Public health expert Leana Wen, MD, didn’t speak at the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting in Boston this week because of credible threats against her, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
Wen was slated to speak at a panel discussion that focused on countering backlash against public health.
Groups reportedly planned to create a scene by shouting down speakers and preventing the panel from continuing, and there were reports that Wen could be accosted in a bathroom, sources said.
In August, two days after a Texas man was sentenced to 6 months in prison for threatening Wen, charges were unsealed against Massachusetts resident Philip Lee Sullivan, Jr. for allegedly making threats against her, according to reports.
Sullivan allegedly sent Wen an email that said, “Keep pushing your thoughts and you will end up in pieces. This is a promise from ‘a specific cartel.’ We have been paid half to keep eyes on you.”
It’s not clear whether Sullivan is currently in custody.
Session moderator Alfredo Morabia, MD, PhD, did not replace Wen on the APHA panel and purposely left an open chair for her.
“I have not replaced Dr. Wen because I did not want to leave any doubts that I was going to have her in the panel and I disagreed with the campaign that has been waged against her,” Morabia, who is also the editor-in-chief of APHA’s American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), told MedPage Today.
Wen’s participation in the meeting drew attention over the summer when a petition circulated calling on APHA to pull her from the panel. Dissenters took issue with her views on reducing COVID precautions, and called for replacing Wen with “someone whose work is consistent with anti-racist, anti-eugenicist public health practices and community health.”
The petition itself faced backlash, particularly for its eugenics reference. Detractors have argued that removing COVID restrictions will hurt the most vulnerable populations in the U.S., amounting to eugenics by causing more deaths in these vulnerable populations. But some experts, at the time, said the comment went too far.
Wen provided a statement to APHA to be read during the panel discussion, which she shared with MedPage Today.
“Formulating public health policy is complex and challenging, and requires an open exchange of views,” Wen said in the statement. “I was looking forward to a robust discussion on the topic of backlash against public health officials. Unfortunately, there are some people who have made their wishes known that they oppose such crucial civil discourse.”
The statement also noted that Wen and her family have received threats throughout the pandemic. The most visible one resulted in a Texas man being sentenced to 6 months in federal prison for sending Wen threatening messages, including “Never going to take your wonder drug. My 12 gauge promises I won’t,” and “I’m a 5th generation U.S. Army veteran and a sniper … I can’t wait for the shooting to start,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
APHA executive director Georges Benjamin, MD, said it was concerning that Wen seems to be targeted by both extremes of the political spectrum.
“She has had threats from the anti-mask community and others, but this is from the other side of the political spectrum,” Benjamin said, referring to the reports about shouting down speakers at APHA. “It just tells us how terrible our culture is becoming, that we can’t have an honest scientific debate about the things we disagree on.”
“We are disappointed that anyone planning to attend our meeting would feel so threatened that they feel uncomfortable coming,” he added.
Morabia also expressed concern about the state of U.S. politics, particularly about threats from the far right, in an email to MedPage Today.
“This is extremely worrisome,” he wrote. “We have several times stressed in AJPH that the fascist threat in the U.S. is real.”
“The growing violence against public health officials, the failed coup of Jan. 6, the contempt of science and truth, the physical threats following a calumnious campaign against a public health person such as Dr. Wen because allegedly she expresses opinions some may disagree with — all these phenomena are undermining our democratic institutions and paving the way to some sort of authoritarian regime,” he added.