When it comes to covering epidemics, COVID-19 isn’t Amy Maxmen’s first rodeo. Now a senior reporter for Nature, Maxmen got her start in infectious disease journalism through the Ebola outbreak that began in West Africa in 2014, which she covered as a freelancer.
Through a series of trips to Sierra Leone that spawned several feature-length articles, Maxmen found her eyes opened to the staggering ripple effects of epidemics, and the ways in which they force biology and medicine to collide with politics, economics, and social justice. Over the following years, her list of Ebola stories grew beyond a dozen, culminating in a 2019 exclusive on the World Health Organization’s response to the virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
As another infectious outbreak tears across the globe, Maxmen is once again on the front lines of news coverage. Since December, when SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—was first detected, she has kept her finger on the pulse of the pandemic. In early March, she wrote one of the first reports to warn about the United States’ lack of diagnostic tests—an issue that continues to hamstring efforts to curb the virus’s spread within the U.S. Weeks later, acting on a tip from a source, she covered early efforts trialing the use of blood from individuals who had recovered from COVID-19 to help those still grappling with the disease.
The throughline in Maxmen’s coverage, from that first trip to West Africa in 2014 to today, is honest portraiture of the scientific process—and the people who push discovery forward. Her stories have featured researchers working behind the scenes—many of them unsung heroes, even in their own communities. Recently, she’s also spotlighted the frustrating disconnects between academia and industry. The United States’ slow and insufficient ramp-up of testing and surveillance in response to COVID-19, she writes, isn’t due to a lack of capacity, but the widening cracks in the infrastructure that governs how science is done and shared. In this way, COVID-19 and Ebola aren’t so dissimilar: Both have exposed fixable failures at the nexus where science and society intersect.
Here, Maxmen tells Katherine J. Wu about finding unique angles on the pandemic, how her past experiences with Ebola have informed her COVID-19 reporting, and how she’s staying grounded amid the chaos. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
New information about COVID-19 comes out every single day. What’s your bar for a story that’s worth reporting on?
My own preference, maybe to my editor’s chagrin: I love trend stories. If one lab is doing a thing, that’s fine, but I’m more interested in, “What’s the trend there? What does this illustrate on a broader level?” I’m interested in what’s going to make a difference in this outbreak.
I really have had luck just writing the stories that I’m passionate about. Sometimes that means having to find the right angle, and it definitely relies on having an editor who’s willing to let you have a little bit of flexibility and freedom in what you cover.
For example, last year, I wanted to write about the importance of strengthening the health system in low-resource countries—an extremely boring topic. But I knew I had to sell it as a story, and find the story in there. So I found the head of the Nigerian CDC, who was great on the phone and had a great backstory, and I got to tell that story in a way that was interesting. Sometimes, you do have to work harder [to find those crucial characters].
Where have you been finding your pandemic stories? It seems that some of your ideas come from Twitter, where a lot of scientists studying SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 are discussing their findings and hypotheses.
Twitter gives me the idea. Then it’s important to get off of Twitter and see where the story goes.
The first story I wrote was inspired by a tweet from Trevor Bedford, a geneticist at the Fred Hutchinson Center, from the end of February. He tweeted that they’d found a virus in a teenager in Seattle that closely mapped to a [COVID-19] case that had been identified six weeks earlier. Their modeling basically suggested the virus had been circulating within the community for this whole time. That was when I first thought, “Oh my gosh, this is a big deal.”
I got to Seattle a few days later, originally intending to write about Nextstrain (an online, open-source project tracking pathogen evolution in real time), and what genomic sequencing is telling us.
But when I got there, I ended up talking to Helen Chu, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and other researchers in the university’s virology department. They had developed diagnostics, but they were prohibited from using them by the CDC and the FDA throughout February, and then at the end of February, they were permitted to start. *
But when I got there, I ended up talking to Helen Chu, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Chu and her colleagues had vetted diagnostics, but they were prohibited from using it by the FDA throughout February, and then suddenly, on February 29, the FDA gave them the go-ahead.
So I was seeing them working all night and just really ramping this up. To me, that was the story.
That ended up being the first piece I saw about what had happened with the lack of testing in February. I’m proud to have broken that piece.
Has it been easier or harder to find sources, especially when some of the people you’re trying to reach are working so much?
“All outbreaks are messy and chaotic. There’s always a lot of public confusion and lack of trust or misinformation. The difference here is that social media is much bigger. When I go to places where most people don’t have smartphones, misinformation isn’t spread as fast.”
Easier. The sources that I want to reach right now are people who are big on public health, epidemiology, infectious diseases, or outbreaks. I think it does help when I send them a couple of clips, like my feature from the DRC on Ebola. I think I’m finally at the point where I’m getting some recognition and time from people who are otherwise really busy. But I have to make myself available all the time. A lot of the people I’m talking to are working harder than I am. So that means evenings and it means weekends. I get to talk to people for a little bit longer than they might give me during the day on a weekday. And the main way I get new sources is, I ask, “Who else do I really need to speak with about this?”
