This year has had the makings of an epic saga: a monstrous disease that took over the world, killing the oldest, poorest and most vulnerable, imprisoning the population in lockdown and the heroic scientists who battled day and night to create a miracle vaccine to defeat it. Books are already being written about their quest, and we will rush to read them, hoping to understand more about this terrible pandemic and how it was ended.
It has been an extraordinary year to be a science writer, watching the formerly niche subjects of epidemiology, virology and immunology take centre stage a bit like how it must be for constitutional law experts when a new Brexit detail is announced. Suddenly, being a scientist and writing about science was more interesting to the public than making movies or playing football (especially when neither of these was allowed). The scramble to get a grip on this invisible global killer was all-consuming, and writers rose to the challenge, producing reams of coverage: the disease was only officially named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (Sars-CoV-2) on 11 February; by June, the first book on it had been published.
To give a flavour of the initial pace of change, on 19 January, I was part of a panel reading the papers for BBC Radio 4s Broadcasting House programme, and I picked out a story in the Observer about a new Sars-like virus in China that was thought to have affected about 1,700 people. I proposed that we should take the threat of this disease seriously, but my two fellow panellists recommended healthy scepticism, saying scientists were overreacting and that they were exhausted by next plague stories. We were all about to get much more exhausted.
Fast forward a month, and I was speaking at the same literary event as a palliative care doctor and a mathematical modeller from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Adam Kucharski, who was giving a talk about his new book The Rules of Contagion. His presentation involved graphs showing exponential infection rates and equations explaining R values. Watching it, I felt a little pity for him it was interesting to me, especially given the UK had experienced three cases of the new coronavirus, but who else here would have the slightest interest in R values?
Well, we all know how that panned out. Just a couple of weeks later, a parent approached me in the playground as I dropped my kids off for school, chatting about the R number. Two weeks after that, the entire nation was in lockdown. Incidentally, the palliative care doctor at the event, Rachel Clarke, became, like Kucharski, a regular on news and current affairs programmes, providing valuable expertise as the R value rose and, with it, the number of deaths.
As the world shut down, the veteran infectious diseases reporter Debora MacKenzie was gearing up for the biggest assignment of her life. A longtime correspondent for New Scientist magazine, MacKenzie has covered everything from Sars to Mers to Ebola, so her finely tuned antennae picked up signals as far back as 30 December, when she noticed a post on ProMED (the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases), describing an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan. Busy hosting a full household in her French home on the outskirts of Geneva, she kept an eye out through the holidays, becoming increasingly worried. Before January was over, she had predicted the pandemic.
I was the first journalist to call it, MacKenzie says, and after that, I continued near-constant corona reporting: 14 articles by 13 March. Meanwhile, she had been contacted by the literary agent Max Edwards, who suggested she write a crash book about the pandemic, which could be published quickly. On 6 March I sent Max the pitch; on the 17th, I got the offer from Hachette, she says. MacKenzie then entered a writing frenzy, working from 7am to midnight for 45 days straight, to produce COVID-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One. It coincided with lockdown in France, so my husband was doing his job from the kitchen table. And my daughter was loudly editing horror films in the room next to my office.
Just as MacKenzie was preparing to write her first book, in Washington DC the science writer Ed Yong was downing tools. He was in the middle of a 10-month sabbatical from his staff job at the Atlantic magazine to complete a popular science book about how animals sense the world around us. Id been following the news about Covid-19, through the first months of the year, with a growing unease, Yong says. I saw it spread around the world and Im a science reporter who has covered pandemics before.
By mid March, Yong could wait no more. He returned to work and quickly established himself as a leading voice on Covid. His first big article, published on 25 March, was titled How the pandemic will end. That was a 5,000-word piece that I reported and wrote in a sort of 10-day fever-dream, he says. It hit at exactly the time when people had started going into stay-at-home orders. There was so much chaos and misinformation that it seemed this was the question that everyone was asking. I got 1,000 reader emails in the space of a couple of weeks. Tens of millions of people read the piece.
Claudia Hammond, who, like all writers, had seen literary engagements cancelled, ended up working on three different BBC radio series all about the virus. Meanwhile, she says, because of lockdown, and people being furloughed, my book The Art of Rest seems to have taken on new resonance for many people.
Like Hammond, Yong and so many science journalists, I too found myself writing almost exclusively about Sars-CoV-2 from the social psychology of herd behaviour to the epidemiology of herd immunity, from genetic sequencing to spike protein targets.
