A senior correspondent at Science magazine, Jon Cohen is no stranger to epidemics. With an emphasis on biomedicine, he has spent decades covering HIV/AIDS, Ebola, influenza, immunology, and vaccines, among other public health issues.
The Pulitzer Center has supported Cohen's reporting through the years, and now through the COVID-19 reporting by Science. Cohen took time out of his long reporting days to lead the second installment of our online Talks @ Pulitzer Science and Health Series on April 16, 2020. The series is part of the Pulitzer Center's shift to all online events for the time being in light of the coronavirus pandemic and respective public health guidelines.
In his presentation, Cohen focused on the race to find a vaccine against the coronavirus. In his reporting for Science, he and other journalists explore potential treatments and vaccines as well as the course of the disease, the patterns of spread around the world, and impacts on society. To read some of his most recent reporting, visit "The Science of COVID-19" project page.
The following is an edited transcript of the Question & Answer segment of the April 16 Talks @ Pulitzer, moderated by Ann Peters, the Center's university and community outreach director. Also included are several audience questions that were not presented during the 45-minute webinar due to time constraints, but were answered by Cohen after the session via email communication.
The post-session answers are indicated by an asterisk*. Portions of this text have been revised for clarity and/or length.
Question: Doctors and government officials don’t know when a vaccine will be developed. Why does it take so long?
Answer: It has to be done in a staged way because the potential for doing harm is high. Remember, vaccines are going into people who have nothing wrong with them. If you’re dying from cancer, you may want to try a very dangerous drug because your options are few. With the vaccine, it’s a risk-benefit equation. The safety bar is really high because you don’t want to hurt anyone. These are healthy people—we’re volunteering. So, you have to start with small numbers in order to make sure nothing weird is going on. Many vaccines have been thrown into the garbage can because of what happened in early trials. It’s critical that we not cause harm.
Q: There seems to be a race among countries to develop the vaccine first. What implications could this have?
A: It’s a difficult question. CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) builds equity and access into their contracts, so if you want their money, you have to play by their rules. It’s a free-for-all right now, and we’ve seen bad actions in the past. During the H1N1 pandemic and influenza epidemic of 2019, the United States and European countries offered 10 percent of their vaccines to developing countries and resource-limited places. But that’s not a solution. To me, that’s a pretty tacky way to deal with the issues. We need something more rigorous to make sure that the world, at large, has access in an equitable way and a reasonable timeframe. We’re in this together—the world has never had a common enemy like this. Climate change, yes, but there are countries [and politicians] that don’t believe in climate change. Show me the politician who doesn’t believe SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19 and I’ll show you a politician who is heading toward the political graveyard. Everyone all over the world knows this is real. Everyone is afraid of this, and we’re working together in a way that I’ve never seen before. It’s a problem for the world, and we’re only going to be safe when we, as a world, collectively drive this virus away.
Q: Is it realistic to develop herd immunity naturally without a vaccine?*
A: Yes, look at Zika in the Americas.
Q: With the lack of knowledge and interest in science and data among many government officials, how do scientists earn trust among the general public?
A: There’s a lot of political noise right now. Try to tune out the politicians as much as possible—by-and-large they say things that are misleading or confusing. Give me a scientist who knows how to communicate over a politician who knows how to communicate. Politicians want good news all the time. Science is neutral, it’s not positive or negative. It’s based on: ‘Here’s what we know. Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad.’ But that’s what we need—we need truth. We don’t need cheerleaders, we don’t need to be sold things by salespeople. I see the need for politicians, but I’m arguing that it’s better to listen to scientists. Science offers the best assessments of what to do today as well as the most powerful tools to get out of this dilemma. I think the public by and large realizes that and has turned to scientists for facts, guidance and hope. I have no idea how to measure how trust goes up or down, but I doubt it’s been harmed.
Q: What role does universal health care play in administering a future vaccine?
A: I think COVID-19 has changed the world. I don’t know how much [universal health care] is going to come into play here. Because even in a country like the United States that has a really fractured healthcare system, there’s such a drive to take care of everyone. You even see socialized ideas taking place here in the United States because people realize we’re in this collectively. I think if there’s a vaccine, there will be a big push in the United States to get it to everyone, regardless of insurance.
Q: How do you think the development of a COVID-19 vaccine will impact the debate over mandatory vs. voluntary vaccination?*
A: I think people will line up to get the vaccine.
Q: As a journalist, how do you cover COVID-19 at home?
A: I like to get out in the field. I like to see things. I like to meet with people in hospitals, those that are caring for people and those that are sick. I like to go into labs. I travel a great deal—probably 25 percent of the time. The Pulitzer Center has helped me travel extensively and I’m incredibly grateful for that. There’s nothing like being on the ground and doing field reporting. But, on the flipside, when I’m locked in my house like this, I start really early and go really late. I’ve been more productive in the past three months (in terms of words that have appeared online and in print) than any three month period in my life. And I work the phones, Twitter, email, and every app you can imagine to communicate with people internationally—and I collaborate with a team that’s international. You could argue that it’s drowning all of us in communication, but I’m learning how to sift through it quickly and find what I need and it’s been a tremendous output of high quality journalism in my mind. It’s been a fascinating disease to cover and it intersects with so many things that I’ve covered for my entire career. I know a lot of people at the front and I’m in communication with people who are the biggest thinkers and leaders in the responses because I’ve known them for years. At the end of the day I have this great wave of satisfaction because I feel useful. And I think that’s why I work and do my job is to feel useful, that’s what I want.
Q: When can things return to normal?
A: Everyone wants to know when we can get back to normal, and I think the answer is it’s going to vary based on where you live. I don’t think we’re going to get back to normal until there’s a vaccine. I think we’re going to be in this situation where we have to constantly reassess where we’re at and what we’re doing and I think we’re going to pulse things like ‘shelter in place for a while’ and it will pulse based on our hospital systems and what they can handle. The whole point of this is not to overwhelm hospital systems because we know what happened in Italy, we know what happened in Wuhan, we know what happened in Seattle and New York. So we’re going to pulse how we respond based on herd immunity. Maybe seasonality will slow the virus to some degree, maybe treatments will help ease the burden on hospitals. All of those equations are going to factor in and we’re going to have to keep waking up every day and checking our sources and figuring out how we’re going to respond that day. It’s not going to end for a very long time and my best hope is that the vaccine will come out more quickly than people are predicting and then we can have some stability.
Q: What can people do to help?
A: Every outbreak I’ve covered has taught me and the world about biology and the environment and I think people are learning tremendous amounts already. I think with Zika we had discussions about mosquito control that people had not thought through before. With HIV people learned through the immune system in a way they hadn’t before. And we’ve learned about animal vectors and zoonotic jumps. Where can you learn more? Well, I think Science magazine—and I’m going to sell us for a moment—has a phenomenal resource that’s free where you can read our coverage which goes in depth on anything that interests you.