of those that’s going to be rampant and its ability to change its coat and fool our immune systems responses.

Stump:

What else can you tell us about how it’s transmitted and the effectiveness, say, of masks? For instance, Bill from Maryland is asking, “Give us the scoop on face masks and the usefulness of a simple cloth mask all the way up through the N95.”

Collins:

Yeah, I’d be glad to. So it does get transmitted through the air by people coughing, and sneezing, and, most recently, even by speaking. You have an investigator at NIH using laser technology is able to show that simply by saying the words “stay healthy,” you’re producing a large number of droplets that are capable of carrying virus. That’s the main argument, then, for why we should be wearing masks out in public because even by saying hello to somebody if you’re not six feet away, and sometimes you aren’t when you’re paying at the cashier, you need something to block that transmission of those droplets. People need to understand, though, we’re being asked to wear masks—and I wear one whenever I go out, which is unfortunately rarely—not because I’m protecting myself. These cloth masks don’t really do much there. I’m protecting somebody else on the chance that I’m already infected, and I don’t know it from contaminating them. 

So this is another thing we can all do. Staying six feet apart is a critical thing we can all do. Washing your hands because it’s so easy to pick this up, until they get kind of chapped like mine. Coughing into your sleeve. All of those things that we’ve been, I think, now beginning to catch on. But, mostly, staying away from each other, no gatherings greater than 10. And better, no gatherings at all. And that’s painful. We all love our opportunities to have fellowship, to be together, to go to book clubs, and go to parties together. And this is unfortunately the worst thing we could be doing, including going to church, which is another place where many of these infections have been spread. 

Now, you asked about the N95. If you’re a health care provider, you’re exposed to people who are infected. And, there, you need to be protected from them. And that means you need a mask that has the kind of ability to block the virus coming at you. And that’s what the N95 and the other kinds of, so called, PPE, personal protective equipment, is all about, and we need to be sure our healthcare providers have access to that. And that’s a bit of a scary situation when this is coming on so fast. Noot every hospital is well prepared to be sure that our docs and our nurses are taken care of as far as the PPE. Working really hard on that right now.

Stump:

So the news out of New York today was starting to sound a little bit better, that new infections and hospitalizations have leveled off, at least for right now. Is that a sign that these social distancing measures are working? Or is it that it’s not going to be as bad as we feared? Do we know yet?

Collins:

I don’t know with just a couple days of seeing this stabilizing that we could absolutely for sure say that that trend will continue. But it is encouraging because, until then, every day it was worse than the day before with the number of hospitalizations, the number of deaths. I think, though, one could begin to look at this and say, it looks as if there is now evidence that the social distancing, which seemed so drastic at the time, is actually starting to work because you don’t expect it to work right away. You expect it to work maybe in two or three weeks after people really start staying at home. Because during that two or three week period that people are already infected are going to end up in the hospital a week or 10 days later, no matter what you do, so you’re not going to see a change in the trajectory. But two or three weeks after that, if the number of people who got newly infected was knocked way back by staying away from each other, then you might start to see what we are seeing a glimmer of in New York. And I hope and pray that continues. Recognize, of course, that New York is ahead of the rest of the country. Many other parts of the country that didn’t start the social distancing quite as early, when you look at their curves, the worst may still well be ahead for them.

Stump:

So the $64,000 question that lots of people are asking like, Wilbert for Michigan here: “What’s your best guess on how long this is gonna last? Two months? Six months?”

Collins:

You know, we don’t get to decide that. The virus, kind of, is going to let us know how it plays out. But we do get to influence it in a big way. And if we can stick to these measures—which I know many people found to be really quite painful of staying away from each other and keeping those interactions down and the new infections down, then I think models would suggest that by sometime this summer—we may be well past the peak of this in most places. You look at what happened… Was done in China, admittedly, in a very authoritarian government, they did things top down. We’re trying to do them bottom up by basically asking our amazing American people to recognize the risks here and to take their own responsibility for doing what Chinese were told they better do. So good for us. We have the right kind of country with the right kind of approach, but it does mean the responsibility falls heavy on all of us to be the strong link and not the weak link. But I would be guardedly optimistic that by sometime this summer we will start to take a breath of relief. But I would think it would be a terrible mistake for us to jump out of here in terms of our social distancing too soon. 

