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Science Writing in the Age of COVID-19

It’s been a strange and busy 15 months for science journalists.

Each day, throughout the day, our inboxes overflow with the latest from the technical medical and science journals – tables-of-contents, abstracts, news releases, and the never-ending stream of article preprints. We jumpstart the journals by going straight to medRxiv and bioRxiv, aka “med-archive” and “bio-archive,” where investigators post articles before peer review.

Where We Get Information

It’s a deluge, an unrelenting barrage of new reports from the Science and Nature family of journals; the medical journals like JAMA, the Lancet group, and the NEJM; and publications that cover more basic science, like Cell and the journals from Public Library of Science, which has sponsored this blog since 2012. The journals send wrap-ups on the weekends, in case we’ve missed anything.

The clearinghouse for news releases for journalists, Eurekalert, provides information from a wide range of publications, government agencies, academic institutions, research centers, nonprofits, and companies, with quotes from experts and images and videos we can use. Eurekalert added a COVID tab to the topics menu early in the pandemic. Much appreciated!

As we try to stay ahead of our inboxes, we’re invited to webinars, zooms, and podcasts, all wonderfully helpful in crafting our stories. My favorite: the Conversations with Dr. (Howard) Bauchner podcast from JAMA.

Dr. Bauchner interviewed Rochelle Walensky before she headed up the CDC, and gave Anthony Fauci a place to speak as freely as was possible before January 20 of this year. They’d often end the sessions by discussing baseball. My cat Milton loves to watch Dr. Fauci on my laptop.

The first Conversation I listened to with Dr. Bauchner was Coronavirus in Italy – Report from the Front Lines, on March 13, 2020. Maurizio Cecconi, of Humanitas University in Milan, discussed patient zero in Lombardy, Italy, and how the then-epidemic took off. He told how they swiftly developed “an ICU network to rapidly identify, triage, and manage patients infected with SARS-2-CoV.” It was riveting, and terrifying.

Remember when we thought that the hearses slowly moving along an avenue in Milan seemed so far away, science fiction, that could never happen here? A month later, my daughter and son-in-law watched the first bodies wrapped in white carried out of the Mount Sinai ambulance bay next door, visible from their sixth-floor windows, stacked and then moved into the white trucks that had been mysterious until then.

In June, I listened as Brian Levinsky, with Northwell Health Center for Emergency Medical Services in Staten Island, NY, described as part of a day-long online seminar on the NYC response, what it was like to have to leave patients in their homes who were obviously on the brink of death. One man was found at the breakfast table, sitting up, dead. (Brian is the son of a dear friend from high school, shout-out!)

On October 14, Dr. Bauchner spoke with Dr. Fauci and FDA’s Peter Marks, who explained in detail the vaccine approval process. I never expected I’d be vaccinated by February.

The Forum from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has also been especially helpful in hearing views of the experts. I wrote about them
here two weeks ago.

Complementing the journal articles, news releases, webinars, and podcasts have been the data dashboards that emerged to help us tell our stories, such as the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker and the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard. I took the contact tracing course from Hopkins to learn more about epidemiology and public health – anyone can sign up, and it’s free.

A Few of My Favorite Things

The superstars of COVID medicine and science have made themselves available to journalists. This has helped us deal with the difficulty of setting up interviews with sources who simply cannot leave the front lines, regulatory discussions and data analyses, or their labs to chat with writers.

And so I listened to Paul Offit from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia discussing vaccines and Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch explain the metrics of herd immunity. Meanwhile, others formerly less well known have emerged as leaders, such as Leana Wen. I interviewed her for one of my first COVID articles for Medscape Medical News, and was thrilled the first time I saw her on CNN.

One of my favorite websites for COVID expert info is Dear Pandemic. The self-described “Nerdy Girls” – female scientists – explain the concepts and findings that most confuse the public.

Unprecedented Coverage

COVID news never stops. This is my 66th article, and I’ve never experienced anything like this, even when I was cranking out articles about rare diseases in the wake of the publication of my gene therapy book nine years ago.