For Laura Spinney, whose 2017 book about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, Pale Rider, anticipated the current crisis, this has been a whirlwind of a year as the book shot into bestseller lists in multiple countries, and sold new translation rights across the world. Suddenly, she had to drop her current book projects to focus solely on Covid. Its almost like the body scientific has been affected with Covid like our actual bodies have putting all its resources into this one massive problem, Spinney says. A vast amount of research has been generated this year, with a shift towards preprints and speed, and people from other specialities focusing on it because its so urgent. Thats been fascinating to watch.
This is the first digital pandemic, with people able to watch infection and death rates evolve in real time but, as Spinney points out, compared with the 1918 pandemic, we are hardly more knowledgeable about the epidemiology figures such as the infection fatality rate (IFR) partly because were still in the midst of it. We need distance from it, to collect and make sense of the data, she says. But how can we ever know how many people were infected, say, back in March, when there were no tests and even now, tests are not completely reliable? Spinney herself contracted Covid along with her husband in September, and lost her sense of smell for two weeks, although, like many, she was not tested.
Nothing brings a global pandemic into sharper focus for a writer than nearly dying from it. Broadcaster Adam Rutherford was promoting his book about racial pseudoscience, How to Argue With a Racist, in mid March, when he started to feel a bit run down and developed a cough. He called the BBC to let them know that, like his producer and several others in the Science Unit, he probably had Covid and wouldnt be coming in. The next day, during a phone interview for the Today programme, he told Martha Kearney that he expected to be over it quickly. In fact, Rutherford was gravely ill for weeks, and now suffers from long Covid.
When I was at my very worst the ambulance was called, he says. I had been remotely diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia, which had worsened because the first course of antibiotics hadnt worked. Id been given a different course, but my oxygen saturation was down to 83 you get hospitalised when it falls to 90 so the ambulance was on its way, but there was a two-hour delay I thought I was going to die.
For Rutherford, Covid-19 has been life changing, leaving him not just with enduring breathlessness and fatigue, but new insight into disability. It makes me think a lot about how there are millions of people out there with a health issue, whether its mental or physical, or a combination of the two, which is definitional something that they have to think about all the time. And it makes one more compassionate, more empathetic, because its very easy if youre healthy just to disregard people who have health complaints.
Many searched for a genetic explanation for the spread of Covid. Early on, people started talking about a genetic predisposition to infection, which if it does exist, is going to be insignificant compared to the list of known socio-economic issues, Rutherford says. We always lean towards a new sciencey artefact, such as a genetic explanation, as something that we can maybe tackle, because were not willing to do the hard thing, which is to tackle socioeconomic inequity.
The Covid pandemic has clearly been a much broader story than the science of how a virus infects us, and many of us have worked to convey the social, economic and environmental context of this global crisis. Yong describes the pandemic as an omni crisis, because it touches every aspect of our lives. It was clear from early on that to really understand it, I would need to talk to historians and sociologists, anthropologists, scholars who understand disability rather than just virologists, epidemiologists and immunologists.
Theres a reason why the countries that have fared worst with Covid are the ones led by populist leaders. A pandemic is a complex problem that affects and is a product of our human system. Populism is a denial of complexity, and populist leaders have tended to look for simple answers and to spin politically useful decisions as being based on the science.
In the US, the Trump administration openly trashed science and the nations most eminent experts. There, attitudes to Covid divided on political partisan lines, largely driven by Trump downplaying the risks. By contrast, the UK prime minister declared he was being led by the science, and appeared flanked by scientists at daily press conferences. Yet Johnsons government increasingly ignored the advice of its own scientific advisers. Worse, it exploited the public trust in scientists to push through favoured policies or excuse its actions, including the unedifying journey of Dominic Cummings, against which neither the chief scientific adviser nor chief medical officer spoke out. While many other scientists made clear their opposition to government policies, the science risked becoming increasingly politicised and co-opted by public figures with little or no scientific literacy.
There were fears of a public erosion of trust not just in government but also in scientists, just as trust was most needed. Weve seen a rise in conspiracy theories, and for every science writer rigorously explaining research findings, there has been a high-profile commentator opining against mask-wearing, denying official infection figures and spreading misinformation.
For someone like me who has written extensively about the climate crisis over the years, this all felt very familiar: the politicisation of science, the evidence-deniers and so on. Indeed many of the same financial backers and lobbyists were involved. Despite all this, public interest in science remains strong and, with the announcements of effective vaccines, white-coated lab scientists have become the heroes we all need. The tale of painstaking discovery, and the triumph of experts, has become the dominant narrative. After months of misery, there is a huge appetite for it.