Do you have a favorite story that you’ve reported so far on COVID-19?
That first one, in Seattle. There was another that sprang out of a conversation with [a bioengineer] at UC Berkeley, who told me about all the different roadblocks he was hitting. I liked that story because it was basically about how academic labs have really impressively ramped up testing. They’re able to do 4,000 or 5,000 tests a day—it’s not insignificant. And yet, none of the labs I spoke with were operating at their full capacity. Sometimes it was a supply issue, but a lot of it was a lack of planning, and the lack of cohesion. And it just sort of highlighted really deep problems in our system right now. So to me, that was pretty shocking.
It seems like you’ve written a lot about how this pandemic is forcing people to confront how research is done and the way academia is perhaps siloed from other aspects of society. Why has this been a point of focus for you?
A big problem that many low-income countries face is lack of capacity for testing and other aspects of outbreak preparedness. In the U.S., labs have tons of equipment and a ton of expertise. I thought that we would be okay. So it’s been stunning to me that we’re this bad. I think the reason why I keep coming back to the theme about scientists not being connected to the rest of the system is because I’m surprised by it. How could we have such enormous research capacity, and yet be doing so badly?
Has there been a most challenging pandemic story so far?
I always feel like it’s the last one. The last story I wrote was about the need to understand why or how COVID is moving through homeless populations, in order to make evidence-based strategies for controlling it in any setting where people have a lack of agency to be able to isolate at home. The people who are most at risk are often the people who are most marginalized. You have to tell a really good, compelling story and give people a reason to believe it matters. That’s hard to do.
So how do you accomplish that in your writing? Do you have an example from recent or past coverage?
The Ebola outbreak in the DRC was the most complicated one yet because it took place in a war zone. And yet, the international media hardly covered it. I really had to focus on telling a good story when I wrote about it. Good stories are often about characters overcoming complicated challenges. In this case, the director of the WHO, Dr. Tedros, is that person.
How does covering this current outbreak compare with your past coverage of Ebola? What did you learn from your Ebola coverage?
They’re very, very similar, in my mind. All outbreaks are messy and chaotic. There’s always a lot of public confusion and lack of trust or misinformation. The difference here is that social media is much bigger. When I go to places where most people don’t have smartphones, misinformation isn’t spread as fast. Outbreaks also expose structural problems in a place. The poor are hit hardest.
Ebola was really transformative for me, because I didn’t study infectious diseases. I studied evolutionary biology. When I went to Sierra Leone to cover Ebola, I was only going to be there for 10 days. And I ended up extending my ticket like three times to stay for a little over a month, then I went back a month later, and then I applied for a new grant and went back again. I’ve tried to explain to people, I’m not just into Ebola because it’s scary. It was all of the things that it exposes and the knock-on effects. I became really interested in what outbreaks do, where they occur, and how political and social dimensions play into them.
You’ve been churning out stories lately, all about difficult topics with enormous impact. How are you staying grounded right now?
I’m not doing anything revolutionary, I don’t think. On the weekends, I like to take a book somewhere I can read outside—places that don’t have a lot of people. And I do love talking on the phone. I can have these two-hour-long conversations with friends now. On Friday nights, a friend and I FaceTime and watch TV together. Anything to try and step away.
I told one friend that Twitter was driving me crazy. Sometimes he’ll look and text me, “Why are you tweeting at midnight? Put the phone down.”
And one more thing I enjoy right now? A friend loaned me her Chihuahua indefinitely. So I have a Chihuahua now, and she’s so cute.
I’m sorry. What?
Earlier on in all of this, I posted a picture of a spider in my house on Instagram and said something about how I was naming my spider … I should probably have a dog. My friend was like, “Amy, I’m driving to your house and dropping off Dolores.”
She lives on a small farm about half an hour away, where she has dogs, goats, rabbits, and chickens, and she has a six-year-old son. She was like, “I don’t need all of this.”
So she literally pulled up, dropped off the dog, and was like, “She’s easy. See you later.”
Dolores is a really good dog. I grew up with dogs, but this is the first one that’s just mine (sort of). She’s the most adorable thing. She likes to sit on the back of the couch that’s next to my computer and just stick her head out by my computer. It’s so cute.
Before the coronavirus pandemic began, you covered a mix of topics, including infectious disease, machine learning, and evolution, which you have a PhD in. Are you still following your old beats?
I have very little interest in covering other things right now. But there’s no doubt that there’s going to be something else that captures my attention someday. It’s going to feel so good to write an evolutionary biology story one day. I can’t wait. I’d like to write things without serious human consequences.
* Clarification: An earlier version of this story mentioned Helen Chu and her colleagues at the University of Washington, but should have clearly stated the involvement of other research labs at the same university. The story has been updated to clarify this, as well as to cite the involvement of the CDC in restricting testing.
Katherine J. Wu is a science journalist and Story Collider senior producer who has written for Smithsonian, National Geographic, Popular Science, Undark, and more. She is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and is currently a reporting fellow at The New York Times’ science desk. She holds a PhD in microbiology from Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineJWu.