SciComm Roundtable – Part 1 – Scientists and the News Cycle – What The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Taught Us So Far

This is the first of a 3-part series that will close the first season of Papa PhD.

The world is still very much fighting and trying to understand the COVID-19 pandemic at the moment this episode is airing, so I am bringing you the interventions of my guests on a panel that took place in May, titled “Scientists and the News Cycle – What Role Can We Play?”

In this first part, I talked with Monica Feliu-Mojer, Ph.D., with Joana Lobo Antunes, and with Adriana Bankston about the impact the pandemic has had on their professional lives and on the lessons they have learned, so far.

Part 2, coming up next week, will focus on the role academic institutions and scientific associations can play, in terms of science communication, in a context such as the ongoing pandemic.

Episode transcript:

David Mendes: Welcome everyone here. I’m super happy to be here today, discussing the role of the scientific community in today’s, situation, which is the COVID pandemic. We’re going to talk about all the challenges that society and the scientific community has faced during this crisis and what solutions, also have been, working so far. What hasn’t been working and at different levels. I’m going to start by reading a little introduction and then I’ll also introduce the guests who are here.

In the wake of the worldwide spread of SARS-CoV-2, these last few weeks have seen world leaders sending out mixed messages and trying to trace a path on a moving terrain with questions like social distancing, wearing of masks, and lockdown.

On another front, while doctors, epidemiologists and virologists have been working around the clock to understand COVID-19 and take control of the pandemic, and to advise politicians and policy deciders, we’ve seen a movement of disinformation and conspiracy theories that has been gaining traction and visibility with video content circulating and passing on fake news that is tricking the general public into lending it a credibility that it doesn’t deserve.

In our live discussion today, we are going to talk about the challenges this pandemic has faced the scientific community with, we are going to discuss what role researchers and the scientific community at large can play during a world crisis, such as this one and we are going to try and get a wide-angle view of how the scientific community has been impacted at the policy level, at the level of universities and at the community level.

To discuss these issues today I have with me Dr. Adrianna Bankston, Dr. Joana Lobo Antunes and Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer. Dr. Adriana Bankston is a principal legislative analyst at the University of California Office of federal governmental relations in Washington, DC. Prior to this position, she was a policy and advocacy fellow at the society for neuroscience where she provided staff support for special and ongoing projects, including SFN’s annual lobby event and the society’s annual meeting. In addition to working at UC, Adriana also serves as the director of communications and outreach for the journal of science policy and governance—JSPG—and is an associate member of the public policy committee with the American society for cell biology.

For the past several years, Adriana has also been an active member in the nonprofit organization Future of Research, where she’s currently the vice president and has previously served as the associate director of fundraising and strategic initiatives. Adriana received her bachelor’s in biological sciences from Clemson University and her PhD in biochemistry, cell and developmental biology from Emory University.

Welcome to this roundtable Adriana.

Adriana Bankston: Thank you for having me, David.

David Mendes: It’s my pleasure. Now, we also have around the table someone from Portugal, Dr. Joana Lobo Antunes. Joana Lobo Antunes is head of communications at, Instituto Superior Técnico, an engineering faculty at the University of Lisbon in Portugal.

She is lecturer in science communication and social media for scientists in the Nova University in Lisbon. She’s also coordinator of a science radio show called 90 Seconds of Science, also in Portugal, and founder and current president of the Portuguese Science Communicators Network, SciComPT.

Joana has previous experience as a researcher, PhD in organic chemistry, and as a university professor having transitioned to a position as a professional science communicator at Universidade Nova de Lisboa in 2012. Her main interests are the use of theatre improvisation techniques and storytelling in science communication.

Joana also has been engaging scientists to use social media tools to connect and interact with peers and laypersons, improving science visibility and the public image of scientists. Welcome Joana.

Joana Lobo Antunes: Thank you, David. It’s very nice to be here with this great panel and you.

David Mendes: Thank you. I’m really eager to have everyone start talking, but, there’s one person who I still need to introduce who is Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer. Monica uses “cultura” to connect underserved communities with science. As a science communicator, she draws on her training, a PhD in neurobiology, personal background and culture, a woman from rural Puerto Rico, to make science relevant and relatable, especially to Puerto Ricans and Latinos.