In the grip of a pandemic winter, we are still a long way from delivering the happy ending, but the scientific discoveries made this year in testing, treatments and now vaccines have been a vindication of the scientific process, a story of international collaboration, selfless determination and belief in human solutions. There will be huge numbers of books written about this pandemic, studies of politics and economics, memoirs and novels. But look out for the science ones they have the power to root our drama in the workings of biology, human systems, and the scientific quest to solve a global catastrophe. And there have never been better writers to capture this extraordinary story.
Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time by Gaia Vince is out in paperback from Penguin.
By Mark Honigsbaum
Perhaps no commentator has been in greater demand this year than Adam Kucharski, a disease modeller based at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, whose book The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread and Why They Stop is an accessible guide to the mathematical rules that govern the spread of infectious diseases in populations. Written before the pandemic and published in February, it makes a convincing case that just as mathematics can predict the arc of an epidemic, so it can also help us understand how social contagions, from financial panics to vaccine conspiracy theories, go viral.
In Covid-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One, the veteran New Scientist contributor Debora MacKenzie explains how scientists have been warning for years about the dangers posed by novel pathogens harboured by bats and other wild animals. The fault for our present predicament, she suggests, lies with politicians for failing to take the warnings seriously and not investing more in pandemic planning.
Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, would not disagree with that verdict, but thinks that the governments scientific advisers should share the blame. In The Covid-19 Catastrophe: Whats Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again, Horton describes Britains botched response to Covid-19 as the greatest science policy failure for a generation. Scientists had all the data they needed about the threat posed by the coronavirus at the end of January, he argues, but rather than advocating for stricter measures they colluded with the government, who were keen to keep the economy ticking over.
The coronavirus is not the only animal pathogen to have leapt to humans, of course. In his influential book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, published in 2012, David Quammen explains how the last half century or so has been marked by a succession of spillover events, from HIV and Ebola to less well-known viruses such as Hendra and Marburg. Travelling deep into the rainforest with the scientists hoping to identify the next pandemic pathogen, Quammens book is plotted like a detective thriller.
Though she is not a science journalist, Zadie Smiths essay Contempt as a Virus, which appears in her collection Intimations, captures in precise, measured prose the sense of exceptionalism and contempt for the rules exhibited by Dominic Cummings in his now infamous press conference in Downing Streets rose garden. Cleverly co-opting the language of epidemiology, Zadie quips that while back in February herd immunity had been a new concept for the people, for Cummings it was simply the seamless continuation of a long-held personal credo. Immunity. From the herd.
Mark Honigsbaum is the author of The Pandemic Century: A History of Global Contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19.
- Precision Medicine Platform Aims to Advance Cancer Gene Therapies - HealthITAnalytics.com - February 11th, 2021
- Celebrate the Third Annual Medical Genetics Awareness Week April 13-16, 2021 - PRNewswire - February 11th, 2021
- The race to treat a rare, fatal syndrome may help others with common disorders like diabetes - Science Magazine - February 11th, 2021
- Myriad Genetics to Participate in Multiple Upcoming Health and Technology Conferences - GlobeNewswire - February 11th, 2021
- Neurons from patient blood cells enable researchers to test treatments for genetic brain disease - Brown University - February 11th, 2021
- The science behind those afternoon naps Harvard Gazette - Harvard Gazette - February 11th, 2021
- Ensoma Launches to Pioneer Next-Generation In Vivo Approach to Deliver First Off-the-shelf Genomic Medicines - Business Wire - February 11th, 2021
- Im 28 and I Dont Know My Family HistoryHeres How That Affects My Health - Well+Good - February 11th, 2021
