Following the science: the writers who’ve made sense of Covid | Books
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 4’s 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.
A man waits for a train to arrive on at Finsbury Park underground station in London on 31 March, during the first lockdown. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images
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. “I’d 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 I’m a science reporter who has covered pandemics before.”
Adam Rutherford now suffers from long Covid: ‘When I was at my very worst the ambulance was called’
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.
Laura Spinney’s 2017 book about the 1918 Spanish flu, Pale Rider shot into bestseller lists in multiple countries. Photograph: Steven May/Alamy Stock Photo
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. “It’s 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 it’s so urgent. “That’s 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 we’re 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 wouldn’t 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.
‘I thought I was going to die’ … Adam Rutherford. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer
“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 hadn’t worked. I’d 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 it’s 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 it’s very easy if you’re 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 we’re 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.”
There’s 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 nation’s 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 Johnson’s 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.
Prime minister Boris Johnson alongside chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, at a news conference on Covid-19 on 26 November. Photograph: Reuters
There were fears of a public erosion of trust not just in government but also in scientists, just as trust was most needed. We’ve 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.
The best books about Covid
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 government’s scientific advisers should share the blame. In The Covid-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again, Horton describes Britain’s 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, Quammen’s book is plotted like a detective thriller.
Though she is not a science journalist, Zadie Smith’s 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 Street’s 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.