Years after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, will we look back and recall where we were when we first considered a virus that was claiming lives and terrifying the population of a Chinese city the size of London?
Early in January 2020, I was enjoying a few days off in Cheltenham in the west of England. I think I was already vaguely aware of the story, but a television news report made me ponder it a little longer. Another SARS, bird or swine flu, I thought. Still, the prospect of a viral pandemic is always a little scary – we’ve all seen films such as Outbreak and Contagion, which lure us in, preying on a deeply rooted fear.
So, I did a quick Google search. There was little out there at that point, but I was, of course, delighted to be offered up an article on The Conversation. The headline was “Mystery China pneumonia outbreak likely caused by new human coronavirus” and it was by Connor Bamford, a Wellcome Research Fellow in virology and antiviral immunity at Queen’s University Belfast who had previously written for The Conversation on the Ebola and Marburg viruses. Take a look at the piece now, after everything that has happened. It remains, for me, a great example of Conversation journalism. Connor presented the facts as known at the time, explained them from a place of deep knowledge, warning that this was a serious matter. He ended with the following paragraph:
Outbreaks of new viruses, such as the Wuhan coronavirus, are a constant reminder of the need to invest in research into emerging virus biology and evolution, and ultimately to identify safe and effective drugs to treat – or vaccines to prevent – serious disease.
The Conversation’s extensive international coverage of the story that would define 2020 had begun. And Connor’s contributions would continue. Working closely with Clint Witchalls, our Health Editor in the UK, he was swift to deal with issues such as what level of protection antibodies might provide and what drugs might help combat the disease caused by the virus. Then in June, amid speculation around whether SARS-CoV-2 might just go away on its own, Connor provided an answer that has been read by more than 700,000 people and republished by sites including the Word Economic Forum and the Jakarta Post.
Reviewing those articles, and a subsequent coauthored work, Connor’s writing stands out as clear, sober and yet incredibly engaging. He displays the craft and timeliness that we hope are hallmarks of great Conversation journalism. He has also successfully encouraged colleagues to participate in this form of science communication and appeared in a live webinar discussion on vaccines. And so, I am delighted that Connor has been chosen as the winner of the Professor Sir Paul Curran Award for Excellence in Academic Journalism for 2020.
This award is made by Professor Sir Paul, founding Chair of the Board of Trustees of the charity that underpins The Conversation in the UK, in consultation with the editorial team of The Conversation UK and its Editorial Board. Presenting the award, Professor Sir Paul, President of City, University of London, said:
In the best traditions of The Conversation, Dr Connor Bamford’s articles on Covid-19 were a fusion of world-leading academic research and an important issue of the moment. So when we were thinking about who would be a suitable recipient for this award, Connor was the standout candidate.
Dinah Birch, Chair of the Editorial Board and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Cultural Engagement at the University of Liverpool, added:
Not only have your pieces covered such important material in such prescient ways, but you’ve been able to do so with a clarity and informative eloquence, that has meant that people like me, without a scientific background, can follow the arguments that you’re making. We, [the Editorial Board], are all delighted to see you receive this award. And we’re all very grateful for the contribution that you have made.
The staff of The Conversation look forward to being able to properly toast the achievement at a reception for writers in 2021. Meanwhile, the 1920s silver cup presented to the winner is on its way to Belfast following a video call on which we broke the news to Connor, who was in his lab at the time. That was a reminder, as if we needed it, that Conversation authors are active researchers who commit additional time to write for this project, providing an important public service.
And of course, it is also a reminder that virology researchers such as Connor deserve to be recognised not just as champions of science communication, but as all-round heroes of 2020.