Dr. Feliú-Mójer understands the importance of storytelling and using a cultural lens to empower people and change stereotypes about science and scientists. To do this for the past 14 years, she has led multiple science communication efforts from publishing a book to producing short films, to training scientists in culturally relevant science communication with the nonprofits, Ciencia Puerto Rico and iBiology.

Welcome Monica! I’m really happy you could make space in your busy schedule to be here today.

Mónica Feliú-Mójer: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you all.

David Mendes: So, The first thing I would like to do, now that we’re all here and that we’re live is that I would like to hear how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected you and your professional day to day at the present time, what has changed since the pandemic was declared and, to start, I’m going to ask Mónica.

Mónica—I know you’re in an “all hands on deck” situation down there, from what we’ve talked before, collaborating with Puerto Rican scientists and media daily. Can you share with us the issues you’re dealing with and, the solutions you’ve been finding, so far?

Mónica Feliú-Mójer: Yeah. To answer your first question. Sometimes I feel like I’m running an Ironman every day. So it’s been incredibly busy. I lead communications for Ciencia Puerto Rico, which is a nonprofit that brings together anyone with an interest in science and Puerto Rico and, and taps into the collective knowledge of that community. To create social impact through science communication, through education and through professional development for young scientists.

And, since the pandemic began, our community has been very, very active in addressing different challenges in Puerto Rico from misinformation, we’re collaborating with the media, different media outlets in Puerto Rico and beyond to publish op-eds, to publish articles, to connect scientists, to do radio, TV, written, press interviews. We’ve also been doing a lot of advocacy to nudge the government of Puerto Rico to use science to drive their decision and policymaking during this pandemic.

We’ve been also addressing challenges in terms of testing in Puerto Rico. There’s been, I mean, there’s been issues with testing, certainly across the United States of which Puerto Rico is as a colony. But in Puerto Rico there’s been a shortage of testing. Testing, tests are not being used properly.

And so we’re very engaged in promoting proper use of tests and also in increasing the capacity of testing, particularly the molecular PCR testing that detects the virus. And finally, we’ve also been engaged in several education initiatives to support the continuity of education, because as we know, children are not going to school and their education has been interrupted.

David Mendes: Yeah. At this point, I’m going to say that I have my two kids at home with me. So if listeners out there hear some background noise, it’s going to be them. But, yeah, I think a lot of us are living this reality of having children at home because schools are closed.

We’re going also to talk later about universities that are closed. And because that’s also a big issue because there’s research out there and research is important for the pandemic.

But, so I just wanted to mention that if there’s some extraneous noises, but, the important point, the important thing that I would like, to hear, is also, you know what … because I feel from the conversation we’ve had before that you have a finger on the pulse of what’s happening on the streets in Puerto Rico, in terms of the difficulties that people are having, understanding the guidelines well, applying them. Can you talk a little bit about that? How is the population dealing with this? You know, the population who may be less educated or less prone to follow orders or guidelines or to make changes in their daily life. What are you seeing on the streets that is not helping with the pandemic?

Mónica Feliú-Mójer: Overall, all things considered, I think the people of Puerto Rico have been incredibly graceful and they’ve been doing great in terms of, you know, following orders to stay at home. Puerto Rico, in the context of the United States, were the first jurisdiction to establish very strict stay at home orders. And, you know, by this point, people have been, there’s still a curfew in place until mid-June and people have been under curfew, in some form of curfew for over 70 days at this point. And, you know, I would say the people of Puerto Rico have responded really well.

One of the issues that I see is, of course, you know, there’s a lot of misinformation that’s making the rounds on social media, but even on traditional media, even from government officials. Last week we had our secretary of health wrongfully say that getting infected with this coronavirus would be similar to getting a vaccine, which is absolutely not true. It’s very different to get infected than getting it vaccine. And so unfortunately there’s a lot of misinformation. The government has a serious credibility issue, which is a big problem when you’re trying to get the, you know, the population needs to trust you as, as the government, in order for them to follow, instructions that are designed to protect their health.

I would say there’s been misinformation, and there’s a problem with credibility, but there’s also on behalf of the government. There’s certainly been, the, the guidance hasn’t always been communicated properly or in some cases it hasn’t really been science based.

David Mendes: That’s definitely serious because people will look at the governing bodies and the people who are ahead of all of these big organizations or governmental organizations as people who know, who are in the know and who will give the right information. And if they’re not disseminating the right information, we have a problem for sure.

Mónica Feliú-Mójer: And on top of that, I’ll just briefly add that because of Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the United States it means that we’re under US regulations and frankly, the response from the federal government has also been lackluster.

David Mendes: It’s interesting—I do have some questions for Joana, later on, on the Portuguese example, but I’ll leave them for when the moment comes, but, this is an important point, which is how can the scientific community interact with government bodies to bring the right messaging to the public and to be able to, put the brakes on things that are just blatantly wrong. We’ve heard a bunch of them in the last few weeks, about, hydroxychloroquine for example.

Mónica, just a question still for you: apart from this statement, which is really, really disturbing that herd immunity is equivalent to vaccination, what, other misinformation have you seen circulating? There’s this documentary out there that is really damning and that has a high production value, I’d say, so someone who’s less informed will look at that and it seems like something that is coming from a bona fide source. What’s making the rounds there in terms of misinformation that you’ve seen, and that is really disturbing?

Mónica Feliú-Mójer: I mean, there are different types of misinformation from, you know, treatments to ways to avoid infection. One thing I will say is that nowadays there’s like this documentary that you’re, you’re mentioning.

A lot of misinformation is wrapped in half-truths. And some of the people that are spreading this information, they’re in positions of power. And they’re using very sophisticated tactics saying like “a scientist from this university said this”. And so, you know, I think it’s important to understand that because we are in very uncertain and scary times, people are searching for certainty. Humans want certainty. And so it is very difficult. And so sometimes it can be extremely hard to determine whether or not something we’re seeing on social media is true or not. Because the way that these things are framed really play into our human nature and the way our brains work and the way that, you know, we want certainty, that we’re scared of change or, or novelty.

So I think it is important for people to understand that most people are not consuming misinformation because they want to believe things that are false. It is coming from a fact that it is uncertain. People are scared and they’re searching for something, you know, they’re searching for something that’s confirming their values, what they believe in. And so I think it is important that we understand that.

And then it’s also important that we have certain easy rules in mind. You know, if you see something that you’re like “Oh, this creates a very strong emotion. I read it and I’m like, yeah, this is absolutely true. How dare these people do this?”, take a moment and question the information that you’re reading. Just question why, how, who is this person saying this? Where’s this information coming from? What is the source? We have to really apply our skepticism because these are unprecedented and uncertain times. And everybody has a responsibility to question what they’re seeing online.

David Mendes: That’s true. And I do want to talk later on, about the role of educating the upcoming generations of citizens and, you know, try to see whether things are being done in that domain to ensure that the next generations are going to be more informed and more capable of critical thinking.

Now, Joana, Mónica is tackling a very challenging problematic, which is making sure scientific information to do with SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 reaches a wide public, as wide as possible. And I’m seeing a comment here on Facebook—Brenda Reyes Tomasini is saying: “A lot of the decisions made by the government of Puerto Rico are not made by scientists, regarding coronavirus”.  And I see Monica is agreeing. Also, one other thing that’s … what Monica is trying to do is to do all this in a language and a format that is adapted to all groups, cultures, and identities across a large population.

Now, Joana, in your case, being responsible for the science communication within an engineering faculty, what has the impact of the pandemic been on your work and on the faculty itself?

Joana Lobo Antunes: Well, the first thing I’d like to say, well, it’s that political decisions have to be made by politicians, not by scientists, but they have to be science-based. So that’s the role of the scientists—to give the knowledge so that politicians can make the best decision possible based on the best information. And if you do the wrong decision, it’s not because you don’t have the science—it’s because you don’t want to make the best decision. So it’s not up to scientists to do politics, that’s the politician’s job.

In regard to my life, well, my life has changed very much because for the first couple of days, it was really smooth because we all came home. My kids came home. So for a couple of days, it was like, “Okay, I can do this, but then kids started having school at home, so that’s challenging, and then as a working family person, I have a lot of work to do—I certainly have a lot more work to do at the house and with the kids. And also because regarding my work, my workload has increased a lot.

