In the time of coronavirus, Amazon needs to ‘take this crap down’

February 27, 2020, 1:57 PM UTC

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Peter Jay Hotez, a prominent virologist at Baylor College of Medicine and dean of its National School of Tropical Medicine, is picking a fight with Amazon. Hotez, the subject of a fine piece in the current issue of The Economist, is the scourge of so-called anti-vaxxers, who push spurious scientific claims about the ill effects of vaccines despite the epochal life-saving contribution they have made to the world.

Hotez’s beef with Amazon is that it sells and promotes books by anti-vaxxers. “At the end of the day, Amazon is a bookstore,” Hotez told me, during a break from frenetically taking calls to discuss the coronavirus outbreak. “An owner of a store makes a decision of what to put out for sale,” he says. “Amazon should make a decision to take this crap down.”

Hotez’s opponents liken his campaign to book burning. He rejects the claim. He simply thinks the world’s most powerful bookstore can choose what to highlight. He pointed me to multiple prominently featured anti-vaxxer books on Amazon’s vaccinations sub-section of its health, fitness, and dieting category.

Amazon, predictably, dodges the issue, hiding behind free speech. “As a bookseller, we are mindful of a global history fraught with book censorship and believe that providing access to written speech and a variety of viewpoints is one of the most important things we do for customers,” it said in a written statement. “We recognize that there are heavily debated titles in our store and different views on where to draw the line protecting freedom of expression. Our store maintains content guidelines for the books we sell and we are always listening to customer feedback.” 

Hotez thinks Amazon should appoint a chief scientific officer to make judgements on what titles to reject on their lack of scientific merit.

While I had him, I asked Hotez for his thoughts on the coronavirus situation. He notes that because of the anti-vaxxers, measles has returned to the United States and is likely to appear again in the late winter or early spring. Already there have been 14,000 influenza deaths this year, including about 100 children, most of which is attributable to patients not getting a flu shot. He says the biggest uncertainty about the coronavirus in the U.S. is if it will be localized or widespread. If the latter, combined with a measles outbreak and continued flu fatalities, “we could be battling a triple epidemic.”

Adam Lashinsky


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


I know I'm going to be the bad guy here. While medical experts work to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, the virus continues to damage the global economy. On Wednesday, Microsoft joined the crowd of companies disclosing that financial results were falling short of forecasts due to the novel coronavirus. As the virus spread in the U.S., Workday cancelled an annual sales conference in Florida that was expected to draw 3,000 people.

I think we're just going to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that. After years of claiming India was a key target market, Apple CEO Tim Cook on Wednesday said his company will finally open its own physical and online stores in the country this year. The lengthy delay was due to obtaining approval from the Indian government to operate without a local partner. "I don't think we would be a very good partner of retail," Cook explained during Apple's annual shareholder meeting. "We like to do things our way."

They rode on in the friscalating dusklight. In the cybercurrency world, two legal developments. A federal judge allowed a class action lawsuit against Ripple Labs to proceed with allegations that the company violated securities laws in the sale of the XRP digital currency. And a jury convicted a former Microsoft employee of stealing $10 million worth of bitcoin from the company. Software developer Volodymyr Kvashuk faces up to 20 years in prison.

You probably don't even know my middle name. On Wall Street, Square brought in some bank. Revenue jumped 41% to $1.3 billion in the fourth quarter, better than analysts expected, and the number of monthly active users of its Cash app rose 60% to 24 million. Square's stock price, previously up 22% in 2020, gained another 7% in pre-market trading on Thursday.

(Today's headline reference explainer, courtesy of the great Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson.)


With all manner of catastrophes circling the globe, the "doomsday vault" that holds more than one million plant seed samples underground in the Arctic is in the news. This week, countries around the world brought about 60,000 new samples to be stored at the facility in Svalbard, Norway. New Scientist magazine's Adam Vaughan made the trek and witnessed the deposits.

Among the seeds that made the three-hour flight north from Oslo are those from the Cherokee Nation, the first US indigenous tribe to deposit seeds at the vault. Corn that is sacred to the Cherokee people, bean varieties and a squash that can stay fresh for a year without refrigeration are among their crops being backed up.

The UK’s Kew Gardens brought 27 wild plant species from Prince Charles’s residence in the west of England. These include wild carrot (Daucus carota) and some forage species such as perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne), red fescue (Festuca rubra) and clover (Trifolium sp.), as well as five species of orchid. “It’s more urgent than ever that we act now to protect this diversity before it really is too late,” the prince said in a statement.


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The latest call to put down our phones comes from Pope Francis. During services at the Vatican on Wednesday, he urged Catholics to use their devices less during Lent, but the message should resonate with all tech users:

“We live in an environment polluted by too much verbal violence, by many offensive and harmful words, which the internet amplifies. We are inundated with empty words, with advertisements, with subtle messages. We have become used to hearing everything about everyone and we risk slipping into a worldliness that atrophies our hearts.”

Aaron Pressman


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