‘Expecting science to lead’: An expert on viruses is NC’s latest Senate candidate

Brian Murphy
·4 min read

Richard Watkins has spent the last year explaining the coronavirus pandemic — from describing how a virus works to, currently, discussing vaccine efficacy and distribution — to groups of people around the state.

Now Watkins, a 36-year-old virologist and founder of The Science Policy Action Network, is hoping to take his scientific credentials and knowledge to the U.S. Senate.

Watkins announced his bid for the Democratic nomination this week, joining former state Sen. Erica Smith and state Sen. Jeff Jackson as announced Democratic candidates. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is not running for reelection in 2022.

“People are expecting science to lead,” Watkins said Thursday in a video interview. “In regards to the coronavirus, I think we need to make different decisions. If there were more scientists in leadership positions, we’d be able to do that.”

Watkins, who grew up in Greensboro, earned his Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology with a specialty in virology at UNC-Chapel Hill. He did his research on HIV/AIDS and and is close friends with fellow UNC microbiology and immunology Ph.D. Kizzmekia Corbett, who helped develop the Moderna vaccine.

Watkins said scientists are not certain why coronavirus cases have leveled off or are dropping in many states across the country, listing a host of possible reasons including vaccinations and the time since Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“It’s really too early to kind of let our foot off the pedal, especially when it looks like our measures are working. It looks like it. I think that’s a perspective that all scientists share,” Watkins said. “But when you talk to leaders it’s different. Now more than ever we have to listen to scientists, especially scientists that have experience and background in this field.”

Watkins is the coordinator of UNC’s Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program and serves on UNC’s Campus and Community Advisory Committee. He’s the first Black president of UNC’s chapter of Sigma Xi, which advocates for scientific research.

Watkins said he took an interest in viruses at a young age. He said the pace of viruses impacting humans is increasing — mentioning Ebola and Zika as well as other coronaviruses. There are hundreds of coronaviruses capable of making the transition from bats to humans, he said.

The coronavirus has killed more than 500,000 Americans since March 2020, and the virus and subsequent economic shutdowns have led to economic distress and unemployment for millions.

“COVID-19 is not even the last coronavirus that we’re going to have to contend with,” he said. “That is one thing I think the general public doesn’t appreciate, leadership doesn’t appreciate. Because leadership doesn’t appreciate it, we’re not able to appropriately prepare for it.”

Watkins and his wife, Charity Watkins, an associate professor at North Carolina Central University, live in Durham with their young daughter. Watkins graduated from Fayetteville State University, where he also played wide receiver on the football team. Watkins’s father, Richard Watkins Jr., is the golf coach at North Carolina A&T University.

Watkins’s mother died of cancer in 2016, just weeks before his daughter was born.

“We are making progress and one day we will have cures for these things,” Watkins said. “If we were to invest more into scientific research and if we would have done it earlier, then my mom could be alive today and she could be playing with my daughter.

“If we are going to be able to have those cures, which I know are possible, we really have to champion science and invest in science.”

This is not Watkins’s first run for political office. He received just 6.5% of the vote in the 2018 Democratic primary election in the 4th Congressional District. Watkins got 4,391 votes and finished third, while U.S. Rep. David Price earned 52,203 votes in winning the race.

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