Episode 27, available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and YouTube


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“A virus is nothing but a little empty protein shell with a lot of spikes on the outside of it that allow it to attach to cells. And all it does is break open the wall of the cell and inject its genetic material, DNA or RNA, which hijacks that cell's machinery… that is your human cell, and forces it to produce more viruses… it just makes copies of itself.”

Today’s episode of Keep Talking features Donald G. McNeil Jr., an author, journalist, and one of the earliest and leading New York Times science reporters to alert the world about the outbreak of COVID-19. During the conversation, Donald talks about his early career, background in human biology, learning about a pneumonia-like new virus in Wuhan, what the U.S. could have done differently to decrease deaths from COVID, the safety and efficacy of COVID vaccines, vaccine mandates, and what the U.S. might do to better prepare for future pandemics. Donald also breaks down his understanding of viruses, fatality and transmissibility rates, and when they lead to a pandemic.

About Donald G. McNeil Jr. (quote from Wikipedia):

“Donald Gerard McNeil Jr. is an American journalist. He was a science and health reporter for The New York Times where he reported on epidemics, including HIV/AIDS and the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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Time Stamps:

(00:00) Intro
(00:45) Get to know Donald G. McNeil Jr.
(01:28) Donald’s way to science journalism
(09:01) Donald’s background in human biology and science and how they came in handy when covering medical cases
(22:24) The factors that added to Donald’s concern about the coronavirus during its first outbreak, including high fatality and transmissibility rates
(24:48) Sensing the severity of the coronavirus and the events that followed
(30:38) What is meant by a pandemic?
(54:10) Vaccine specifics and Donald’s initial judgment in the aftermath of the pandemic
(01:04:32) Addressing people choosing not to get vaccinated
(01:11:10) The efficacy of COVID vaccines and why they’re safe
(01:26:24) Vaccine mandates in the U.S. for employees and children
(01:32:40) The Supreme Court’s historical precedence regarding mandate vaccinations
(01:34:15) The origin of COVID-19
(01:45:30) Preparing for future pandemics


“A virus is nothing but a little empty protein shell with a lot of spikes on the outside of it that allow it to attach to cells. And all it does is break open the wall of the cell and inject its genetic material, DNA or RNA, which hijacks that cell's machinery… that is your human cell, and forces it to produce more viruses… it just makes copies of itself.”

“Any disease that doubles that fast is not stopped… that disease is going to go pandemic and if it's got that low mortality rate, but it has a mortality rate, but it's that low mortality rate and that high transmissibility rate, that is the Spanish Flu all over again. That is what happened in 1918. You had a disease that went around the entire world incredibly rapidly. It only killed about two to 3% of the total number of victims.”

“If we declare a pandemic, then a lot of countries are just gonna throw up their hands and say, 'Okay, it's uncontrollable, there's nothing we can do.' And then just let it roll over them.”

“There's a difference between one person walking through a dry forest with a lighted match and 1000 people walking through... you're going to get a lot more fire if you send 1000 people.”

“Spanish flu people tended to hemorrhage a lot in their lungs, (and people) died within 24 to 48 hours, then they turned blue, from being unable to breathe. And when they dissected people, their lungs would be soggy, weighing five times as much as they ought to weigh and basically, filled with blood. Whereas if you dissect the lungs of COVID patients, they tend to be stiff and crumbly. And it's that they haven't had huge hemorrhages, people aren't coughing up blood from COVID. Instead, when you get it, you get the cytokine storm, in which a lot of inflammatory chemicals and stuff get in there, and they make the lungs incredibly brittle. But also, the damage goes all over the body.”

“mRNA technology produces vaccines pretty fast. And if you recruit 40,000 people into a trial, and half of them get the vaccine and half get the placebo, you pretty quickly get a signal of the differences between the two arms that shows you whether or not the vaccine works.”

“I knew that the mRNA vaccines were considered very likely to be safe because they were not using any sort of whole virus, they were just putting a little tiny stretch of RNA into you that got broken down very quickly by the enzymes in the body.”

“There is a legitimate reason to fear what's happened in the past, but any number of black doctors have said, 'Look, I get it, this isn't Tuskegee, this will save your life. If you don't get it, you're contributing to the death of black Americans.'”

“That's how I feel about the anti-vaccine industry: that they are keeping people away from legitimate prophylactic measures and therefore putting them at risk. Because they're interested in making money and selling them vitamins.”

“The danger is that if it moves so fast, there's always a percentage of people who are going to end up in the hospital, even with a milder variant.”

“This (vaccination) has nothing to do with your personal rights. It has to do with the police powers of the state. It is more like the power of the state to take away your gun if you are walking down the street shooting people.”

“One of the first things I do is I'd like to create a pentagon for disease-fighting. Who's in charge of fighting this pandemic?”

Resources Mentioned:

People Mentioned:

  • Zhou Xianwang – “Zhou Xianwang is a Chinese politician currently serving as vice chairman of the Hubei Provincial Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Previously, he served as Deputy Party Committee Secretary and mayor of Wuhan. He is of Tujia heritage. He entered the workforce in September 1980, and joined the Communist Party of China in January 1987.”
  • Donald Trump – “Donald John Trump is an American politician, media personality, and businessman who served as the 45th president of the United States from 2017 to 2021.”
  • Boris Johnson – “Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is a British politician and writer serving as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party since 2019. He was Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs from 2016 to 2018 and Mayor of London from 2008 to 2016.”
  • Bill Gates – “William Henry Gates III is an American business magnate, software developer, investor, author, and philanthropist. He is a co-founder of Microsoft, along with his late childhood friend Paul Allen.”
  • Anthony Fauci – “Anthony Stephen Fauci is an American physician-scientist and immunologist serving as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to the President.”
  • Tucker Carlson – “Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson is an American conservative television host and political commentator who has hosted the nightly political talk show Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News since 2016. Carlson began his media career in the 1990s, writing for The Weekly Standard and other publications.”
  • Sean Hannity – “Sean Patrick Hannity is an American talk show host and conservative political commentator. He is the host of The Sean Hannity Show, a nationally syndicated talk radio show, and has also hosted a commentary program, Hannity, on Fox News, since 2009.”
  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – “Robert Francis Kennedy Jr. is an American environmental lawyer, author, and anti-vaccine advocate. Kennedy is a son of U.S. senator Robert F. Kennedy and a nephew of President John F. Kennedy. He helped found the non-profit environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance in 1999 and has served as the president of its board.”
  • Jacobson v. Massachusetts – “Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws. The Court's decision articulated the view that individual liberty is not absolute and is subject to the police power of the state.”
  • Roe v. Wade – “Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman's liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction.”
  • Nicholas Wade – “Nicholas Michael Landon Wade is a British author and journalist. He is the author of numerous books, and has served as staff writer and editor for Nature, Science, and the science section of The New York Times.”
  • Joe Biden – “Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. is an American politician who is the 46th and current president of the United States. A member of the Democratic Party, he served as the 47th vice president from 2009 to 2017 under Barack Obama and represented Delaware in the United States Senate from 1973 to 2009.”
  • Andy Slavitt – “Andrew M. Slavitt is an American businessman and healthcare advisor who served as the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from March 2015 to January 2017 and as a temporary Senior Advisor to the COVID-19 Response Coordinator in the Biden administration.”

Read Donald's work:

Medium | NYTimes