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Reporter shares tips for covering pandemic preparedness Date: 09/15/17

By Bara Vaida

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, a billionaire philanthropist who has been working to eradicate infectious diseases through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, warned the global health community in February 2017 that he believes there is a “reasonable possibility” there will be a pandemic in the near future and world leaders must do more to prepare. Freelance journalist Bryan Walsh explored pandemic preparedness in a May 15, 2017, article “The World Is Not Ready For The Next Pandemic,” for Time magazine. As his story was published, China announced that it is continuing to battle the spread of a dangerous flu virus named H7N9, which has sickened 756 people and killed 247. So far, the flu has been spreading mostly between birds and individuals, but if the virus mutates, it could become more infectious between individuals and blossom into a worldwide pandemic.

In a Q&A, Walsh talked about this reporting and writing process and his advice for reporters interested in covering pandemic preparedness.

Q: What got you interested in writing this story?

Bryan Walsh

A: It goes back a long way. In the beginning of my career I was in Hong Kong … and in 2006, I was covering the SARS [severe-acute respiratory syndrome] epidemic, where it was happening. Later on, I spent a lot of time on the H1N1 [swine flu outbreak in 2009]. So I had a long interest in infectious diseases. [Last year,] I was talking to my editor Siobhan O'Connor, who I am married to, for full disclosure, and she and I knew we wanted to do [a story on pandemic preparedness.] The question was, how to do it and in what ways should we get into it? We considered doing it from the animal cause [of emerging infectious diseases], or [around] some of the genomic sequencing of [infectious diseases]. Then the political situation changed with the election of President Trump, adding uncertainty to the U.S. preparation [for a potential pandemic.]… And then H7N9 was spreading at a higher rate than normal, so that was what we could bring some focus on [for this story] and not just some theoretical warning.

Q: What was your biggest challenge as you started working on this?

A: Writing about something that hasn’t happened yet. It isn’t as if you are in the moment and reporting on Ebola or H1N1. H7N9 was spreading in China, so that was something we could bring some focus on and say here is an example of how something could begin. Here are a lot of bad things that can happen in the world.

Q: What are the best resources for covering pandemic preparedness?

A: I would bring it home to how [a pandemic] would effect people in the US. If you dig around, you find studies and reports and experts who can discuss the multiple impacts of infectious diseases. Michael Osterholm [director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy at the University of Minnesota] is a great resource. He can describe how [a pandemic] will effect the economy, and how our hospitals don’t have a lot of surge capacity [to handle a lot of sick people]. I’d also use some historical examples. It’s funny, [but] 1918 (the year of the Spanish flu outbreak which killed an estimated 20 to 100 million people worldwide) is only 100 years ago, yet you can use that to bring people into understanding the huge impact [a pandemic] can have.

Q: Any other suggests for resources?

A: I find personally find the animal/human intersection really, really interesting. I [would talk to] Nathan Wolfe, [CEO of Global Viral Forecasting]. Medabiota, [a San Francisco-based technology company] does some really interesting work using data to figure out how a disease would evolve. The people around PREDICT [a joint US Agency for International Development and private sector collaboration for anticipating emerging diseases] is fascinating. EcoHealth Alliance, based in NYC, sends people around the world to look to where pathogens are spreading from animals to humans and have great research. Charles Chiu [director of the University of California, San Francisco Medical School’s UCSF-Abbott Viral Diagnostics & Discovery Center] does great work on genetic sequencing. I didn’t have enough space [in the Time piece] but he is really going to change how we do diagnosing in the future.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you as you reported this story?

A:  I was surprised how poorly we [as a country] deal with diseases. We focus disease by disease. Like Ebola, you [had] to ask Congress for funding. The [U.S.] can’t get an emergency fund [paid for] in advance [even though you know there will be infectious disease outbreaks.]

Q: In writing about pandemics and scary infectious diseases, how do you balance informing the public without inflaming fear?

A: I find it very difficult. When I look back at [our] Ebola coverage, [we were] trying to throw the brakes on [fear] and emphasize [the facts.] We had reporters on the ground and in the hot zone [of the outbreak in west Africa] and I was [focused on] how do we keep our reporters safe? We reported on the devastation and we [said] this isn’t a disease that spreads easily. [We had] to wake up [the public] but also not overemphasize the dangers. When you are in that situation where the public is running ahead of the facts, the onus is on reporters to slow things down and emphasize this is a dangerous [disease] but for reasons x, y or z, and this is why it’s not likely to be a world-ending danger. You do the best you can to be honest, straightforward and focus on accurate information. You try to emphasize there is a difference between not having a 100 percent certainty [about the known facts] and something being totally wrong.

Bryan Walsh has been a New York City-based freelance writer and producer focusing on science and health since January 2017. Previously, he was a staff writer for Time magazine based in Asia, where he covered the SARS and H5N1 flu outbreaks. He later served as Time’s international news editor in New York.