On Wednesday, STAT senior writer Helen Branswell spoke with Seth Mnookin, director of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing. The AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards sponsored the talk as part of its annual fall lecture series and in honor of Sharon Begley. Branswell spoke about Begley’s legacy, reporting on infectious diseases, and the past and future of the Covid-19 pandemic. Highlights from the conversation have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
On juggling breaking news coverage with analysis and features:
That’s tough and I wish Sharon were around so I could ask her for advice on it, to be honest. She was extraordinary in terms of her output: She was one of the first people in the office and she’d just come in and put her head down and write every day, and she was one of our most productive reporters. By the time she arrived at STAT, she was at a point in her career where she could have held out for the big, showy, prize-winning pieces, and she did a number of those, but she also wrote dailies. She just wrote a lot, and then she’d go home and write books in her spare time, and I don’t understand that capacity — when I am done, I am exhausted.
On covering the 2003 SARS-CoV-1 outbreak and H5N1 influenza:
The SARS outbreak was contained fairly quickly. By the summer of 2003, all of the outbreaks had ended, but people weren’t certain if it was spreading silently or at a low level. Some people were quite concerned that it would come back.
Instead of SARS coming back, there was a very bad flu season the following year and the emergence of the H5N1 bird flu virus. Bird flu started sweeping through Southeast Asia, and a lot of people who had been engaged in the effort to control SARS turned their attention to pandemic flu.
There was a lot of fear that H5N1 was going to trigger a pandemic. It had been around 30 years since the last pandemic, and it was true that every moment, we were closer to the next pandemic. A lot of the research that laid the groundwork for things like social distancing and closing schools was done in that period.
On the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic:
We published my first piece on it on January 4 of 2020. I first heard that something was going on on New Year’s Eve of 2019. Initially it was not clear what this was going to be. SARS-CoV-1 was snuffed out — people figured out how to stop transmission, and it didn’t spread around the world. In 2012, another coronavirus emerged in the Middle East, MERS.
When people realized this was a new coronavirus — people who worry about infectious disease outbreaks, people who were involved in the SARS-CoV-1 outbreak — they thought it would be containable because neither of those two earlier ones had taken off.
As January progressed and the numbers started to rise and then you saw China taking the extraordinary step of quarantining whole cities of tens of millions of people it was clear this was a big deal. But it was for me puzzling then, and puzzling still, how slowly the rest of the world seemed to come to grips that this was not going to go away.
On the government’s pandemic approach:
I, to this day, don’t quite understand what happened within the CDC and the FDA on the testing issue, for instance. I understand that the first test was faulty — why that wasn’t solved with more haste, I’m still not clear. Every minute that the country wasn’t testing, it was running blind.
When you’re faced with something like ivermectin, how many stories about ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine do you want to write? Trying to debunk something may give it more oxygen, and it’s a really hard balance to strike. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like we as a profession have hit it appropriately.
It is startling and disconcerting, especially given that so much of it in this country is steeped in politics. I could write a piece debunking something, but whether or not the people who need to read it are going to read STAT, I don’t know.
On the future and “end” to Covid:
The people that I speak to have talked about reaching a detente with the virus, where we have enough immunity on board as a population that it can’t collapse health care systems in the way that it currently does. This doesn’t mean that you might not have some flare-ups at times, and depending on how much and how quickly the virus’ surface protein changes, there’s a potential that evolution of the virus could cause some problems. The big question is, how long does it take for us to have enough protection that this becomes an influenza-like illness that hits in the winter?
I think that the door to eradication has been shut for a long, long time. All of the experts I talk to think this is going to be an endemic coronavirus. We had four before this; we have five now.