On July 31, 2020, Science magazine published long-awaited responses from Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “China’s ‘Bat Woman’ denies responsibility for the pandemic, demands apology from Trump” read the article’s subtitle, followed by a familiar byline. Jon Cohen’s usual beat includes epidemics, immunology, global health, and especially HIV/AIDS. This year, by contrast, 95% of his work has dealt with COVID-19.
Cohen is ideally suited to cover the pandemic, and not only because he possesses a wealth of experience reporting infectious diseases. There’s also his Rolodex. To date, he’s visited more than 50 countries for Science and can easily tap sources from Anthony Fauci to leading researchers in China.
Writing from California, where the senior correspondent established the West Coast bureau for Science, Cohen has also published in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, BuzzFeed, Smithsonian, Slate, and Surfer, and authored four books for lay readers. His print journalism has been honored by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the National Association of Science Writers, the American Society of Microbiology, the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, the Pan American Health Organization, and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. In 2017, Cohen also won a national Emmy for helping to develop and appearing in a six-part series about AIDS on the PBS NewsHour.
How did Jon Cohen earn his stripes? “I have a Jewish mother,” he recently told me, “I was basically programmed to be a doctor.” But in 1980, a change of heart prompted a different plan. During his final year at the University of California, San Diego, he completed a self-designed major by 1) interviewing Jonas Salk at length, then writing a 10,000 word paper about polio vaccines that Salk critiqued; 2) authoring two children’s books about science; and 3) translating a scientific research article into “plain English” to show that it was indeed possible to impart technical content to lay readers.
From there, his path took twists and turns. But a key turning point came when Cohen landed a job in Washington, DC. This post launched his life in journalism and, curiously enough, reawakened his early interest in vaccines, which is where our conversation began.
This interview was conducted by phone on July 22, 2020 and was later edited for clarity and length.
Richard Carter’s Breakthrough: The Saga of Jonas Salk was published in 1966 by Trident Press.
Dr. Robert Gallo, who worked at the National Cancer Institute at NIH for 30 years, is internationally recognized as the codiscoverer of HIV as the cause of AIDS.
Jon Cohen’s first book, Shots in the Dark—The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine, was published in 2001 by W. W. Norton & Company.
Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, was cited as follows in Cohen’s story of January 14, 2020: “Limited as the outbreak appears to date, Farrar and others still worry that travel of hundreds of millions of people for the Lunar New Year celebration on January 25 could spread the virus.. ‘With people, food and animals move,’ says Farrar, who suspects that this outbreak ‘is not going away anytime soon.”
Shao Yiming is currently chief expert on AIDS at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.