With the second anniversary of COVID-19’s emergence drawing near, Howler recently reached out to one of Costa Rica’s leading sources of pandemic information over the past 23 months. Dr. Christian Marin-Müller is a founding member of the Scientific Ethics Committee for the Ministry of Health, and a founding member of CRBiomed, the biomedical cluster of Costa Rica. He is also a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, the Aspen Institute and the Central American leadership initiative. In addition, he is the Executive Director of Speratum CR.
Dr. Marin-Müller’s responses to my questions appear below.
How did you find yourself as the reference point for COVID information in Costa Rica?
Yeah, well, it was kind of pure serendipity. I have a doctorate in virology, molecular virology and microbiology from Baylor College of Medicine. And I’ve worked with several different viruses before, but my core focus for the past decade has been on cancer.
And it just so happened [back in February 2020] that I was sitting with my brother. We were watching TV and watching the news. And I had mentioned to him, “You know, I think this virus is gonna get pretty serious. And I think we need to prepare. It’s going to get pretty rough, it’s really contagious.”
And, you know, we were sitting there, and he started looking on Twitter. And he sent me a tweet from somebody that had, like, 15,000 followers — a big business person here in Costa Rica. And he was basically saying, “Ignore what the government is telling you; they’re trying to repress you. Don’t listen to them. Go out and hug everybody you love. And let’s, you know, let’s forget this pandemic.”
And, I remember I was sitting there, and I said, “Man, it’s terrible, because he’s reaching a lot of people that just don’t know any better. And nobody’s doing a good job at communicating to the public.” And my brother said, “Well, it’d be great if you write a post.”
So I made a post on Twitter, and on Facebook, just kind of explaining to people like, “This is what we’re facing, this is what the virus is, this is the reality. This is what needs to happen over the next year and a half.”
And, you know, the post kind of went viral; lots of people saw it. And somebody from Channel 7 contacted me, one of the reporters and said, “Do you want to come on TV and just kind of explain what’s going on since you did so well in your post?”
And, you know, nervous as hell, I said, “Well, sure, I’ll go on, and I’ll try to explain the best that I can.”
And it turned out that I managed to explain it in a way that a lot of people really connected with and really understood. And so, they kept inviting me back. And at one point, I was sitting there talking to Ignacio Santos on Channel 7. And he said, during a commercial break, “Right now, there’s 500,000 people watching and our rating is skyrocketing. And people are really interested in the way you explain. We need to keep having you back … please don’t stop.”
So it kind of became my mission, you know, to try to help as many people as I could. And just always thinking of the fact that the more information people have that is correct, the better decisions they’ll make.
How long did that last?
I mean, I’m still doing them. It was really intense. I think that whole first year, there were some times when everybody wanted me on their news, and everybody wanted me — everywhere. And I thought it was critical at that time, because anything we could do to stop the exponential spread was critical.
After a while, I kind of dialed it back a little bit. And I’ve been doing, you know, only the most important things. I just did an interview last week, over the phone. So I still do them.
And oftentimes, I’ll put a Facebook post up and it’ll get viral again, and then I’ll get you know, 50 calls and I’ll pick the top three or four. But it’s not as critical anymore. I feel like people have a better understanding of things at this point to have better tools and protect themselves. So lately, it’s been more about trying to get people vaccinated.
Howler recently celebrated one million unique readers this year. Most come from the United States and abroad. So my question is, where are we now? Do we need to get vaccinated? Do we need a QR code? And where do we get information? I ask because it seems a lot of us don’t know what’s going on.
Yeah, well, I think it’s important to understand that right now, we’re in a good place as far as cases in the country, which is something to celebrate. But at the same time, we are now facing an even bigger threat in the fact that omicron is a much more contagious variant. And that two doses of the vaccine are not enough to stop it. So we need to have three doses.
Most people who are here are not going to be getting three doses for a while, because there’s just not enough vaccines to go around. So thankfully, they’re now starting to vaccinate again, the most vulnerable population over 65.
But if you can travel, if you can get a third dose, go ahead and do it. Because it’s going to give you the right protection. With three doses, we’re still getting good protection, really good protection against omicron.
So it’s critical that we up our vaccination rates, if you haven’t gotten at least two doses, go ahead and do that immediately. And if you can get the third one, do that.
As far as what’s going to happen in the country, I think the QR code is already being used in many places. We went to a show this weekend, and they were requiring it to get inside. It’s not a perfect system. So a lot of people, myself included, don’t have their QR code yet. I’ll send you the link.
So you have to follow some steps to get the code to request the code. If you don’t have it, a lot of places are allowing you to show your vaccination card as proof of vaccination. But eventually it will become a requirement in most places, I imagine.
It’s difficult just to get a real straight answer from any sort of institution or anything. So this is very helpful.
Yeah, I think, one of the hardest things has been where do you get the info? And it’s not clearly available. It’s not spelled out in an easy way — I mean, just to request a QR code. I’ve been through at least three different ways to do it. And none of them have been successful; I still don’t have it.
So I know it’s going to be really frustrating, but at least now there seems to be a better process for requesting it. And I think it will eventually be necessary. There’s been a lot of back and forth about the legality of it and whether it should be implemented at all. There are both sides on that issue. But ultimately, I think it will be enforced because I’ve already seen it in many places.
So what are your thoughts on 2022?
I think that we’re starting the year off in a good spot. But we are not immune to another wave, and potentially a pretty serious wave. We still have a large percentage of the population that is unvaccinated. And the virus can spread rampantly across that population.
And on top of that, if omicron really is escaping the immune response, as much as it appears to be in all the data from all over the world, we may face a wave of reinfections and a wave of infections between or among vaccinated people.
Hopefully, because we have the protection from the vaccines, we won’t get as many serious cases and as many hospitalizations, but we could see another wave. So, it’s critical that we don’t forget that the pandemic has not ended yet. You know, we have to still be cognizant of using mask ventilation, you know, thinking of the virus and how the virus moves. The virus moves like smoke.
And so we have to imagine everybody has a cigarette in their mouth. And consider that staying outside will dilute the smoke. If you’re inside, it’ll accumulate in a closed space. So we need to have that mentality. I think that as a country, we’re in a pretty good spot, because we are continuing to vaccinate, and, you know, the proportion of vaccinated people continues to go up.
But I think we’re gonna have an issue with the fact that we don’t have third doses readily available at the moment for everybody. So we could see another wave. So it’s really up to us to do the best that we can and stay firm. But you know, I’m very hopeful that over the course of the year, we’re going to start getting back to normal. But I bet we may hit another difficult few months. Because it really is a race now between the new variants, and delta and omicron, and vaccination.
See this article in the magazine
For COVID-19 information
Here’s how to request the QR code:
In brief, we must fill out a form, provide a sworn statement, and submit a scan of your ID and vaccination card. Everything must be submitted via email to the ministry at email@example.com.
Once that’s completed, to check your record of vaccination status in the system,
you can use this link: https://usuarios.ministeriodesalud.go.cr
If that doesn’t work, it may be necessary to appear in person with your ID and vaccination card at the local health ministry office.