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It has now been two years since the first wave of the rise of the novel coronavirus in China was flatly ignored by virtually everyone. This has changed. We are now trying to follow the infection curves, to immerse ourselves in vaccine technology, to delve deep into the nature of zoonotics. Because, well, all (and not just in the sense of life or death) is leading mankind’s fight against a microscopic virus called SARS-CoV-2.

Tell us, dear scientist, what to do, what’s going to happen … tell us you have the answers. Yet we are compelled to keep relearning the first lesson of science: until we can legitimately claim a word like ‘eradication’, or more likely a word. mutation to a less virulent strain … Until we have conclusive evidence, we need to work with our hypotheses.

Virus shots on magazine covers

We journalists and editors tend to fall somewhere between the scientist and the storyteller. We’re hungry to research the facts, but lack the determination to digest tons of data or the patience to hunch over a petri dish for years to come. We keep an eye out for the twists and turns that bring a story to life, but we get paid to scrupulously avoid anything that deviates from what we might call reality.

Throughout the pandemic we have saluted doctors and frontline workers, assaulted politicians (bona fide and others) for mismanaging an impossible and unprecedented crisis, we have looked into every corner of life modern to see how that had been changed by COVID-19, and if those changes would persist. And yet, we have constantly struggled with the facts and lost the plot on several occasions.

The vaccine was touted as the miracle solution that would end this story.

It’s a story none of us have seen before, unfolding at warped speed with an invisible protagonist unresponsive to questions. On magazine covers, we continue to post the enlarged images of the virus, resembling a toddler bath toy – a ridiculously sad reminder of the limit of our storytelling tools right now.

A year ago, we really understood that it is the scientists, even more than the doctors and nurses on the front line, who will determine our fate. But again, we were largely wrong, with the vaccine presented as the miracle solution that would end this story as soon as possible. Researchers who broke all records in vaccine development have been celebrated as heroes; and like Atlantic recently recalled, the jabs “were billed as near-perfect shots that could block not only serious disease, but almost any infection – absolute wonders that would bring the pandemic to an abrupt end.” The stakes for some prominent experts seemed to be: to get vaccinated or to be infected. “

Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin, hero of the BioNTech vaccine

Navigate Omicron

As often happens, those of us reporting the news are caught between the official line and those who clench our fists against the official line. In the case of vaccines, the press seemed to take on an additional public service imperative: to help convince people to get vaccinated – even when its boundaries have become clearer. After the Mask Wars, anyone who questioned the gospel of the unprecedented global emergency immunization campaign, anyone who wanted to take a closer look at the numbers, was dismissed as knowing nothing, or worse. Over the past few months, we’ve seen the backlash that we risk not giving a clearer (and more scientific!) Picture of how vaccines work and their limitations.

There is an apparent paradox inherent in scientific endeavor: when science is wrong, the only solution is more science. And I speak on behalf of those, both inside and outside of my profession, who failed before 2020 to give science the place it deserves. It has never been a question of belief, quite the contrary: much more than choosing between the left or the right ideologically, the free press has always leaned strongly in favor of science rather than anti-science, each once a conflict could arise. We just haven’t managed to see the power of science as a story.

It is one of the most confusing times of the pandemic.

Now we see them everywhere. My favorite storyteller during the pandemic was neither a scientist nor a science journalist, but a sociological researcher, Zeynep Tufekci, whose work focuses on the way things are propagated, through society, and the body. Being of Turkish descent and based in the United States, she has a particularly holistic view of what is nothing but world history – and always has a way of pulling out relevant subplots to help us see through it. data fog.

In a recent article on Omicron titled Edition still not sure, Tufekci looked at the early findings in South Africa, where the new variant was first reported. “We still don’t know everything we should because the world is no longer uniform for some of the most important variables: previous infections and vaccination,” she writes. “South Africa has seen a massive previous wave, with an excess of deaths of around 0.5% of the population, a staggering 250,000 for a country smaller than (the United States), and also much younger in the age structure as far fewer people live to a later age. “

Another lucid storyteller of the COVID story that I discovered recently is Bob Wachter, the chair of the UCSF Department of Medicine, who captured where we are right now, both biologically and psychologically, in a series of tweets published as a guide to help navigate the December wave:

“This is one of the most confusing times in the pandemic… If you’re looking for ‘it’s safe’ or ‘it’s dangerous’ advice you won’t get it here – it’s too nuanced for that “, did he declare. writing. “We are all exhausted and sick from living this weird and diminished life. Quite naturally, this will influence decision making and risk tolerance for many people. But that doesn’t change the risks of these choices one iota. The virus is shredded and ready to go. It continues to deserve our respect and proper science-based caution. “

Degrees of diversity

In the French press, I had come across another type of scientific storyteller: the Parisian researcher of Spanish origin Lluis Quintana-Murci, who studies “how natural selection, human demography and the way of life have shaped the models of diversity of the human genome, to understand how this can impact phenotype variation and disease.

Journalists have called on Quintana-Murci for the past two years to try to understand why some people, or certain peoples, may be more or less susceptible to the virus. “First of all, let’s remember that the three main aggravating factors of COVID are not genetic (but rather being old, male and overweight),” he said. France Culture. “Beyond that, we know that East Asians have been exposed to coronavirus epidemics for 25,000 years, and are therefore better adapted than Europeans and Africans.”

Yet given the breadth of his research, conversations with Quintana-Murci inevitably lead to the kind of questions simmering beneath the surface of a world that was not in great shape even before the pandemic. Perhaps there is a hidden lesson we can learn from how we got in and out of this situation.

“Humans are just a gradation of genetic diversity,” he explained. “There is more genetic difference between two people chosen by chance from the general population than between a French and a Senegalese. The greatest genetic differences are between individuals, not between populations, which disproves the idea of ​​a biological existence of races. “

There is no such thing as hearing the scientific explanation of what you simply believe to be true.

photo of a man walking past a mural

What science looks like in Mumbai

Ashish Vaishnav / SOPA Images via Zuma

Science versus religion

The last two years have been a crash course in the hard sciences for me, having always leaned towards what we loosely call the humanities: political, social… and the mother of all anti-science: religion. This is a subject I mostly stumbled upon for a decade covering the Vatican, which I have always tried to account for, Good, in good faith… even though, personally and professionally, I tend to side with science.

It is difficult to argue with the scientific method.

On the question of science versus religion, we could also turn to one of the best storytellers (and comedians) in the world, Ricky gervais, an avowed atheist and an amateur scientist. Four years ago on late night television he won the argument with a staunch believer, Stephen Colbert, with this simple thought experiment:

Destroy all the great religious texts ever written, and in 1,000 years they will all be rewritten with different stories, different plots, different endings, Gervais said. Yet if you destroy the science books 1,000 years later they will come back exactly the same. They would run the same tests and get the same results.

Yet even if it is difficult to argue with Gervais, or the scientific method, it may not be enough to get us out of our current mess. Politics and politicians aside, COVID seemed to bring out the best of the rest of us in those early days of applauding doctors and sing from the balconies; but the longer it lasts, the more divided we are on issues as fundamental as public health and economic growth, open or closed borders, old versus young, science and faith.

None of this is simple, and the “there is no game manual” nature of our predicament worldwide calls for constant humility. The reality of the human-to-human contagion of a deadly virus reminds us of a simple, ancient fact on which benevolent believers in gods and science can agree – and the carnival barker in me wants to shout it out for the world to linger on. hear: People! People! People! We are all in there.

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