- Ensoma Launches with $70 Million Series A and Takeda Licensing Deal - BioSpace - February 11th, 2021
- Response to Cancer Immunotherapy May Be Affected by Genes We Carry from Birth - UCSF News Services - February 11th, 2021
- NeuBase Therapeutics Reports Financial Results for the First Quarter of Fiscal Year 2021 - GlobeNewswire - February 11th, 2021
- PM Modi Waives off Rs 6 Crore Tax on Imported Medicine for 6-month-old Baby Girl from Mumbai - News18 - February 11th, 2021
- GeneSight Psychotropic Test's Combinatorial Approach Proves Better than Single-Gene Testing at Predicting Patient Outcomes and Medication Blood Levels... - February 11th, 2021
- Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of the First Publication of the Human Genome - Scientific American - February 11th, 2021
- Stem Cell Study Illuminates the Cause of a Devastating Inherited Heart Disorder - Newswise - February 1st, 2021
- Mysterious untreatable fevers once devastated whole families. This doctor discovered what caused them - CNN - February 1st, 2021
- Decibel Therapeutics and Invitae Announce Launch of Amplify Genetic Testing Program - BioSpace - February 1st, 2021
- CCMB team identifies variants of genes that metabolise drugs - BusinessLine - February 1st, 2021
- Digbi Health's gut-microbiome and genetic-based obesity management program now allows 60,000 Doctors and Providers in Blue Shield of California's... - February 1st, 2021
- Copy number variations linked to autism have diverse but overlapping effects - Spectrum - February 1st, 2021
- Are Gene Therapies the Medicine of the Future? - BioSpace - February 1st, 2021
- Exploring the Relationship Between the Microbiome, Precision Medicine and Cancer - Technology Networks - February 1st, 2021
- Press Registration Is Now Open for the 2021 ACMG Annual Clinical Genetics Meeting - A Virtual Experience - PRNewswire - February 1st, 2021
- 4 New Life Sciences Licensing Deals and Investments to Watch - BioSpace - February 1st, 2021
- CRISPR Mutants - The Dawn of CRISPR Mutants - SAPIENS - SAPIENS - February 1st, 2021
- SMART Study Finds 22q11.2 Microdeletion Prevalence Much Higher than Expected - PRNewswire - February 1st, 2021
- Genomes, Maps, And How They Affect You - IFLScience - February 1st, 2021
- Are Phages Overlooked Mediators of Health and Disease? - The Scientist - February 1st, 2021
- Two Gene Therapies Fix Fault in Sickle Cell Disease and -thalassemia - MD Magazine - February 1st, 2021
- The First Targeted Therapy For Lung Cancer Patients With The KRAS Gene MutationExtraordinary Results With Sotorasib - SurvivorNet - February 1st, 2021
- Atsena Therapeutics Raises $55 Million Series A Financing to Advance LCA1 Gene Therapy Clinical Program, Two Preclinical Assets, and Novel Capsid... - December 17th, 2020
- Locanabio Announces $100 Million Series B Financing to Advance Portfolio of Novel RNA-Targeted Gene Therapies for Neurodegenerative, Neuromuscular and... - December 17th, 2020
- NeuBase Therapeutics Announces Positive Preclinical In Vivo Data for PATrOL-enabled Anti-gene for the Treatment of Myotonic Dystrophy Type 1 -... - December 17th, 2020
- Genetic Analysis Services Market: Uptake of Next-generation Sequencing and Multi-gene Tests to Drive Market - BioSpace - December 17th, 2020
- FDA Clears Genetic Modification in Pigs for Biomedicine and Food - The Scientist - December 17th, 2020
- Key Genes Related to Severe COVID-19 Infection Identified - The Scientist - December 17th, 2020
- UNLV Researcher on the Curious Case of COVID-19 Reinfection - UNLV NewsCenter - December 17th, 2020
- Genomics and medicine it's complicated | Health | willistonherald.com - Williston Daily Herald - December 17th, 2020
- Emedgene collaborates with Illumina to scale the interpretation of genomic data for rare diseases - PRNewswire - December 17th, 2020
- Polymerase Chain Reaction Market | Increased Outbreak of Infectious Diseases to Accentuate Demand in the Market - BioSpace - December 17th, 2020
- LogicBio Therapeutics names Daphne Karydas and Jeff Goater to Board of Directors - BioSpace - December 17th, 2020
- rBIO Achieves Crucial Milestone on Mission to Lower the Cost of Insulin by 30% - BioSpace - December 17th, 2020
- Report: More than 1,300 Medicines and Vaccines in Development to Help Fight Cancer - PRNewswire - December 17th, 2020
- San Diego's Locanabio raises $100 million for treatments aimed at degenerative diseases - The San Diego Union-Tribune - December 17th, 2020
- Worldwide SNP Genotyping Industry to 2025 - Pharmacogenomics Led the End-user Segment of the SNP Genotyping Market - ResearchAndMarkets.com - Business... - December 17th, 2020
