It’s now been two years since the first wave of the novel coronavirus rising in China was being roundly ignored by virtually all of the world. That has changed. We now binge on infection curves, immerse ourselves in vaccine technology, dive deep on the nature of zoonotics. Because, well, everything (and not just in the life-and-death sense) is riding on humankind's head-to-head battle with a microscopic virus named SARS‑CoV‑2.
Tell us, dear scientist, what to do, what will happen … tell us you have the answers. Yet we are forced to keep re-learning the first lesson of science: Until we can rightfully claim a word like “eradication,” or more likely a mutation to a less virulent strain … until we have conclusive proof, we must work with our hypotheses.
Virus shots on magazine covers
We reporters and news editors tend to stand somewhere between the scientist and storyteller. We get hungry to track down the facts, but lack the single-mindedness to digest mounds of data, or the patience to stay hunched over a Petri dish for years at a time. We have an eye for the plot twists that drive a story, but we are paid to scrupulously avoid anything that veers from what we can call reality.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve hailed the doctors and front-line workers, assailed the politicians (of good faith, and otherwise) for mismanaging an impossible and unprecedented crisis, we looked in every nook of modern life to see how it had been changed by COVID-19, and if those changes would stick. And yet, we have constantly struggled with the facts and repeatedly lost the plot.
The vaccine was presented as the miracle solution that would wrap up this story.
It’s a story none of us have seen before, unfolding in warped speed with an invisible protagonist that doesn’t take questions. On magazine covers, we keep publishing the blown-up images of the virus, looking like a toddler’s bath toy — a laughably sad reminder of how limited are our storytelling tools right now.
It was a year ago when we truly understood that it was the scientists — even more than the front-line doctors and nurses — who would determine our fate. But here again, we largely got it wrong, with the vaccine presented as the miracle solution that would wrap up this story sooner rather than later. The researchers who broke all records in developing the vaccines were celebrated as heroes; and as The Atlanticrecently recalled, the jabs “were billed as near-perfect shots that could block not only severe disease, but almost all infections — absolute wonders that would bring the pandemic to a screeching halt. The stakes some prominent experts laid out seemed to be: Get vaccinated, or get infected.”
Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin, BioNTech vaccine heroes
As often happens, those of us reporting the news are caught between the official line and those shaking their fist at the official line. In the case of the vaccines, the press appeared to take on an additional public service imperative: to help convince people to get their jabs — even when its limits became clearer. After the mask wars, anyone who questioned the gospel of the unprecedented global emergency vaccination drive, anyone who wanted to look harder at the numbers, was dismissed as know-nothing, or worse. Over the past months, we’ve seen the blowback we risk when not giving a clearer (and more scientific!) picture of how vaccines function, and their limits.
There is a seeming paradox built into scientific pursuits: when science gets something wrong, the only solution is more science. And I speak for those, both inside and outside my profession, who had failed before 2020 to give science the space it deserves. It was never a question of belief, quite the opposite: Far more than choosing between the ideologically left or right, the free press has always skewed hard toward science over anti-science, whenever a conflict might arise. We just failed to see the power of science as a story.
This is one of the most confusing times of the pandemic.
Now we see them everywhere. My go-to raconteur through the pandemic has been neither a scientist nor science journalist, but a sociology researcher, Zeynep Tufekci, whose work essentially focuses on the way things spread, through society, and the body. Being Turkish-born and U.S.-based, she has a particularly global view of what is nothing if not a global story — and always has a way of pulling out pertinent sub-plots to help us see through the fog of data.
In a recent post on Omicron entitled Still Not Sure Edition, Tufekci looked at the early findings in South Africa, where the new variant was first reported. "We still don’t know all we should because the world is no longer uniform for some of the most important variables: prior infections and vaccination," she writes. "South Africa had a massive prior wave, with excess deaths of about 0.5% of the population—a staggering 250,000 for a country smaller than (the U.S.), and also much younger in age structure because so many fewer people live to older age."
Another lucid teller of the COVID story I've discovered recently is Bob Wachter, the Chair of UCSF Department of Medicine, who captured where we are right now, both biologically and psychologically, in a series of tweets posted as a guide to help navigate the December surge:
“This is one of the most confusing times of the pandemic … If you’re looking for ‘this is safe’ or ‘this is unsafe’ advice, you won't get it here — the situation is too nuanced for that,” he writes. “We’re all exhausted and sick of living this bizarre and diminished life. Quite naturally, this will influence many people’s decision-making and risk tolerance. But it doesn’t change the risks of those choices one iota. The virus is chipper and ready to go. It continues to deserve our respect, and appropriate caution based on the science.”
Gradations of diversity
In the French press, I'd stumbled upon a different kind of scientific storyteller: Paris-based, Spanish-born researcher Lluis Quintana-Murci, who studies “how natural selection, human demography and lifestyle have shaped the patterns of diversity of the human genome, to understand how this may impact phenotype variation and disease.”
Journalists have called on Quintana-Murci over the past two years to try to understand why certain people, or peoples, may be more or less susceptible to the virus. “Let’s first of all remember that the three main aggravating factors of COVID are not genetic (but rather being old, male and overweight),” he told France Culture. “Beyond that, we know that East Asians have been exposed for the past 25,000 years to coronavirus epidemics, and so are better adapted than Europeans and Africans.”
Yet given the breadth of his research, the conversations with Quintana-Murci inevitably lead to the kinds of questions simmering below the surface of a world that was not in great shape even before the pandemic. Perhaps we can pull out hidden lesson from both how we got in, and will get out of, this situation.
“Humans are just gradation of genetic diversity,” he explained. “There’s more genetic difference between two people chosen by chance from the general population than between a Frenchman and a Senegalese. The biggest genetic differences are between individuals, not populations, which refutes the idea of a biological existence of races.”
There is nothing quite like hearing the scientific explanation for that which you simply believe to be true.
How the science looks in Mumbai
Ashish Vaishnav/SOPA Images via ZUMA
Science v. Religion
The past two years have been a crash course for me in the hard sciences, having always leaned toward what we loosely call the humanities: political, social … and the mother of all that is anti-science: religion. It’s a topic that I mostly stumbled into during a decade covering the Vatican, which I always tried to report on, well, in good faith … even if, personally and professionally, I tend to side with science.
It's hard to argue with the Scientific Method.
On the science v. religion question, we might also turn to one of the best storytellers (and stand-up comics) around, Ricky Gervais, an avowed atheist and amateur scientist. Four years ago on late-night television, he effectively won the argument with a convinced believer, Stephen Colbert, with this simple thought experiment:
Destroy all the great religious texts ever written, and in 1,000 years they’ll all be rewritten with different stories, different plots, different endings, Gervais said. Yet if you destroy the science books, 1,000 years later they’ll come back exactly the same. They would run the same tests, and get the same results.
Yet even if it’s hard to argue with Gervais, or the Scientific Method, that alone may not be enough to get us out of our current mess. Politics and politicians aside, COVID seemed to bring out the best in the rest of us in those early days of applauding doctors and singing from balconies; but the longer it continues, the more we are divided over such fundamental questions as public health and economic growth, open or closed borders, old v. young, science and faith.
None of this is simple, and the "there is no playbook" nature of our global predicament calls for constant humility. The reality of human-to-human contagion of a deadly virus reminds us of a simple and ancient fact that benevolent believers of gods and science can agree on — and the carnival barker in me wants to shout it out for the world to hear: People! People! People! We - Are - All - In - This - Together.