Although I work in an engineering faculty, we don’t deal with, with life sciences, and so we are not so much committed into explaining COVID to people, but rather engineers are very much “Okay, I don’t want to stay home, I want to do something to help society tackle this problem”. So we had everybody at Técnico doing something. They were either doing medical shields with 3D printers or doing disinfectants to take to hospitals, or they started doing the kits, because you need to collect samples to do the testing, because we got to a point that we need testing, we need a lot of testing because that’s the way you know how many infected you have, and those not symptomatic, and so forth.

And so we needed two things: we needed ways to get the samples out of people and ways to test large. So we have one lab doing the testing, the actual testing and the RT-PCRs, and we have another consortium in which Técnico is involved, that we constructed the kits to collect the samples, because they were not available in Portugal. We could not import because there were other countries that were in worse state than Portugal, so they had the kits and not us. So we had to build our own kits. So engineers were working a lot. They were doing so many things and also some informatics engineering students, they came up with a video game to help kids know how to deal with the coronavirus, what are the security measures and also that the pharmaceutical engineering students, they came up with, a game, another game that is being distributed in schools to help kids know what’s their level of knowledge. So this all means that as a head of communications, I wanted to put this information out for everybody.

And, also, when we locked down the university, because we have 12,000 people in our faculty, we had to be very clear about how to communicate the lockdown, but now we are opening up. And opening up is way more challenging than just locking down. Because lockdown, you just close down the doors and you send everybody home. Now we’re opening up slowly and we have to have a lot of security measures because 12,000 people, that’s a lot of people.

So we need to think very clearly and have a very clear strategy on how to do that safely and also to communicate that strategy very clearly so that everybody knows what’s happening because of two reasons: because people need to know the safety measures, but they also have to feel safe. I don’t know, in your countries, but now we are tackling this problem is that we closed out everything for over two months, we said, “Everyone stay home. Don’t go out”. And now we are saying, we can start to go out. Then people… Well, some people are very happy and going out too much, but most people are really afraid to take a public transportation to go to work or how to deal with going to work.

So there’s a lot of work to be done on science communication and on communication of risk, communication to people so I’ve been working a lot.

David Mendes: It’s true that there was a lot of emphasis on—and I’m going to say it like this because it’s the right word—on kind of instilling fear into people to make them stay home. And now, opening up … to take out this fear and this defensive attitude, that also will need to be science-backed. And I agree—scientists will have to be, maybe not on the forefront—and we might talk about that later on—but instructing what messaging should be shared with people. It’s a big challenge, I imagine, for policymakers and politicians, and it’s a very good point.

Actually, just out of curiosity, Monica, at what stage of things are you, are you seeing things happening in Puerto Rico? Is it still ramping up in terms of numbers? The recommendation for lockdown is it still going on?

Mónica Feliú-Mójer: Yeah, so there’s still a curfew until mid-June. Yesterday the reopening of businesses, they moved on to an advanced phase, even though, you know, Puerto Rico doesn’t meet the criteria for reopening—it doesn’t meet any of the criteria for, for reopening. And, you know, the testing system is not appropriate. The contact tracing is not yet in place after three months, almost. And there hasn’t been a decrease in numbers of cases. I mean, the data, there are a lot of issues with the, reliability and transparency of data in Puerto Rico. And so, in my opinion, we are just opening blindly, mainly following economic pressures and not really being science-based.

David Mendes: There is no science-based reason. OK. Yeah, it’s, I think a lot of countries and regions are experiencing that and have this feeling that economy has to resume and, and that’s a hard thing to balance, for sure.

Mónica Feliú-Mójer: Yeah, I mean, science doesn’t happen in a vacuum and, of course, as Joana said, scientists don’t make policies—they inform policies. And, you know, it is the responsibility of elected officials and people in government to listen to the scientists, to make those policies. And so, it is important that to understand that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum and there are other aspects of other societal issues that need to be taken into account. It can’t just be about public health. But regardless, things should be evidence-based. And, of course, there are economics there, you know, there is science in other fields or social sciences that can be used to inform the strategies. And they’re not.

