At the start of the year, Siouxsie Wiles was a prominent science communicator looking forward to writing a few more journal articles. Now, she’s the most famous scientist in New Zealand. She spoke to Newsroom about the sleepless nights leading up to lockdown and her hopes for 2021
At the start of 2020, Siouxsie Wiles decided to work from home more.
The University of Auckland microbiologist had no idea of the pandemic to come, but said she was keen to only have to come into university for teaching and lab work twice a week. The other three days she would focus on her research.
“I had decided in January that I was going to do a bit of working from home to use my time more productively. There were lots of things I wanted to get done this year,” she tells me over the phone.
“Very quickly, those three days got taken up by trying to keep on top of what was happening with Covid-19.”
The science of communication
Like the rest of us, Wiles became aware of Covid-19 sometime in January, but didn’t really dig into the research for a few weeks. Over a handful of early interviews, she says she was playing a familiar role – “It’s my job to say: ‘Okay, what do we know about this? And how can I help answer your questions so the media can explain it to your audience?’
“At that stage, it felt very much like any other time that I’m called by journalists. I’ve played this role before with Zika virus and Ebola.”
“In so many ways, I feel like I’ve been training for a marathon that I didn’t realise I was going to run. Then, when Covid arrived, it was like, ‘Oh, here’s the marathon’”
In fact, Wiles has what she describes as a “longstanding interest in science communication”. As a publicly-funded scientist, she says she feels “morally obligated” to communicate to the public about her work.
Besides, she says, “the science doesn’t end with the writing of a research article for publication in a journal, which is really just communicating it to my peers. The research really doesn’t end until it’s been communicated to anybody who needs to know that information.”
Well before the Covid-19 pandemic, Wiles had established herself as one of New Zealand’s premier science communicators, in part due to this philosophy. At first, her work on the coronavirus was just a natural extension of this longstanding role. Quickly, it morphed into something else.
“In so many ways, I feel like I’ve been training for a marathon that I didn’t realise I was going to run. Then, when Covid arrived, it was like, ‘Oh, here’s the marathon’.”
In early interviews about the virus, she communicated what little was known about it. While it seems hard to believe now, with more than 74,000 Covid-19-related scientific papers having been published this year, the information about the virus was sparse in January and early February.
Nonetheless, Wiles remembers reappearing on a breakfast TV show to talk about the virus two weeks after her initial interview and saying, “‘This is escalating fast!’ It happened so quickly. By early February, it was becoming more clear it was something more different.”
I asked her when she started to really realise that Covid-19 was going to change our lives in significant ways – even if those ways weren’t yet apparent.
“There were two moments and I can’t quite remember when they were. But it was when China started building hospitals in like days. Quite soon after that was when Italian doctors started talking about how they were having to decide who to give ventilators to and who to prioritise. So here’s Italy, which has a much better health system than we have, and that was like wow,” she says.
“Those two things made me realise this was really something different and we would be [just] as susceptible. By early March, I had told my lab I’m going to have to focus on this and was focusing on Covid taking up more and more of my time.”
It was around the time China started building new hospitals in early February that she stopped sleeping, as well.
“I could only sleep five hours a night. I was basically working from 5am until midnight. I would collapse at midnight but by 5am I was awake and ready to go,” she says.
“I guess my body was in some kind of fight or flight mode where I was purely running on adrenaline and sleeping just the barest amount I could get away with.”
Yet, while Wiles found herself getting more and more worried about the virus, that concern wasn’t reflected in the general public or the actions of the Government, she felt.
“I had a vision for what could be, which was, gosh we could be Italy and we could be China. But because of the exponential nature of the spread, you have a long time where nothing looks like it’s happening and then it suddenly kicks off.
“And the question was, were we right at the beginning? In which case, if you ask too soon, there’s no real reason. But if you act too late, then you’re too late. You need to be in the sweet spot in the middle. And it really was unclear where we were. Were we in the sweet spot or were we just around the corner from disaster?”
As the situation rapidly worsened, Wiles found herself adopting a new primary role. While her science communication had previously been just one part of her job, her entire life was now oriented around reading up on the latest research and trying to communicate what it meant for everyday New Zealanders.
That’s different from other health experts at that stage of the outbreak. People like Michael Baker – who Newsroom will profile later this summer – focused their efforts on lobbying the Government to close the border and, ultimately, lock down.
“I had a role to play in readying people. It was very clear that Michael’s focus was on policymakers and on the decision-making. I saw my role very much in trying to prepare the public for what might come,” she says.
“And that was all around those messages of, we need to care for each other, we will get through this, it’s confusing, there’s lots of moving parts, but it’s okay. It’s okay to be confused, it’s okay to be scared, but if we work together, we will get through this. I felt like my role was to help the public understand why we might be asked to take quite drastic action.”