- Potential Weakness in SARS-CoV-2 Discovered Single Protein Needed for COVID-19 Virus to Reproduce and Spread - SciTechDaily - December 17th, 2020
- Landing of $75M expansion of Texas-based Taysha adds to Triangle's growing gene therapy hub - WRAL Tech Wire - December 17th, 2020
- Track the Vax: What Do We Need to Know About the New Vaccines? - Everyday Health - December 17th, 2020
- Medical history from the year you were born - Quad City Times - December 5th, 2020
- Sarepta Therapeutics to Share Clinical Update for SRP-5051, its Investigational PPMO for the Treatment of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy - GlobeNewswire - December 5th, 2020
- Biochip Market | Increased Popularity of Personalized Medicine to Boost the Market Growth | Technavio - Business Wire - December 5th, 2020
- December: Baby birth weight research | News and features - University of Bristol - December 5th, 2020
- Global Next Generation Sequencing Market (2020 to 2026) - Growth, Trends, Competitive Landscape, and Forecasts - GlobeNewswire - December 5th, 2020
- NIH researchers link cases of ALS and FTD to a mutation associated with Huntington's disease - National Institute on Aging - December 5th, 2020
- Precision Medicine Market Poised to Grow at 11.5% By 20227 - GlobeNewswire - December 5th, 2020
- Fact check: mRNA vaccines kept at very cold temperatures so that they do not break apart; COVID-19 vaccines will not genetically modify humans -... - December 5th, 2020
- Stoke Therapeutics Announces Presentations Related to the Company's Work to Advance STK-001, the First Potential New Medicine to Target the Underlying... - December 5th, 2020
- King George III's illness debunked as symptom 'caused by medicine prescribed to him' - Express - December 5th, 2020
- Stoke Therapeutics to Present at the Needham Virtual Epilepsy & Pain Specialty CNS Therapeutics Conference - Business Wire - December 5th, 2020
- Gene experts claim they identified human genes that can protect against Covid-19 - CNBC - November 23rd, 2020
- Genome Medical Reaches 90 Million Covered Lives in US - PRNewswire - November 23rd, 2020
- Sarepta Therapeutics Named One of The Boston Globe's Top Places to Work 2020 - GlobeNewswire - November 23rd, 2020
- New Study Highlights the Importance of Genetic Testing for Pancreatic Cancer Patients - PRNewswire - November 23rd, 2020
- Baylor Genetics Launches Combination Test for COVID-19 and Influenza A and B; Multi-Panel Test Seeks to Address Dilemma of "Overlapping symptoms... - November 23rd, 2020
- CHOP Researchers Reverse Severe Lymphatic Disorder in Patient with Noonan Syndrome by Targeting Genetic Pathway - BioSpace - November 23rd, 2020
- Myriad Genetics Announces Global Expansion of Myriad myChoice Tumor Testing in Europe and China - GlobeNewswire - November 23rd, 2020
- Epigenetics and pulmonary diseases in the horizon of precision medicine: a review - DocWire News - November 23rd, 2020
- Four years after landing in US, graduating ISU senior is on his way to medical school - Iowa State University News Service - November 23rd, 2020
- Lethal brain infections in mice thwarted by decoy molecule - Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis - November 23rd, 2020
- Reducing barriers to mainstream gene therapy - BioPharma-Reporter.com - September 4th, 2020
- Mapping Genetic Diversity of Lung Tumors Over Time May Lead to More Effective Therapies - UCSF News Services - September 4th, 2020
- Multi-site study to evaluate the role of testing guidelines in ensuring access to genetic information for men with prostate cancer - PRNewswire - September 4th, 2020
- Global Prime Editing Market to Witness Heightened Growth During the Period 2020 2030 - The Daily Chronicle - September 4th, 2020
- Liquid biopsies to disrupt the oncology testing market - Medical Device Network - September 4th, 2020
- Global RNA-interference (RNAi) Market Growth, Trends and Forecasts to 2025: Focus on Key Players Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Arrowhead, Quark... - September 4th, 2020
- Yale researchers find a cause and possible treatment for Fragile X - Yale News - September 4th, 2020
- 'Coming into their own': FDA approval of liquid biopsy tests puts early, less invasive cancer detection in broader reach - USA TODAY - September 4th, 2020
- Fusion Genes Associated With More Aggressive Papillary Thyroid Cancer in Pediatric Patients - Targeted Oncology - September 4th, 2020
- Existing Class of Drugs May Improve Neurological Function in Patients with Rare, Aggressive Genetic Disorder - Newswise - September 4th, 2020
- Genomic analysis reveals insights on virulent, emerging foodborne pathogen - UB Now: News and views for UB faculty and staff - University at Buffalo... - September 4th, 2020