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Before the virus that causes Covid-19 had a name — before Covid-19 itself had a name — it was a medical mystery. It wasn’t even clear it was a virus. All the world knew, or the tiny sliver of the world that was paying attention, was that a handful of cases of unexplained pneumonia had been reported in central China.

That is what STAT reported on this date, one year ago.

The author of the story, infectious disease reporter Helen Branswell, has written 147 others in the hazy, horrible months that have followed. As her editor, I’ve watched her toil day in and day out. But we took a break recently to mark today’s anniversary and look back at where we’ve been. Rest assured, reader, her wish at the end of this Q&A shall be granted.

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So it has been a long year. I’m wondering if you can remember how you felt in those early days of reporting. Did you have any sense of what was to come?

I was nervous. There wasn’t much information coming out of China, which was unsettling. The speed at which the case count was rising was unsettling, too, even in early January. So were the lengths to which China was going to stop transmission. No one quarantines whole cities if they don’t think they have to.

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A couple of people I thought might tell me early on that they believed we were watching a pandemic unfold actually told me they thought China would get a handle on the new virus. A couple of weeks later, one of them — Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy — had done a 180 and was telling 3M, which makes N95 respirators, that the outbreak was going to be a pandemic. They immediately increased production.

But I can’t tell you with any certainty when I realized that there was no chance the virus could be contained, in the way SARS-1 — the 2003 outbreak that was my introduction to infectious diseases — had been.

I remember you calling me one evening in late January 2020, saying you had just finished one of the most frightening interviews of your career. You sounded shaken. Do you recall the interview at all — who you were talking to, what that person said?

I was interviewing Trevor Bedford. Trevor is a computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle; he had been using genetic sequence data to chart the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from China. The first detected case in the United States had been reported three days earlier, though the infected man had actually returned to the country on Jan. 15.

People in Bedford’s field were using a rule of thumb to estimate how many cases there actually were outside of China. This was at a time when tests were just being developed to detect the new infection. Each case detected outside China, they estimated, represented about 500 exported cases. When we started speaking, Trevor thought there were 13 exported cases in total.

No, I told him. That number is now up to 29.

“Jesus!” he said.

“Did you just say ‘Jesus?’” I asked.

He got audibly flustered, calculating on the fly how much bigger this thing had, in that instant, become. His evident alarm was contagious.

“If it’s not contained shortly, I think we are looking at a pandemic,” Trevor said.

That’s the call I told you about.

Have you been surprised by the vast differences in how countries have fared? We know the story in places like the United States and the U.K. But it’s almost as if some other countries are living in an alternate universe, carrying on much as they did pre-pandemic. 

I spent a lot of time after the 2003 SARS outbreak reporting on pandemic preparedness and what a bad pandemic might look like, so I was mentally prepared for quite a few things that have happened. But there are several I didn’t anticipate.

“If it’s not contained shortly, I think we are looking at a pandemic.”

Trevor Bedford, computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in January 2020

It never occurred to me — and I’m sure I’m not alone in this — that the United States would handle a pandemic worse than almost any other country, and definitely worse than peer countries. The U.S. spent a lot of time and buckets of money on pandemic preparedness in the mid-aughts, but you wouldn’t know it from the country’s response to the Covid pandemic.

The number of fatalities in the U.S. is currently the equivalent of one 9/11 attack every day. Meanwhile, countries like Vietnam, Australia, and New Zealand that have contained the virus are pretty much living life as normal — though certainly with many fewer tourists and far fewer opportunities to travel internationally. That those two circumstances can co-exist in the world is, well, kind of stunning.

Here’s another thing I didn’t anticipate: Spread of a respiratory pathogen can be curbed using very low-tech tools. In the mid-aughts, when the world was concerned H5N1 bird flu might be poised to trigger a devastating pandemic, a lot of work was done exploring the potential of what are called non-pharmaceutical interventions — things like closing schools. But I don’t know that anyone would have bet that getting people to wear cloth masks — bandanas and face coverings initially made from old T-shirts and scraps of fabric — would slow transmission of a respiratory virus. And yet, cloth masks and physical distancing, when utilized correctly, have been hugely useful.

I’ve heard you say that, as bad as this has been, and it has been really bad, you actually expected it to be worse. Can you explain why?

The vast majority of people who contract Covid-19 don’t get sick enough to need to go into hospital. But the percentage who do is large enough to cripple the health care system.

The SARS-2 virus has a lot of nasty tricks up its sleeve. But if it had caused more severe illness, or killed a higher percentage of the people infected, this would have been far, far worse.

Also, I worried about a stock market collapse and the fallout from that. That hasn’t happened. I also worried about severe food shortages. That hasn’t played out to the degree I feared it would, though this perverse imbalance has occurred. People who are affluent are struggling with weight gain — the Covid 19 — while at the other end of the economic spectrum the percentage of people who are experiencing food insecurity has risen sharply.

In a story not long ago, you made the point that this virus and Covid-19 vaccines are likely going to be the subject of research for a generation of scientists. Do you think the same will hold true journalistically? Are we going to be writing about Covid-19 in 2025?

It depends on who you are referring to when you say “we.”

It’s my fervent hope that political reporters and business reporters and sports reporters and entertainment reporters are writing about politics and business and sports and entertainment and not about Covid-19 in 2025. But I think health and science reporters will still be writing about this disease four years down the road.

Full time? I cannot imagine that would be the case. Most of our time? Probably not that either. But it will be within the mix of the topics we cover.

Not to be too grandiose, but amid the horror of the past year, the tragedy, all of it, is there anything that has given you hope, or inspired confidence in our ability to persevere?

I’m in awe of how quickly the vaccine efforts have progressed. I would not have put money on vaccines being ready to put into arms in under a year. What has been learned here about developing pandemic vaccines will forever change responses to new emerging diseases.

I’m hopeful about the efforts to get vaccines to low- and middle-income countries that’s being spearheaded by the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Rich countries have once again snagged much of the early supplies of vaccine, but there is hope other countries will have access sooner rather than later.

You didn’t ask this, but I would say that I’m also profoundly dismayed by how incapable we appear to be at making small sacrifices for the greater good. Covid-19 has killed more than 350,000 people in the U.S. so far. And yet, millions of people traveled to be with family over Thanksgiving and Christmas. This I don’t understand.

I also cannot comprehend how, despite the horrific death toll, some people in the country persist in believing the pandemic is a hoax, a political weapon designed to take down President Trump. As the robot on “Lost In Space” used to say: It does not compute.

Last question is a personal one. When you’ve been vaccinated, when it’s safe to travel again, where are you going and why?

Probably first to Canada, where all my family lives. I want to hug the youngest and oldest members of my family — my 11-year-old nephew and my soon-to-be 98-year-old aunt, who has spent most of the last year in almost total isolation. Neither of them complains about life in Covid times. But as we all know, this has been a terribly disruptive period for kids and older adults.

Then I would like to head to Hawaii. And also Amsterdam. Some science writer friends of mine, we’re planning a party. STAT owes me some time off.

  • Wonderful interview! Thank you for all you have done, Ms. Branswell and Jason Ukman for the insightful questions! My query to you: do you think people understand that the currently approved vaccines confer only for certain immunity protection for an unknown duration against the symptomatic disease and not against the infection itself? Does the public realize that to protect others after either: 1) recovering from COVID-19 or 2) being inoculated with one of the current vaccines (i.e. Pfizer, Moderna, Astra-Zeneca), one must still act as though one is contagious — still wear the mask, keep physically distant, wash hands, avoid crowds and indoor activities? This is the best coverage I have run across about this: https://theconversation.com/a-covid-19-vaccine-that-prevents-both-the-disease-and-viral-transmission-is-the-aim-until-then-heres-what-we-need-to-do-151839. I think we have to get this concept communicated. I am afraid people think the vaccination is a passport to complete freedom and return to normal, with the misconception that they are “safe” if they have been vaccinated. Especially, I hear people assume that if two people both have been vaccinated, there is no risk to interact freely and maskless. We do not know this yet! The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have not been evaluated for their ability to protect against infection or transmission — only to protect against symptomatic disease! More time and surveillance need to take place. Before you go on well-deserved break, could you kindly make this clear to your readership (or pass the baton to a colleague)?! Time is of the essence!

  • I also came here from the link in NY Times newsletter and wish I would have known about Helen a year ago (or at least after the first death in my state [and the US for that matter] from Covid in February when I started reading everything under the sun about it to try to understand it). I am wondering what Helen thinks of this website: https://ncov2019.live/data started by a local teen from my hometown over a year ago when he couldn’t find the comprehensive data about the virus he wanted all in one place. I have watched it for quick answers about numbers because it was a bit more user friendly to me than the John Hopkins one but I also wonder about accuracy when the numbers from both are not the same.

  • Great article about a true investigative reporter. Too bad there wasn’t a better response from our countries leaders, and for that matter the general public to make a small sacrifice with masks, hand sanitation, and social distancing and we would have been over this mess. My brother, his wife and myself and my wife traveled to Hong Kong on January 15 and from there to Miramar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and N and S Vietnam, returning to US on 2/19. We didn’t get COVID and still haven’t. All we did was follow what most of SE Asia already knows works! So sad for the USA!

  • Thanks so much for this interview! Helen is a hero in my eyes for her reporting of what was happening.

  • Very good article, I thought the coverage of the difference in how the US handled the pandemic versus the rest of the world was spot-on. I hope Helen will have the opportunity to travel to Canada very soon.

  • Excellent perspective! I am troubled by the fact that the world is divided into those who believe the virus is real and dangerous and the only response is to shut everything down and those who believe that the virus is a hoax and no precautions are necessary. The response is much more granular than that. Most people are wearing mask and social distancing. If they do gather, it is after being tested and/or have quarrenteened or self isolated appropriately. If we had developed a way to protect the most vulnerable (in long term care facilities), our death toll would be 1/2 of what it is. We have to protect those who need protecting and let the rest of the population get on with their lives. The shut down everything plan is incredibly ham handed and ultimately destructive to our society.

  • THIS is a fabulous piece – excellent questions … and the person on the receiving end is a veritable TREASURE! … Of course, I have a caveat or 2. The “economic impact” is definitely underplayed here. I’m in NY City, and some of the author’s “despair” strikes me as all too timely here. England surviving Brexit? – I guess… but when you think about how our big city – and many others – “computes” because people by the thousands take mass transit to work at desks…. NOW THAT is not going back to status quo ante as quickly as the author will get to see relatives!

    On a more positive note, her answer to Jason’s question about hope/confidence struck me as a little too abbreviated. I’d point to examples of “adaptiveness” that are both numerous and impressive, although it really is a little early to count some of them as even partial successes…. I *do* wonder about education and children in general. One hears that most of them cope successfully with all sorts of things (some arguably worse than Covid), but I doubt that there will be adequate resources available for those who don’t.

    Oh yes, back to “silver linings,” far from the right words. Air quality improved almost everywhere, and enough people – both policy-makers and “plain” citizens – understand cause-and-effect well enough, so that maybe many of the victims will come to be viewed as martyrs in the bigger battle to save the planet … from ourselves.

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