It was in that context that she began to work with Toby Morris. Their cartoons for The Spinoff, beginning with the Flatten the Curve graphic, went viral around the world. They helped break down complex epidemiological and virological concepts into things people could understand – and then give readers action items for fighting the virus.
Already, Wiles had been writing regular articles about the coronavirus for The Spinoff. While working in early March on a piece about flattening the curve, she asked if Toby Morris might be keen to collaborate, having long admired his work. Within an hour, the two were chatting by phone and by the end of the day the first draft for the comic was in her inbox.
She was also glad that Morris agreed to release his work under a Creative Commons license, allowing other publications, researchers and communicators to use and even modify it for free (so long as it continued to mention Wiles, Morris and The Spinoff). Wiles wanted to do this so people in other countries could translate the cartoon into their own languages.
“As an artist and an illustrator, releasing your work out to the public to allow them to adapt it is not something you normally do. But he said absolutely, he was happy with that.”
At the same time, Wiles’ workload quickly spilled out of control. She was talking to 30 journalists a day, staying on top of the latest Covid-19 research, writing her own articles for The Spinoff and working with Morris on comics to explain what was happening.
Her anxiety also spiked, particularly once Covid-19 began spreading here. In March, it felt like the virus was always one step ahead of us. New Zealand implemented a strict self-isolation requirement found only in Israel and Australia on March 14. Five days later, it shut the borders entirely. But still cases continued to pop up.
I myself called Wiles several times during that period (and 20 times over the course of the pandemic so far). After officials announced a student with Covid-19 attended high school in Dunedin for several days, I reached out to her to get her advice on what to do if we have community transmission. The next day, March 19, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield took the podium in the Ministry of Health and reassured the nation that no other students at the school had tested positive.
“False alarm, no community transmission thank goodness,” I texted her.
“Phew!” she wrote back. She can’t have felt that relieved, however, seeing the exponential increase in cases and knowing that we weren’t testing enough to find every case out there.
Over the past week, we had gone from having five cases of Covid-19 to 28. What we didn’t know was that at least 240 people had the virus in New Zealand at that stage. More than 200 of them had entered the country in recent days. They might not have been infectious or symptomatic if they were infected just prior to departure from overseas, but they soon would be.
As the country moved up the alert levels – Level 2 on March 21, Level 3 on March 23, Level 4 on March 25 – Wiles grew more frantic. At the same time, however, she felt an immense sense of relief when New Zealand finally slid into lockdown and it became clear that people would follow the rules and stay home to stop the spread.
“Within about two or three days of us going into Alert Level 4, I was able to sleep until 7 o’clock in the morning,” she says.
“I guess that’s because I finally felt safe. I suddenly felt like, ‘Alright, we’re not on the back foot anymore, we’re on the front foot and we are doing something now that’s going to get us through this.”
Despite New Zealand’s relative success in combatting the coronavirus, Wiles is gearing up for another difficult year in 2021. She expects to spend a lot of time working with Morris and others on communicating the science around vaccines, immunisation and herd immunity.
“My role for the next year is going to be to help the public understand what all this means for New Zealand. The fact is that we don’t have to rush into anything. The UK has approved that vaccine for emergency use because they are in such a bad position. We can wait and see what’s happening and wait to find out which ones are going to be the right vaccine for us,” she says.
“We’re going to need that time, also, to make sure the public are fully on board with taking a vaccine.”
Wiles will also be working to get funding for her lab. The research she does hasn’t received her full attention this year, but it’s still just as important than ever. She specialises in making bacteria glow so researchers can observe how they infect cells and change.
“One of the pieces of work that I’m most excited about and most interested in is we’re trying to understand how the bacteria that we’re working with becomes more infectious. It evolves to be more infectious, so I’m kind of curious, how has it done that?
“That might give us some clues as to how organisms like that one change out in the wild and come up with new ways of stopping infectious diseases.”
She will also be keenly following whether and how we change our societies in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Around the world, we are seeing that the communities that are worst hit by this virus are those that are most vulnerable. They are the essential workers, they are the people who are on terrible contracts that don’t have much sick leave or any sick leave. They are the people who have to go out and work and put themselves at risk while the privileged can stay home and shield themselves or get access to the best healthcare,” she says.
“My hope is that we understand what made us vulnerable, because, frankly, none of us are safe until everyone is safe. We then take on board that we came together, we did this thing to protect each other. Why would we not do that for other things? We know that the climate crisis is upon us. We know that other pandemics will come. And we know what made us vulnerable. So why would we not fix those things?”