Author: Gaia Travan (CNRS Lille, France)

Ilaria Capua, virologist

This is the story of Ilaria Capua. However, is also the story of Giulio Selvaggi (1) and many other scientists that had to defend their actions in court and were exposed to the media pillory, in a reality increasingly inclined to judge the bona fide of the scientific community. Both Ilaria and Giulio have been cleared of charges, but they all payed a professional and, above all, personal high price.

2006– Ilaria Capua is an Italian virologist, famous for her studies on avian influenza at the Zooprofilattico Experimental Institute in the north of Italy.  The group of Ilaria Capua works on the genetic sequence of the first African strain of H5N1, the sadly famous avian influenza. The virus sequence was released in open-access, in order to internationally boost the research on the virus.

2014– Ilaria Capua starts to work in the Italian Parliament (Scelta Civica party), where she renounced to the salary of what she considers a “civil service”. “Standing up and fighting for science” is for her a moral imperative. But her political parenthesis will not last long.

Cover of the italian journal L’Espresso about the Virus Traffick of which Ilaria Capua was accused.

3 april 2014- A sensationalist cover of the Italian newspaper L’Espresso entitled Virus Traffickers yells out about science and private companies’ relation, smuggling of virus by mail and the ‘big business of epidemies’. That day, before having any official document from the court, Ilaria discovers -through the 6 pages of an inaccurate and highly erroneous article – to be a virus terrorist and to risk life prison. She was accused to have deliberately caused avian influenza outbreaks, and consequent human epidemics. The investigations started 9 years before, in 2005, and included telephone tapping soon released to the press. However, it is with the cover of L’Espresso that the nightmare of Ilaria Capua starts. She is attacked in the press, she is subject of numerous parliamentary interrogations and requests to resign from her political role. Alessandro Di Battista (Italian politician, M5S) posts #arrestanovoi (literally ‘they arrest you’), showing his satisfaction for the investigation on the scientist, moreover never arrested. For what concerns social media, the result of a brief research in Facebook took me in front of thousands of hateful comments, most of them related to the conspiracy theories of ‘Big Pharma’-scientists relationship. An -at least partial- support comes from the scientific community, with the writing of some papers in which are explained the errors present in the investigation documents.

2016– Ilaria has to leave Italy, where her scientific credibility has been destroyed. She moves to the USA, where she works at the Florida University as director of the One Health Excellence centre.

In July 2016, after 2 years of media storm, the charges against Ilaria are dropped, and she resigns from her position in Parliament.  From that day on, she starts to tell her story to the public, also through the pages of her book ‘Io, trafficante di virus: una storia di scienza e di amara giustizia’ (‘I, virus trafficker: a story of science and bitter justice’).

The misinterpretation of the role of the scientist is due, in the analysis of Ilaria Capua, to an increase of anti-science ideology and populist movements. Both find an echo chamber in the media.

Anti-vax image, from the conspiracy theoryes french website

Articles like the one of L’Espresso are enthusiastically read and largely considered as pure truth in a society where sensationalism and opinions have more importance than truth. It is not just the story of Ilaria, it is not just the story of Giuliano, it is the story of the scientific community that has to find real and efficient solutions to this antiscientific wave. We cannot wait -and hope- to come back to the epoch in which the scientists were universally acknowledged and valued (that brief, golden parenthesis between witch-hunt and free-vax movements), we as scientists have to act in order to reconstruct the vision of the importance of science in society. From my point of view, the first step to fight against the ‘devaluation of competence and truth’ is scientific divulgation, with every mean and in every age groups.


(1) Giulio Selvaggi is a seismologist expert in seismic risk, Director of Research in INGV (National institute of Geophysics and Volcanology). Sentenced in first instance to 6 years of prison and then acquitted of the charge of murder for part of the victims of the L’Aquila earthquake (2009).


Abbate L. 3 April 2014. Il business segreto della vendita dei virus che coinvolge aziende e trafficanti. L’Espresso

Barone L. T., 2016. Criminal charges against prominent Italian flu scientist dismissed, Science

Capua, I. 2017. Io, trafficante di virus: una storia di scienza e di amara giustizia. Rizzoli, Milan, Italy.

Capua, I. 2018. Discovering invisible truths.  Journal of Virology. DOI: 10.1128/JVI.00757-18

Mieli P. 30 may 2016. Un paese che detestala scienza. Il Corriere della Sera

Feltri M., 25 giugno 2017. Il caso Ilaria Capua: radiografia del suicidio italiano. La stampa

(unknown author), 6 July 2016. La storia di Ilaria Capua. Il Post

Facebook pages of Alessandro Di Battista and of the newspapers La Repubblica, La stampa, L’espresso.

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