David Mendes: Yeah, it’s a strange situation in man in many aspects. But I feel that the last few years have seen a tendency towards having economic goals in front of everything. And we’re seeing it again in this situation. And there’s a pressure, there’s a lot of pressure to reopen. And it’s a bit concerning that in places where things are not flattening and there’s no reason, the pressure is there. But again, I’m talking, as someone who is not a politician, or an economist and I don’t really have the full grasp of the impacts of staying closed longer. When I think of what’s happening in Brazil, I do feel for the people who are just back in contact with the virus that might end their lives. It’s a bit distressing in that sense.

Joana, I had a last question for you in this part, which is about your faculty: you said that labs are scrambling to find solutions, build things there—it’s an engineering and engineering faculty, for sure. Is there anything happening in your faculty in terms of the communication aspect, or not so much?

Joana Lobo Antunes: I don’t know. What do you mean?

David Mendes: If scientists have been called to be on shows, on TV.

Joana Lobo Antunes: Oh yeah, yeah. Well, they have been called to talk about their work. I’m remembering one of the centers—they’ve built a risk map. They do natural resources and stuff, and they got the map with the numbers of the infections and they tried to understand the distribution and the risk of infection. So now they’re working with the authorities of health in Portugal, helping them devise, which are the riskier areas so they know where to act more severely in order to contain the infection.

They’ve been asked, they’ve been around talking about their science a lot, and we in the communication office have been helping with that. And we have always, they come up to us and we say, we have this project and we help them get that project out to the public. And we have also arranged for a website where we collect everything that is being done regarding Corona.

David Mendes: I want to ask Adriana a question, but just before, I just wanted to ask you because it’s an engineering faculty, do you know if there have been any projects in terms of tracking software?

Joana Lobo Antunes: Yeah, they’re working on that. They’re working on apps for that, but, in that regard, there has been a lot of discussion here on the media and between the scientific community and with the state, which is the tracking devices, are they more useful than dangerous? Because there are the dangers of your personal data, is the government collecting your personal data, on the ethics around it and the data protection, of course. So we have to, we really need scientists to help us and guide it, and also politics because in the end it’s a political decision, but it has to be, as I said before, based on the best science and the best knowledge possible.

David Mendes: Sure. I’m very curious to see what happens on that end. Of course, there’s a lot of worry about privacy and, I imagine, in places like China and, I imagine, Korea also, they’ve been pretty good at that, probably because of the experience they had, also, before, with MERS. But it’s something that in our societies, I don’t think it’s going to be so easy to implement, but it’s interesting to see how the scientific community also has started thinking about those questions and thinking about how can we create a solution that’s secure, safe, and that will help epidemiologist to see what’s happening, and to stop the disease from spreading as fast as it is.

Thanks, Joana. Now, Adriana. I know the situation in the universities, namely, the University of California—and I just want to remind the listeners that the opinions of the people at this roundtable are their personal opinions. But I wanted to ask you, because you are in the policy domain, you see what’s happening in terms of universities from another level, from the policy level, I know, also, that you’ve been keeping, you’ve been pretty busy, lately, also, with all that’s been happening in the university universe with the pandemic.

But I would like you to describe to us the impact that COVID-19 and the pandemic has had on the US academic landscape, so far. What impact do you and other policymakers foresee that lockdown may have on research?

Adriana Bankston: Okay, thanks, David. So that’s, it’s a big question. There’s a lot of aspects, so I’ll just start by talking about generally, if you think about the value of the university, which is research, education, public service, helping the community. So it really covers all of these aspects and in particular for what we were talking about, what it means for somebody to be a scientist in the times of COVID, because you are doing research, but I think we have to keep in mind sort of the community angle, as well. So in my position we’re looking at, essentially, showcasing the value of research on campus to representatives on the Hill through different events. So we’ve had to, definitely shift our events to virtual meetings with staffers in the Hill. So that’s been interesting.

Being sort of at the nexus between academia and policy, there are concerns related to what will happen, whether universities will open in the fall, what are the ramp up costs? Whether they will be open, whether social distancing will be part of that, or, there’s a lot of variation across universities, from what I’ve heard, in terms of who w open and what that looks like. Financially it’s a concern in terms of what the ramp up will look like. The research also, obviously there’s much more funding going to COVID projects, so there’s also the question of what the actual research will look like when people go back in terms of being able to continue their work or whether they’ll actually shift to more COVID type of things. And that also obviously affects the students and postdocs who are in those labs, as well.

