A few minutes before 11 p.m. on January 20, Eric Fiegl-Ding was pretty much just another guy on the internet. Sure, he is a Harvard-affiliated public-health researcher who lives in Washington, D.C. and has two Ph.D.s, but his account was nothing special. He had about 2,000 followers—a modest count on the scale that reaches into the millions—and his average tweet got around one retweet and five likes.

That all changed when Fiegl-Ding read a paper about the new coronavirus spreading out of Wuhan, China, and spotted an eye-popping stat. The paper estimated that the virus’s contagiousness, which is captured in a variable called R0 was 3.8—meaning that for every person who caught the disease, they’d give it to almost 4 other people. The paper cautioned that there was “considerable uncertainty associated with the outbreak,” but Fiegl-Ding still worried that such a highly transmissible disease would be a key ingredient in the recipe for a major pandemic. “I read that 3.8 value and I was like: ‘Oh my gosh!’” he told me. “I tweeted it out.”

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