The pandemic ignited public interest in science, introducing the phrase “doing my research.” But the persistence of the idea that science aims…
Three years ago, health officials in China announced the first cases of infection with a “novel coronavirus.”
Dr. Zhang Jixian reported the first case on December 26, 2019 in a senior couple living in the residential community near her hospital in Wuhan. An expert in SARS, she recognized the triad of fever, cough, and an unusual pneumonia.
The earliest events remain a bit murky.
“On December 30th, China reported an outbreak of respiratory disease in Wuhan City, a major transportation hub about 700 miles south of Beijing with a population of more than 11 million people,” declared Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, on January 17, 2020.
But I heard about it on NPR shortly after New Years.
My first COVID post was January 23: “I’m astonished at the speed with which geneticists and epidemiologists are zeroing in on the Wuhan coronavirus,” referring to the first viral genome sequence announced January 15. Sequencing viral genomes would evolve into a powerful tool of, well, viral evolution, with the US caught behind.
It’s been a hellish roller coaster ride, with terrible tragedy juxtaposed against some of the most astonishingly brilliant science I’ve ever encountered. I switched from covering rare genetic disease to following the erupting pandemic, reporting news, interpreting technical reports, and delving into the history of epidemiology.
I think about the origins often, comparing RNA sequences and trying to deduce how it happened.
The new pathogen SARS-CoV-2, or a direct predecessor, came from nature. Likely mammals such as bats carried viruses out of caves to who-knows-where, perhaps eventually a wet market or two, maybe following a stint at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. There the critically located tweak to the viral genome happened, intentionally or not, more than a single RNA base change. But somewhere along the journey, genetic changes to the virus’s Achilles heel (the receptor binding domain of the spike protein) happened, easing entry into human cells. I covered it all, returning to the origin theme because it still intrigues me.
Most of my posts ran here at DNA Science, several at Genetic Literacy Project, and a few at Medscape and MedPage Today. Early on, I sometimes had 2 COVID articles published on the same day; now it has trickled to one every few weeks.
At first I interviewed clinicians and researchers, until everyone became too busy to talk. Then government agencies like FDA and CDC, major medical and science journals, and clinical centers began holding regular webinars for health care providers and journalists so we could keep up. Dr. Fauci was a regular on my favorite, which JAMA sponsored, often speaking off-the-cuff in those days before hatred was irrationally turned on perhaps the greatest physician-scientist of our time.
Other early speakers to the media would emerge as lead communicators as the pandemic wore on. I remember Dr. Leana Wen talking to me for a long time before CNN signed her on. And several of the key people in vaccine development shared their thoughts. At the same time, availability of preprints on medRxiv.org and bioRxiv kept journalists up-to-the-minute on research, albeit not yet peer-reviewed. With so many people dying, there simply wasn’t time for the protocols of normal scientific and medical publishing.
As viral genome sequences accrued and mRNA vaccines were taken off the shelf from SARS 1.0 circa 2004 and adapted to the new target, my background in genetics became ever more useful for explaining things: protective mutations; viral variants; natural selection in viral evolution; the choreography of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection that could go into deadly overdrive; anatomy of the virus; and applying existing biotechnologies to develop diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments.
My most important post was one of the first to describe the anatomy of the enemy: From February 20, 2020, COVID-19 Vaccine Will Close in on the-Spikes. The most personal was when a new friend died (Sandy from the Mountains Dies, Leaving a Message to the Unvaxxed), epitomizing how not understanding science and being vulnerable to those who think they do can be lethal. My family tried to save her.
Along the way, I tuned out politicians’ absurd suggestions: inject bleach, take untested drugs, restrict flights into the US.
I watched in horror as the anti-vaccine movement gained momentum, opening the door to not only SARS-CoV-2 but to other pathogens, such as the highly infectious virus that causes measles. Today’s ignorance and arrogance will surely reverberate for decades.
I delved into past plagues and looked ahead to how SARS-CoV-2 would continue to evolve, including the viral point of view.
I screamed at the TV as news reports continued to focus on antibodies, when T cells were clearly calling the shots. Explain the biology!
I cringed at the misuse of classic terms from genetics – like wild type and gain-of-function – and their trumpeted new meanings tainted with the value judgment that is not part of science.
Here are my 100 COVID posts, a chronology of a killer virus, from the beginning.
January 23, 2020
The Wuhan Coronavirus Inspires a Look Back at the Discovery of Viruses
February 11, 2020
Will scientists ever get ahead of fast-mutating deadly health viruses? Exploring the coronavirus and the genetics of other plagues
February 20, 2020
COVID-19 Vaccine Will Close in on the-Spikes
March 9, 2020
Risk Factors for Death From COVID-19 Identified in Wuhan Patients
March 11, 2020
Early GI Symptoms in COVID-19 May Indicate Fecal Transmission
March 13, 2020
So You Have a COVID-19 Patient; How Do You Treat Them?
March 16, 2020
A Million COVID-19 Cases Already, Global Estimates Suggest
March 17, 2020
How the “F” word-flu-led to confusion as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded
March 17, 2020
Coronavirus Stays in Aerosols for Hours, on Surfaces for Days
March 19, 2020
Can Existing Drugs Treat COVID-19? From Viagra to Thalidomide to Cough Syrup
March 19, 2020
Digestive Symptoms Tied to Worse COVID-19 Outcomes
March 24, 2020
Comparing the coronavirus pandemic to past pathogenic threats: HIV, anthrax and Ebola
March 26, 2020
Drugs to Treat Novel Coronavirus Part 2: Rx for Restraints
April 1, 2020
Sophie’s Choice’ in the time of coronavirus: Deciding who gets the ventilators
April 8, 2020
‘Designed to be slow’: Why these coronavirus vaccines in the pipeline won’t be ready this year
April 9, 2020
A Brief History of Plagues and Pandemics: From the Black Death to COVID-19
April 14, 2020
Can genetics explain the degrees of misery inflicted by the coronavirus?
April 18, 2020
Normal Chest X-ray Doesn’t Rule Out COVID-19
April 24, 2020
Large Study of COVID-19 NYC Hospital Cases Shows High Mortality
April 27, 2020
‘At home’ coronavirus test? How CRISPR could change the way we search for COVID-19
April 30, 2020
Rare Disease Families Cope with COVID
May 5, 2020
Quest for coronavirus treatment inspires modern twist on antique technique using survivors’ plasma
May 12, 2020
The tricky path for using stem cells to treat coronavirus-ravaged lungs
May 14, 2020
Will the COVID-19 Pandemic End Like War of the Worlds or Logan’s Run?
May 19, 2020
Coronavirus immunity passports could create a world of ‘us and them’. But here’s why they make sense
May 28, 2020
The Fallacy of the “Make It So” Mentality to Rush a COVID-19 Vaccine
June 2, 2020
‘Humanized mice’: Chimeras fuel quest to treat chronic diseases, cancer and even COVID-19
June 4, 2020
Dr. Fauci Optimistic About COVID-19 Vaccine Progress
June 11, 2020
Protests and the Pandemic: Will COVID-19 Resurge?
June 18, 2020
How an Antibody Cocktail Against COVID-19 Channels the 3 Stooges – But is a Great Idea
July 6, 2020
Stem Cell Strategies Get Compassionate Use in COVID-19
July 16, 2020
A Tale of Two Clinical Trials: Gene Therapy for a Rare Disease and a Vaccine for COVID-19
July 23, 2020
Can Past Coronavirus Infection Protect Against COVID-19? Hints from Smallpox Vaccine
July 30, 2020
COVID Genomes Paint Portrait of an Evolving Pathogen
August 3, 2020
Vaccine ‘durability’: COVID-19 immunizations coming soon but will they last?
August 5, 2020
Sniffing Out Stem Cells Behind COVID-Skewed Olfaction
August 6, 2020
She Had Her Own Mutation, Sequencing Led to a Treatment and Major Genetic Discovery – Then She Died of COVID
August 13, 2020
How COVID-19 Arose and Amplified Along the Meat Supply Chain
September 10, 2020
How the Various COVID Vaccines Work
September 15, 2020
“Challenge studies”: Should we be testing COVID vaccines by intentionally infecting volunteers?
September 24, 2020
5 COVID-19 Updates: Cats, Kids, Seniors, Blood, and an Old Vaccine
October 14, 2020
Final weeks to approval: NIH’s Anthony Fauci and FDA’s Peter Marks on what’s ahead before we can expect a safe COVID vaccine
October 22, 2020
Can Some Antibodies Worsen COVID-19? The Odd Situation of Enhancement
October 26, 2020
Down Syndrome Tied to Tenfold Risk for Death From COVID-19
November 4, 2020
Waning COVID-19 Antibodies Expected, No Cause for Alarm
November 12, 2020
Genetic Clues in the Goop of a COVID Swab
November 18, 2020
T Cells May Tell Us More About COVID Immunity
November 19, 2020
Thinking About Thanksgiving? A Reminder of What COVID-19 Can Do To A Human Body
November 23, 2020
When it comes to COVID, nurture trumps nature – so far
November 26, 2020
Worse Than COVID? The Tasmanian Devil’s Contagious Cancer
December 3, 2020
Dr. Paul Offit Talks COVID Vaccines, With JAMA’S Howard Bauchner
December 9, 2020
Why Do Males Fare Worse With COVID-19? A Clue From Calico Cats
December 16, 2020
Are Old Vaccines Helpful Against COVID-19?
December 17, 2020
The First COVID-19 Vaccines: What’s mRNA Got To Do With It?
December 31, 2020 Ignoring Pandemic Warnings and Links to my 54 COVID Articles
Ignoring Pandemic Warnings and Links to my 54 COVID Articles
January 21, 2021
Mutants Come to Saratoga: COVID New Variants Explained
January 28, 2021
Are We Hurtling or Hurdlings Towards Herd Immunity for COVID-19?
March 18, 2021
Science Writing in the Age of COVID-19
May 20, 2021
May 27, 2021
June 10, 2021
July 1, 2021
July 22, 2021
July 30, 2021
August 5, 2021
August 19, 2021
September 16, 2021
October 7, 2021
December 23, 2021
January 13, 2022
January 27, 2022
March 3, 2022
March 7, 2022
March 17, 2022
March 24, 2022
April 28, 2022
May 19, 2022
June 2, 2022
July 21, 2022
August 18, 2022
November 17, 202
December 1, 2022