Infectious disease reporter Jon Cohen helps make sense of COVID-19

virus spread

'We don't know how much COVID-19 there is in this country because we've had a testing fiasco'

Malcolm Linton

Jon Cohen on a research trip to Uganda.

For several decades, journalist Jon Cohen has reported on infectious diseases from countries around the globe. Such experiences make him uniquely equipped to cover the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, as a staff writer for Science magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Cohen’s articles and no-nonsense Twitter presence have become a sobering source of information for those trying to make sense of the virus. “We’re getting a lot of traffic,” he said. 

Flipped switch: Working with an international team of editors and reporters, Cohen has kept up a grueling schedule since early January, when he first read about the existence of a novel coronavirus that popped up in China. “That flipped the switch,” he told Jewish Insider recently by phone from his home in Cardiff, California, a beach town outside of San Diego. “When those of us who cover infectious diseases hear ‘novel virus’ — that means new virus — we kick into gear.”

Life on the edge: Cohen has always gone to where the action is — and he said he had wanted to travel to Wuhan to cover the virus but couldn’t get a visa. “I didn’t see this as particularly life-threatening to me,” he said. “I’m a journalist. I wanted in. I wanted to go to the heart of the fire and see it.” What accounts for his attitude? “My father’s Israeli,” Cohen said. “I grew up living summers in Israel. I have a very different sense of risk than most Americans.” 

Fun fact: Cohen’s father, Avshalom Cohen, was a well-known Israeli songwriter who penned a number of hits, including “Agala Im Susa,” which Cohen described as the Israeli equivalent to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” He said it “wasn’t written as a children’s song, but that’s what it has become. Often when I meet Israelis anywhere in the world, I’ll say to them, ‘Do you know “Agala Im Susa”?’ And the whole family will start singing,” Cohen told JI. “I used to make videos for my dad: ‘Hey, I’m in Guatemala at an ice cream store. I met some Israelis.’ And I’d show a video of them singing.”

Background: The author of four nonfiction books on science — including Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine Cohen has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. From 1986 to 1990, he worked as a senior editor for The Washington City Paper. A surfer, Cohen also edited a digital surfing magazine called Wave Lines, which is now defunct.

A unique approach: At Science, Cohen said, he and his colleagues take a different approach than mainstream publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post — though he adds that they “are doing extraordinarily good stuff.” Still, he said, the fact that he is fluent in scientific matters gives him an advantage. “We’ve broken a whole lot of stories just because we pay attention to details that other people might not necessarily appreciate,” he told JI. One example, he said, was a World Health Organization mission that went to China, traveled the country with a group of Chinese scientists and wrote a report that was filled with new information. “The mainstream media ignored it,” Cohen said. “And we did a deep dive into the report, wrote an exhaustive story about what was said in the meeting and got comments.”

Personal concerns: Though Cohen isn’t worried about contracting the virus himself, he is taking it seriously. He plays guitar and piano in a garage band, and cancelled a recent practice out of concern for some of his older bandmates. He is also worried about his mother, who is 90. “I asked her to stop playing mahjong, [the card game] hand and foot,” he said, adding: “It’s not as though there’s a tremendous amount of COVID-19 in this country, but social distancing efforts work best early on. And furthermore, we don’t know how much COVID-19 there is in this country because we’ve had a testing fiasco.”

Looking ahead: How much more will the virus spread? It depends on our response, which Cohen said has been compromised by a lack of diagnostics. “The virus is largely going to behave the same way,” he said. “It’s not going to get to the United States and then go, ‘Hey, I’m in the United States. I’m going to do something different. I really like these guys.’ That ain’t gonna happen. It’s a virus, and all the virus wants to do is copy itself and spread.” Viruses, Cohen told JI, “have no morals” and “no agenda.”

Prescription: The prescription to stopping the virus, he said, is well known: find people who are infected, isolate them, find their contacts, test them, and isolate those who are infected. “That’s how you break the back of these diseases until there’s so much spread that the system is no longer tenable because you can’t possibly isolate and test everyone, which is what happens with flu in the United States,” he said. 

Still fighting: “We don’t bother testing people for flu and we don’t isolate people and expect them to not spread the flu,” he continued. “We basically assume, ‘Eh, the flu’s gonna get 30 million people, that’s the way it goes, and we’re gonna live with it.’ But we’re not at that stage with this virus where we think, ‘Hey, we’re just gonna live with it.’ We’re fighting. We’re saying, ‘We can do a great deal to prevent it from spreading far and wide here.’”

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