Again, this could come roaring back. Most of us will not have been exposed. We will not be immune. It will only take a few cases to start the whole thing over again. What many of us think we’re going to want and need when it’s time to go back into the workplace and back out into the cities in the streets, because we’re going to want to have massively available testing so we really know who’s infected. And we also know who has an antibody that says they had this disease already. They’re probably in pretty good shape. 

They are the new invincibles. They can pretty much not worry about their risks of exposure, those tests are coming along very fast. And, so, imagine that, where we have that kind of opportunity to know with a whole community, who’s infected, make sure they stay apart, who’s immune, and who are all the rest of us who are neither of the above, whose health needs to be protected by making sure we’re not exposed to the sick people. That’s what we’re going to need to happen. This is going to be a little different. And people may, in some sense, feel like their privacy is being invaded by having all these tests done on them and have those known, at least in an anonymized way to government leaders. But that’s how we’re going to get past this.

Stump:

Here’s a section of questions I’m calling skepticism and conspiracies. Let’s start with the latter. 

Collins:

I’m used to those too.

Stump:

How do we know this virus wasn’t manufactured in a lab in China and released, either unintentionally or maybe accidentally, instead of the story we get through the news?

Collins:

There have been a lot of those conspiracy theories around. And, you know, it was not a crazy idea when this first burst onto the scene to say, “Where did this come from?” And, particularly, because there is a virology lab right there in Wuhan, some people wanted to jump to the conclusion, there must be a connection there. Of course, there’s virology labs in other places too, but there it was. I can tell you on this one, and, here, I’m going to advertise my blog. If you look at the NIH Director’s blog, which I put out every Tuesday and every Thursday, one of them a couple weeks ago was about this very topic. Because now we have the complete DNA, or it’s an RNA sequence of this virus, we can compare it to every other similar virus that has ever been described. And, it turns out, initially, it was most similar to a virus from a bat in a cave in China. More recently, it’s closer to a virus in a pangolin, which is a fascinating little mammal in China. And it does look like it’s very plausible that this virus has been floating around in other animal species and jumped over to humans. 

Now, if you look at the details, if you were trying to design a more dangerous coronavirus, you would never have designed this one. Because it has some properties that make it look like everything we knew before. It wouldn’t work, it wouldn’t be very infectious at all. Turns out, it’s really infectious, but you would not have known that. So I think one could say with great confidence that in this case, the bioterrorist was nature, and, in its own way, which has been going on for centuries, as viruses that can jump from species and occasionally into us. And that’s often where serious trouble starts, whether it’s influenza or whether now it’s COVID-19. But humans did not make this one, nature did. 

Stump:

All right, I guess that’s good to know. What about some of the questions that are less conspiracy driven, but genuinely skeptical from people who are maybe confused by conflicting claims. Or even whose experience doesn’t necessarily seem to match what they see on the news. For example, I’m in a small town in Indiana, where, as of this morning, my county has 36 positive cases, but the economic impacts here have been severe. Is it really necessary for rural America where the population density is so much less than New York City? Is it really necessary for all of us here even to be shutting down our businesses and social distancing?

Collins:

It’s a very appropriate question. And I totally get it when people would wonder about whether this very broad application of social distancing makes sense. I think most people do see how it makes sense in an urban place like New York, or where I am in Washington, DC, or in New Orleans right now where you’re really, really seeing a great deal of trouble getting started. But even in those less populated areas, there are cases, you said you have some. And those will also be readily transmitted by people who get together. In a way, your community there is in the best position to take advantage of social distancing, because it hasn’t gotten out of control yet. And you may never have to go through the big peak where lots of people are in the ICU and some of them are dying because you headed that off by taking action before it was already widespread. So yeah, when people asked me about social distancing, I’d say I want to be in the place where we started too soon. I don’t want where we started too late, or even just on time. I wanted to be there when it was not really necessary because that’s what’s really going to save the lives

Stump:

Can I push a little further here though into the economic question and give voice to concerns I’ve heard about whether the very real financial sacrifices are really necessary and even worth it? That’s been crassly put sometimes as a kind of calculation for how much money we should spend on one human life. But there is a real tension here, isn’t there, between competing goods? I’m curious how you might weigh these kinds of questions, both as a follower of Jesus who affirms the sanctity of human life, but also as a public servant. Is there a limit to how much of the public’s money we should spend to save one human life?

Collins:

These are really serious questions. And there’s no question that there’s a great deal of pain and suffering going on in our country on the basis of economic downturn that has happened drastically and unexpectedly, and many families really hit very hard with that people have lost their jobs. People are in circumstances of certain desperation, the Congress is trying to come up with ways to provide some benefit. But, still, there’s a great deal of hurt going on. And some of that may even have health consequences, so that when we talk about, okay, purely on the basis of public health, we need to do everything we can to prevent even one more case of COVID-19. But if that leads to people having other mental health crises like suicide, that’s not necessarily a good trade off either. 

We have to pay close attention to that. But, when it comes to the dollars and cents, you know, I am a Christian. I do pay close attention to the way in which Jesus, in all of his parables and all the way he lived his life, emphasized the value of every human life. And to put a dollar figure on that and to say, well, okay, this just costs too much to save that next 70 year old who’s otherwise going to be at risk, we just got to let them go. I can’t go there. And that’s because I’m a Christian. It’s probably also partly because I’m a physician. But I don’t think most people would feel all that comfortable with that trade off. 

We are going to go through a lot of economic pain. We’re going to do that together. We’re going to do that because we believe in the value of the individual. We’re going to celebrate all the people who survived and all the people who didn’t have to get sick because we did what we did. And then we’re going to get back on our feet. And we’re going to show the whole world what America is really like when we get unleashed again.

Stump:

Yeah, it’s hard to imagine Jesus saying we ought to let the least of these die so the rest of us could have a standard of living that we’ve become accustomed to right.

Collins:

It doesn’t sound like one of his parables.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi listeners. Thanks for listening to this rebroadcast of our special live recording with Francis Collins. If you want to hear more from Francis Collins he’s also the guest on some of our other podcast episodes, including the very first episode. In that interview he tells the story of his coming to faith and talks about his work with the Human Genome Project. You can also find this conversation in video form on our Facebook and YouTube pages. And if you want more resources on the coronavirus, we also have podcast episodes on that topic as well as many articles on the website, biologos.org. Now back to the conversation. 

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Okay, let’s talk about faith a little bit more. This is Holy Week, right? I’m guessing more Christians have participated in a Lenten denial of self this year than most, but, also, our Lenten coronavirus sacrifices aren’t going to be ending at Easter. It doesn’t look like most churches are not going to be meeting, at least they shouldn’t be. And what does this pandemic look like to you when viewed through the eyes of faith? Or, let me ask it this way. One of the one of the reporters from Christianity Today asks it like this, “As one who believes the natural world is God’s creation, how does a virus fit into a creation that’s been described in the Bible as very good?”

Collins:

Well, very good. But let’s remember as Christians, that we humans took certain action, and what would have been perfect is no longer so. There was the fall. And we are surrounded, therefore, by images of things that should be perfect and beautiful, but often don’t quite make it in that regard. And some of that is by our own doing. People will try to look around and say, “Who’s to blame for this virus coming out there? If we hadn’t been so careless about how we mix humans and animals together, might we have avoided the transmission?” I don’t know that that’s a helpful perspective. John Polkinghorne, who’s a physicist and a Christian, when pressed about this whole concept of the kind of evil that causes great human suffering, in this case, a viral pandemic, in other cases, an earthquake, a tsunami, that takes the lives of many innocent people. He uses this phrase of physical evil. These are things that because God created the universe with certain natural laws, and couldn’t just step in, and interfere every time something was about to go slightly in the wrong direction. Those natural laws do in fact require matter and energy to behave in certain ways. And sometimes that results in things that we see as suffering. I don’t know that I’m terribly satisfied with that. But, as a scientist, I can see where he’s going.

But I also think we Christians also have to recognize that our story has been a story of suffering. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last. Tom Wright wrote in Time magazine a couple of weeks ago, an essay about coronavirus and Christianity. And he talked about the long tradition of Christian lament, that we are a faith that are used to things not going the way that we hoped they would, and to try to learn from that. And our great comfort is that God also laments with us. We serve a suffering Savior. If we think our suffering is unmatched by any other creature, we have only to think about Jesus. And it’s not particularly reassuring to anybody to, at a time like this, recognize that this might be an opportunity also of spiritual growth, but I think it probably could be. Maybe it has been a bit for me already. I’m struggling with this too. It breaks my heart.

Stump:

Can I ask a little further about that on the personal side of things? About how does your faith inform you during a crisis like this in your personal life and your vocation?

Collins:

Yeah. It’s a struggle. Because as somebody who has modeled myself after an effort to use science, to reduce suffering, and to find healing for people who are searching for it—whether it’s medical healing or spiritual healing, healing of some sort—and now, here, we have something coming across which is going in exactly the opposite direction. I guess my calling then feels like, as a public servant and as a Christian, to try to marshall the tools of science to counter that. And that’s my prayer every morning that I will find a path forward to do that with God’s help. 

I’m fond of Joshua, the wonderful verse from Joshua, first chapter, “Be strong and courageous.” Because I need that because, sometimes, I’ll tell you, I get discouraged. I get down. My wife and I talked about how I don’t know that we have so much in the way of fear. At least I don’t name it that, or even anxiety, it’s grief. It’s grief at what’s out so suddenly, and what is costing so many people, what it’s costing us. And trying to figure out how to cope with that and turn that into something in a way of increased self knowledge as well as actions. And we all want to do actions. That’s another challenging part of this. We all want to go out and rush into the fire to help the people who are in danger, and, yet, we have to stay home because it wouldn’t be safe to go rush toward this suffering unless you happen to be a healthcare provider. I guess I’m rambling a little bit because I don’t have an easy here. And maybe someday I’ll be able to discover it. But if, if Tom Wright hasn’t got it yet, I’m probably in trouble.

Stump:

Anyway, any practical advice, then, for churches during this time? How do we balance our desire to meet together for Easter, to be with each other physically, with what our calling ought to be during this pandemic?

Collins:

Yeah, well, I do think churches are a critical part of the support system for all believers and ought to be more present than ever at a time of crisis. It’s, just, they’re deprived of the face to face interaction that so often is part of that. Many churches, of course, are adjusting to that by having their services carried out and then broadcast over the internet so that people can participate in the worship, even if they can’t be there in person. I know many pastors who are making themselves available 24/7 for counseling advice for people who are struggling. I know churches who are trying to come up with ways that they can corporately do something. Maybe make cloth masks for people who need them. Or have a plan to identify people who are shut-ins, especially older people who dare not go out, and find out what do they need, go to the grocery store, and leave it on their front steps. There’s so many opportunities that we can do here. And doing those things, I think, generally adds to your sense that you’re accomplishing something and it doesn’t feel quite so bleak. 

So, also, this is a moment for all of us to redouble our efforts in prayer, and in reading the Scripture, and trying to understand what God might be teaching us, and how does this fit with all the suffering that others put through. I have my own little list of scriptures that I have up on my wall to remind me when I’m having a bad moment. Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Not way back when. Not maybe sometime. A very present help in trouble. We’re in trouble. We need a very present help. God is our refuge and strength. There you go. 

In Jesus’ own words in John 14, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled. Neither let them be afraid.” Well, a lot of people are feeling troubled and afraid. Jesus is saying no, I have something better. I have peace for you. That means I have to go and find it sometimes when I think okay, for right now I’m in charge. This is a good moment for all of us to recognize we are not in charge. One of my favorite verses in the Bible, which is one that puzzled me greatly when I first became a Christian at age 27, is about how our weakness is what God depends upon. “My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.” When we’re oppressed, when we’re in crisis, our weakness comes through. And then God has the opportunity to fill that gap. And we begin to realize what that relationship really means, and who we are, and how we really need to follow our Savior and not our own individual wishes on that day. I forget that probably several times a week.

Stump:

Thank you for that. Let me grab a few more questions from some of the listeners out there. Here’s Brad in Florida. He says, “The physical health impact of the pandemic has justifiably been the focus of our country’s efforts today. However, what are we doing about the mental health aspect of the pandemic? Police departments are reporting that calls related to mental health, like domestic abuse, and overdose, and suicides are up significantly. What can we do to tackle the mental health crisis that results from COVID-19?”

Collins:

It’s a very serious question, and one that I’ve worried about a lot. And, of course, we NIH also have an institute that studies mental health. And the director of that, Josh Gordon, and I recently made a video about this. In fact, I can advertise my blog one more time, because tomorrow in my blog, there will be a transcript of the video that Josh and I did about this very issue. What can people do as they’re being sequestered at home to deal with their own stresses, especially if they have a history of some mental health challenges? And how can they stay safe? If you look back at previous situations in our country, maybe it was the depression, maybe it was 9/11. Interestingly, in the shorter term, people seemed to cope pretty well, except for those who are already in significant circumstances with mental health stresses. But, in the longer term, this can take quite a toll. And, so, yes, our health system needs not just to think about who needs a respirator, but also needs that kind of support.

Stump:

Some of the other questions, here, back to the science of this. What is known about whether infected individuals can get sick again, or any updates on antibody tests and their effectiveness to determine who is already added, perhaps even asymptomatically?

Collins:

You have great questions coming from the listeners. That is one very hot topic. There are anecdotes, but they’re not very convincing of people who got reinfected with COVID-19 after they had recovered. I don’t know that we quite accept that is a real possibility. Those look like people maybe who never quite got over it and had a bit of a relapse. So we are going to be able to figure this out because the tests for antibodies are now coming out. The FDA approved the first one just a few days ago, and there’ll be multiple others. And, as I said a little earlier, we’re going to want to have everybody tested to find out who has those antibodies because they are probably in a pretty good place to feel safe from future infection, at least for a while. We don’t know what the duration of that is. If you look at other coronaviruses, like the common cold, now there’s lots of them. It’s not clear how long the immunity lasts, and, obviously, this is critical for the vaccine. The vaccine aims to try to generate that same kind of immunity without you actually having to have the disease. And we want to know how long will the vaccine last or will you need another dose or booster at some other time.

Stump:

On the same theme here, Jennifer in Maryland asks, “Are nearly all of us eventually going to get COVID-19? So the strategy of physical distancing is really meant just to spread out the timespan of when we all get it? Or will these measures actually prevent a substantial number of people from getting the disease?”

Collins:

It’s both. I think everybody has heard the phrase flattening the curve. Because if you want your healthcare system to be able to deal with the very sickest, you don’t want them to all hit you at once when you don’t have enough ICU beds and enough ventilators. So the idea of trying to space out the time over which people got infected, so called flatten the curve, could be a way to save a lot of lives. But you are also preventing some people from getting infected at all. I’m hoping not to get infected, by the way. And if I hadn’t taken on social distancing and was living my normal life out there mixing and mingling with all sorts of people right here in Washington, DC area, I would not be at all confident that I wouldn’t be sick by now. So the ultimate goal really, though, for Jennifer, is to try to figure out: how can we keep as many people healthy as possible until the vaccine is available? If the vaccine works, as well as we hope it will, then you won’t ever have to have COVID-19. We’ll be done with that. That’s the goal.

Stump:

Just like some of us have never had to have polio, right? 

