Contribute Try STAT+ Today

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.

advertisement

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.

advertisement

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.

  • I came to this article via a link in the NYTimes morning email newsletter. So glad to know about Stat and Braswell’s great reporting. I’ll be back!

  • My husband and I have followed Helen’s reporting throughout the pandemic. Hers has been a voice of reason and calm amidst the noise and chaos. Our sincere thanks to Helen and all of you at STAT for your excellent reporting. You have given us truth, and more importantly, hope.

  • Thank you for the wonderful interview. It helps put the long story of the past year in perspective. Helen Branswell’s superb reporting not only helped me understand the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2; it also made me aware that STAT was doing reporting on a far higher level than the norm. Ms. Branswell, please enjoy your well-deserved vacation and stay safe!

  • I’ve had the pleasure of reading articles by Helen Branswell for many, many years. She sets the bar for writing that is clear, well written and interesting. Thank you for continuing to spread the word!

  • Good job Jason. I will continue to follow you. Thank you for your efforts.

  • This is a helpful article! Last year at this time, I was not convinced that my small, rural community would be effected by Covid-19. Living in Indiana, we had not been effected by H1N1 or the other viruses that threatened a pandemic. But, by the end of this month last year, I was beginning to get concerned. While my comment is not revelatory by any means, I am still astounded that many people in my community are carrying on like normal: not wearing masks, holding opening events for new businesses (yes, people are opening businesses in rural America during a pandemic!), and doing so while our Covid positivity rating is increasing and currently at 18.9%. Our City Hall is closed to visitors and non-essential employees and our local health department declared that the recommendations to prevent Covid-19 contraction made by the State Health Department are not working. And yet, no lockdown or any new, drastic measures have occurred to limit contraction at the local level. It all seems very irresponsible to me by the leaders of our country and local municipalities.

  • I am a high school Journalism teacher sharing this with my classes today. Thanks for running this interview!

Comments are closed.