The closest example of science news capturing public attention, besides the NASA launches of many years ago, might be the months leading up to the staged announcement in the White House Rose Garden, on June 26, 2000, of the draft sequencing of the human genome. Francis Collins, who headed the government Human Genome Project, and Craig Venter, from Celera Genomics, stiffly flanked President Clinton to announce the milestone, the date rumored to have been the only one left on the calendar. The groups had been in a long and bitter “race.” But illustrating the long-term nature of science, the “consensus sequence” is still being refined.

Who could have imagined that two decades after Collins and Venter unveiled their draft human genome sequences, another ceremony in the Rose Garden, to induct Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett, would help to spread COVID-19 because attendees thought they knew more than the health professionals warning about the risk of maskless crowds hugging and kissing. We clearly don’t need genome sequences to unmask the vast spectrum of human intelligence.

Connecting the Dots to Explain the Science

A challenge in communicating COVID news is the tremendous amount of scientific information that people must digest. Science writers try to connect the dots.

Understanding what SARS-CoV-2 does to a human body requires understanding the nuances of the immune response, such as distinguishing antibodies from T cells and the innate response from the adaptive response.

Understanding how the vaccines work entails knowing what RNA and DNA are, and how they tell our cells to produce and release the viral spike proteins that alert the immune system. I just recently learned how the fatty coverings ingeniously guide vaccine RNA into specific types of cells. We’re all learning, all the time, when it comes to COVID.

Even though monoclonal antibodies have been around for decades, used to diagnose everything from pregnancy to turf grass disease and to treat eclectic illnesses, now we’re encountering them as treatments for COVID. They’re lab inventions, not antibodies from convalescent plasma.

And we’re learning daily about the nuances of viral mutations, variants, and strains, as well as about epidemiology and public health. Much of it has been news to me, too. Even the language has changed. “Variant” to a geneticist means a single, specific change in a gene. A variant of SARS-CoV-2 includes several mutations. Time to rewrite my genetics textbook.

Battling the “Fake News” Mantra

Since the incantations of “fake news” began with the past administration, many people don’t trust the media to tell the truth. And readers and viewers new to science might not realize that there’s no scientific “proof,” that it is the very nature of science to alter what we thought we knew as data accrue. That’s why Dr. Fauci’s shifting of the limit of potential herd immunity wasn’t an error! His accusers simply had no idea how science works.

Science writers, steeped in the nuances of nucleic acids and the tools to communicate, are in a unique position to fathom some of the complex biology of the no-longer-so-novel coronavirus. I expect an avalanche of books.

Some people turn to their physicians for information on COVID, especially now that vaccines are available, but doctors aren’t typically trained in the molecular biology behind the vaccines, even if patients can penetrate the circuitous phone trees and online health “gateways” to speak to an actual person. But the expectation of support, comfort, information, and a vaccine from one’s health care provider makes sense, historically, because in days past, most vaccines were given at the doctor’s office. Flu shots at drugstores didn’t happen until recent years, and stadiums, parking lots, and casinos as mass vaccination sites are part of the brave new world of 2021. The webinars I’ve done for physicians from the CDC tend to stick to clinical data, and that makes sense, it’s more important for patient care.

Some people turn to politicians as authority figures during a time of extended crisis. But political pandemic expertise ranges from New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s frequent 11 am news briefings last spring that took us through scientific data that he had read, understood, had analyzed, parsed, and presented through easy-to-understand bar graphs and other comparisons … to Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson.

Just a few days ago Johnson claimed that natural infection against SARS-CoV-2 is superior to the protection that a vaccine induces, based on neither knowledge nor understanding. Besides the fact that not enough time has passed to meaningfully assess the durability of any protection, studies show that the antibody response to vaccine is more diverse. That makes sense, because the vaccines were engineered that way.

The mRNA in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is synthetic and built to “optimize” protection by eliciting many varieties of antibodies that recognize and attack the virus at several points. The mRNA does it’s thing and then enzymes quickly degrade it. The vaccine doesn’t enter the nucleus and change our DNA, wasn’t made from fetuses, brought by space aliens, and isn’t controlled by chips in the vaccine carrier molecules.

Dealing with the misinformation can be maddening.

There’s simply so much detail to digest, to connect, all the time. I can’t keep up. But I look forward to when I won’t be writing so much about COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2, and will hear the last uttering of the redundant “global pandemic.”

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