Collins:

Yes. That is how this works. It’s a great example. And, by the way, I guess I haven’t heard a lot of people in this situation saying, well, let’s just not take vaccines because they’re dangerous and we shouldn’t shouldn’t be using them. Suddenly, that conversation has changed as people see that our best hope in a situation like this is a vaccine. So let’s hurry up and get it and distribute it to everybody.

Stump:

That’s an interesting topic. And I’ve wondered, too, whether some people who have had some distrust of science, whether this might be changing that national conversation at all? Have you seen any inclination of an uptick in people trusting the scientists now?

Collins:

I think it’s still variable. I think science, for the most part, does seem to be the kind of information that people are interested in. But it’s not always possible to be sure who is giving you the straight scoop. Social media, these days, can provide you with all kinds of claims that appear to be scientific, but they’re so… I guess, the hard part is sorting out what’s the truth. And, of course, the real way to find out is to go to the NIH website because we are probably the most trusted place for a well validated, rigorous scientific data about medicine. But there’s lots of other sources out there. Again, I have to come back to my friend Tony Fauci. And the fact that he has become sort of a cult at the moment. Tony is a cult figure because he tells the truth. And he’s the epitome of a scientist, a public servant who’s been dedicated for decades to trying to get rid of infectious diseases from the world, and who is incapable of doing anything other than just telling you the truth straight out and in a very acceptable, interpretable, accessible way. And that’s the model that I think people have been looking for. And they’ve sure got it in Tony.

Stump:

Let me sneak in one more kind of ethical question. And I see somebody wanted… Somebody in the audience has asked about guidelines being considered for who gets a respirator. And, God forbid, that in our hospital situation doesn’t become like we saw in the news, as it was in Italy, where there just aren’t enough to go around, and doctors are having to decide which patients to treat and which patients don’t get treated. How do those decisions get made in hospitals or on the ground among the doctors and nurses who are there working with these patients?

Collins:

If they have to get made, and I pray to God they will not have to be in this country which has so many resources, then they must be made with the greatest difficulty by people whose hearts are breaking when we have to make that kind of call. But again, these are great test questions in an ethics course. We didn’t think they would ever have to become a reality. So, if you’re the doc, and you’ve got two patients. And one of them is 75 and has multiple chronic diseases. And the other, you know, 45 and has a couple of high school kids, and otherwise, not much in the way that’s medically wrong. Which one is going to get the ventilator? Well, you have a tough question there. They both should, of course. I again… It breaks my heart to think that we are having this kind of a conversation where such a decision might have to be necessary in the United States of America.

Stump:

Our time is nearly out and I know you need to get on the phone with Dr. Fauci, here again, evening still. 

Collins: 

Our nightly call.

Stump:

And let me end on one more question from a Christianity Today reporter, again, that is that you were asked in another interview about your own faith in these days. And you answered how you are relying on prayer. What specifically would you encourage us to pray for right now?

Collins:

There are so many things. But first and foremost, I pray for those health care providers who are putting themselves in harm’s way at great risk to themselves. Many of them, now also quarantined from their own families because they’re afraid to go home for fear that they might be passing the virus along. These are sacrificial times for those people, and many of them do, in fact, take the risk and some. Many have died in other parts of the world. Hopefully that will not be the case here in any significant numbers. 

I pray for all those families who have lost their jobs who are in severe economic distress, wondering how long this is going to go on, and trying to find some sort of source of support. I pray for my researchers who are working night and day to try to put everything together to come up with a treatment, come up with a vaccine, something that will save lives, you’ve never met people more dedicated and fired up than these folks are, and I worry about them in terms of burning themselves out. 

And, I guess, I pray for the church, that this would be a time where people would find the kind of reassurance, and support, and spiritual nurture from their church fellowships at a time where they are greatly needed. Even at a time where the typical ways that churches tried to do that are under considerable stress because of distancing. And of course, I pray for myself that I would understand something about what’s happening here and learn from it. And try to be strong and courageous as Joshua 1:9 encourages me to be and not to grow weary because it is worrying sometimes. I just don’t know what it is. Yeah.

Stump:

If we could end on the note you mentioned of praying for healthcare providers. We got an email earlier today from one of our supporters, Julia. She was hoping to join tonight but might not be able to because she’s a physician at Columbia Hospital in New York City and has been deployed to work overnight shifts in ICU triage. She said that you came to her med school graduation and even sang a song with your guitar. I want to just read a few words that she wrote to us just today about this situation. She said, “I recite Psalm 121 every time I cross the bridge into the hospital from my office. I’ll be carrying… I’ll be carrying the prayers of the BioLogos community as I try to bring this sweet aroma of Christ and the groans of the Holy Spirit to all the souls crying out in the epicenter. Please pray for us all.”

Interview Part Three

Stump:

Let’s bring Deb back in and maybe close our time together here by doing just that, praying for people like Julia and many, many others who are in the situations right now

Collins:

Oh yeah, blessings on Julia. She’s my spiritual penpal. 

Haarsma:

Ah, indeed. We have so many things we can be praying for. So let us turn to God in prayer at this time.

Dear Heavenly Father, we know you are sovereign, and we know you are good. But it is hard to see that in the midst of this. We lament, and we grieve the suffering and the loss. Show us your goodness and your sovereignty even now. You told Joshua to be strong and courageous. Please strengthen our faith. Show us your presence. Give us that peace to replace our fear. May this be a time when all of us turn to you more fully, and we realize that you are in charge, that we cannot make it on our own. We need you, and we need each other. We pray for Julia, and her colleagues here in New York, and in so many places are putting themselves in harm’s way. Give them endurance, and energy, and safety. Give them wisdom if they have to make difficult choices. 

Give them connection with their families, even when they’re isolated. Lord, we pray you will bring healing to the sick. Bless those who are working to find treatments and vaccines. Bless Francis Collins. Bless Tony Fauci. Bless so many others who are working on this and are setting direction for the country. Help us all to be faithful and do what we can do in keeping our physical distance even when it costs us. Bless our efforts to slow the spread so that others might live. Help us find deep social connections with others and reduce loneliness. Help us to be the church. 

We lean on you, Lord. And let us pray in the words of Psalm 46, “You, oh God, are our refuge and strength, and ever present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth giveaway and the mountains fall into the sea. The Lord Almighty is with us. The God of Jacob is our fortress.” In the strong name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

Stump:

Amen. Thank you. 

Collins:

Thank you so much. Thanks to both of you for what you do every day to lead BioLogos and help people coming to a sense of peace and harmony about how science and faith are all part of God’s creation.

Haarsma:

Indeed.

[musical interlude]

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote work spaces and the homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. 


Featured guest

BioLogos - Francis Collins

Francis Collins

Francis Collins is one of the world's leading scientists and geneticists, and the founder of BioLogos, where he is now a Senior Fellow. In his early scientific career, he discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis. Then he led an international collaboration that first mapped the entire human genome. For that work he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. In 2008 he was appointed to his current role as Director of the National Institutes of Health, where he has been overseeing the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2006, Collins wrote the best-selling book The Language of God. It tells the story of his journey from atheism to Christian belief, showing that science actually enhances faith. The tremendous response to the book prompted Collins to found BioLogos. He envisioned it as a forum to discuss issues at the intersection of faith and science and to celebrate the harmony found there. His reputation quickly attracted a large network of faith leaders, including Tim Keller, Philip Yancey, and NT Wright. These and others joined the BioLogos conversation and affirmed the value of engaging science as believers. BioLogos is now an organization that reaches millions around the world. In celebration of his world-class scientific accomplishments and deep Christian faith, Collins was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2020. It honors individuals who are "harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” He joined a prestigious group of previous winners, including Mother Teresa, Francis Ayala, Charles Townes, Desmond Tutu, and Billy Graham.

1 posts about this topic

Join the conversation on the BioLogos forum

At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.

Join the Conversation