I think one positive that has come from this is that there has been a lot more collaborative work between basic researchers and those in public health, for example, or topics around pandemics and things like that. So, it could potentially lead to more collaboration in the system, in the future. And then sort of the last part of this is turning to grad students and the workforce in general. So obviously, they’re unable to do their work, now, because they’re at home. So, there has had to be a lot of creativity in terms of how do we maintain their education, teaching virtually, creative methods to teach, and, sort of, help them continue to build their professional development. There have been virtual defenses, graduations, all kinds of things, which is sad, but everyone is adapting, I guess.

And I think one of the questions is also that there is still a lot of people who are applying for jobs and thinking about where grad students and postdocs will go, whether this will affect their ability to stay in science or not. So I can imagine that that might be demoralizing, if you’re not able to work and you might think “maybe I’ll pick something else”. And so, it has a potentially a larger effect in terms of the workforce and the scientific system, overall, the fact that all of these promising young scientists are not able to do what they’re trained for.

 And to loop back to the beginning, I think it’s important to think about how we are also training scientists to be successful in policy careers, or to inform policymakers, as we have discussed, and use their expertise in that sense. And so, I think it’s interesting to think about policy also becoming another career for them, because they are obviously able to kind of showcase their, research and the value of what they do in society. So that’s another thought of how will they sort of link what they know outside of the university?

David Mendes: Yeah, I was actually going to ask you about the students, for sure, but you went there yourself. I imagine there’s a lot of sadness for people who have these graduations that are now on zoom maybe and, you know, they don’t get to wear the regalia.

They don’t, you know, they don’t get to live that experience in that same way. So it’s kind of like if this generation, who’s either starting university, cause there’s also those who wanted to start their studies now, right? Or start their graduate studies who are now in this kind of limbo of “What’s happening? Are we going to be able to go or is it all going to be Zoom?” And then teachers, professors, you know, scrambling to learn how to teach in this manner. I think those are really, really, important points. And I imagine, and from what I’ve been seeing, there’s a lot of, ingenuity, you know, people have been having a lot of ingenuity on how to really quickly adopt these new media and to bring something of value to the student body.

Joana, do you have, in Portugal, and an idea or do you have kind of a picture of what’s happening on that side, the student body? Is everyone having virtual classes? Is everything rolling well, or what are the challenges or what are the really cool solutions that have appeared?

Joana Lobo Antunes: Well, I’m not giving classes this semester in my university, but in the university that I’m working in, everything has gone online and they have gone through a lot of efforts to understand if it was going to work. But one of the problems of all going online is, well … this is spectacular, we can teach long distance, but we have the practical classes, the lab classes that it’s not possible to do long distance with quality.

And then there’s another problem that the long-distance classes—I can see that also with my kids, not just in university—it dug the gap between classes, because there are many people that don’t have the money or don’t have the means to follow classes with quality long distance, because they don’t have a computer or they don’t have quality wifi, or they don’t have a room big enough where they can be alone. So what I think is going to happen, and this is one thing that we are very worried and we are trying to tackle that problem, is addressing students with financial needs, because those will be … education will not be granted for all. And this, in university, is a problem, but it’s also a problem in earlier stages of education, because not all my kids are under 10 and not all kids under 10 have parents that can get them computers or tablets or printers and ear plugs and everything they need to do their classes quietly and with quality.

So I think on one side it’s spectacular the way we have adapted to long distance doing the classes online, doing evaluations online, changing everything, using all the techniques and all the tools available, possible, but there’s also the problem that we need to address, and we need to address together and very frontally. Do not forget this, because it will increase inequalities. It will increase inequalities, the long-distance learning.

David Mendes: Yeah. It’s a good point. And I’ve felt this here, even teachers, elementary school teachers, not all of them have the same, like a laptop with a webcam or whatever, and then, you know, different parents around me have had different experiences of all of this whole COVID lockdown of having no resources to find a curriculum for their kids. Or some of them are very structured because the teacher is on zoom, and has phone calls, etc. It’s a very, very good point. And it actually segues to what I wanted to talk next, which is to go a little bit more into what role academics and scientific organizations are having and can have during this pandemic.


Links: The Atlantic Article, How to Talk About the Coronavirus, by  Liz Neely –; ScicomPT website.; The Story Collider.

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