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Carving out your piece of the pandemic story can require persistence and ingenuity Date: 07/01/20

Katherine Eban

By Bara Vaida

When President Trump declared in March that the generic antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine was a “game-changer” in the battle against COVID-19 and would be available “immediately” to treat patients, Katherine Eban, like many health journalists, was skeptical. The author and investigative journalist has written extensively about fraud in the generic drug industry, so she was concerned.

Eban began poking around and found there was worry among those who know the drug regulation process takes a significant amount of time, and were aware that there had been almost no studies to prove Trump’s claim. Eban talked to her Food and Drug Administration sources, which led her down a path to produce a series of stories for Reuters, Time and Vanity Fair about how the administration has been mismanaging the response to the pandemic.

In this “How I Did It” Q&A, Eban discusses how she got started on the hydroxychloroquine story and other pandemic topics. She also offers some great advice to journalists covering this huge story. (Note: Her book, “Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drugs Boom,” came out in paperback in June.)

How did you get started on the hydroxychloroquine story?

The day after Trump got up (at the White House Pandemic Task Force briefing) and was talking about this game-changer drug, people were like, what is this? But the story didn’t start for me until I spoke with a government source who flagged for me that something really unusual behind the scenes was happening. There was a tremendous amount of pressure being exerted (by the White House) to try to get the FDA to stockpile these drugs. The pressure was so intense that the FDA had basically cast aside a very long-standing safeguard, which was it had accepted a donation of chloroquine drugs from Bayer that were being made in a plant in Pakistan that had never been inspected by the FDA. So, what we are seeing is immense political pressure being brought to bear on long-standing systems of safety and scientific processes.

How did you find sources in reporting the story?

Having sources who know how the (federal regulatory) system works (helps). In the middle of a pandemic ―where the best sources are really, really short of time, and they are being chased by lots of media ― I would, say, talk to former federal employees. They can tell you how the system is supposed to work and what is unusual. Often, they have the cell phone of the successors and with no one working from an office, there aren’t a lot of ways to make contact. You will have to have a cell phone number. And they won’t talk to you (if you first connect with them) on a government email (account) so … through my reporting … what I now understood was happening, was this huge machinery, operating behind the scenes to widely disseminate hydroxychloroquine … (which) had been the subject of a big battle within the administration. So, once you have something that is a big battle, that is another way to reach out to people ... Say, “Hey, I know there is a disagreement here, can you talk about it?” and a lot of the (former) employees are on LinkedIn and Twitter, so you can see what they are concerned about and reach out to them in that (disagreement).

I’ve heard that as a piece of advice consistently. Find your sources during this pandemic on social media.

Yes, once you get the cell phone number, you can put that into WhatsApp or Signal and see if they are on there. Sometimes, you can get them that way. Another thing I have been doing if there is someone I want to talk to, I will email them every couple of days. I won’t get anything back for a while, but I keep emailing them until I do hear back from them. One of the things I do is I will actually write to them with information. I give them information, rather than just being in the position of asking them for information.

Can you give an example of what you mean?

What can make people feel nervous is if you are just seeking information, and they would be the only person that would be giving you information. That makes them feel exposed. But if you have a sense that you have any number of sources, that can be a better way to go. Another thing, I’ve been searching through my old contacts and old rolodexes and, while I may not know current people at a state health department, some of my old contacts might know them. So, I am really trying to build a network of sources that I can go back to on a regular basis and ask them what is going on. I do that every few days, because the news cycle is so fast now. You need a spirit guide, people who are incentivized to help you get information. There are legions of people who are horrified by what is going on, and those people can be helpful.

What have been your biggest obstacles as you’ve covered COVID-19?

I would say, my biggest obstacle, (is that) every journalist on planet Earth is on this story, and there are a finite number of sources. I am reporting on my own, and I am not part of a team, like at the Washington Post and New York Times. I wish I was sometimes, because the horsepower they have is awesome and admirable. So then, you are like, how am I going to break information here when the stories are moving so fast, and the sources are finite? What I found myself doing is building my stories by acting kind of like a Hoover vacuum, trying to vacuum up little crumbs of information. Each person has one little piece of information, like a text or an invoice, or an email, across agencies, and then you can piece them together like a puzzle into a story.

Any other pieces of advice?

Think about potential sources ― people you want to reach ― and how they are spending their days. Everyone is on Zoom and on these interagency Zoom calls, so 15 or 20 people are on these calls, and they have the information so you are trying to figure out who these people are. Who is privy to it, so I have taken out organization charts, HHS (Health and Human Services) organization charts and there are like 1,000 agencies at HHS that I had never heard of, and each has a different piece of this response. Then you go to LinkedIn and you find who are the former people and you get cell phones for the current people. So it is very painstaking, but that is how you build a network of sources.

Do you think any of your stories have resulted in change yet?

There are a lot of journalists who are doing stellar work. As a collective effort, we are excavating the real story of this pandemic and the government’s response. I would say that I feel that my early reporting on hydroxychloroquine and the master plan to dump it all over New York and New Jersey, I think being able to get behind the scenes of the hydroxychloroquine story may have played some part in getting the FDA to revoke the emergency use authorization.

What advice do you have to local reporters who are looking for investigative angles on COVID-19?

Every local paper should be looking at their hospitals, nursing homes, testing, PPE, all of that. I think there are a lot of issues about federal guidelines versus state guidelines versus local guidelines. That was one of the dynamics in my story (about Tulsa and the Trump rally). There are regional and state health officials that wanted to pass common-sense guidelines and they are being overruled by governors. There are whistleblowers (to be found) at every level, but you have to go looking for them. One of the first things I did when I started working this, I called up whistleblower lawyers and said, “Hi, I am here reporting on this.” You have to put signs up all over town. You have to make your luck. How do you do that? I introduce myself to a lot of people.