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Curator Spotlight: Vesna Jaksic Lowe on What It Means To Straddle Multiple Cultures

Passport and travel documents, a watch, an open book, and coins on top of paper maps
Photo by Taryn Elliott

As I gathered stories for my recent reading list on the power of names, Vesna Jaksic Lowe’s newsletter, Immigrant Strong, came to mind. In each issue, Jaksic Lowe recommends excellent writing by and about immigrant writers, and creates a space for stories on identity, belonging, multicultural life, and even the complexities of returning home. 

Since 2009, reading and recommending stories we love has been at the core of Longreads. We also remain inspired by the work of fellow curators, like Jaksic Lowe, who read widely, explore their interests and obsessions, and make it easier for people to find something to read.

After consistently enjoying Jaksic Lowe’s reading recommendations, I asked if she’d be willing to discuss her work and perspective. In this short Q&A, we talk about her newsletter and curation process, a few of her favorite reads, and her recent trip back home to Croatia — a journey that always stirs up emotions.

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In a 2019 interview, you explained why you launched your newsletter: to support and elevate immigrant writers and their narratives, and to explore themes of identity, belonging, and multiculturalism. So much in the world has changed since then — from the pandemic to the change in administration. Has its focus changed at all? 

Vesna Jaksic Lowe

Voting out a president and an administration that was steeped in racism, hatred, and anti-immigrant vitriol was critical, but it doesn’t negate the need to share immigrants’ stories. Immigrants and refugees and their families still face horrific discrimination and appalling injustices, and their voices are often silenced or reduced to discussions about politics, laws, or some statistic. And not only is that wrong and narrow-minded, but it diminishes our stories — stories about lives that are full of struggle and resilience, love and loss, failure and success, and humor and joy, just like other people’s.

The world is confronting global crises that don’t stop at any country’s borders, like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, and that actually highlights the need for more storytelling by immigrants. They bring knowledge and experience from multiple countries, cultures, and languages. Their writing is not only beautiful, but raises critical perspectives and valuable information. So my focus has stayed the same — in every newsletter, I share a book and a few essays about immigrant life by immigrants, because we should be the ones telling stories about our lives and experiences.

There is just so much breadth and beauty in writing by immigrants, and they often navigate topics that are ripe for deep reflection.

What, ultimately, do you hope to share in each newsletter?

Literature has the power to inform, to educate, and to create empathy and understanding, so the more people reading these essays, the better. A lot of discourse about immigration and immigrants is based on false information and delivered by people who are not knowledgeable about these subjects, but hold very strong opinions. That needs to end, and I want to get at least a small slice of immigrants’ rich writing out into the world.

I also want to help people diversify their bookshelves. If the only authors you read are white men who were born here, you are limiting yourself. So I focus on sharing writing by women of color — a group that has long been marginalized but consistently produces some of the best writing on the themes I cover.

Tell us about your curation process. What stands out to you, and how do you select the stories that appear in each issue? 

I want to make my newsletter as accessible as possible, so I mostly link to essays that are free. I focus on nonfiction because that’s what I read the most, and that’s the medium I’ve published in and am most familiar with. I’m endlessly fascinated by immigrants and children of immigrants’ storytelling about what it means to straddle multiple cultures; how we define home and belonging when we are connected to more than one place; and how this influences the way we identify ourselves and move through the world.

Do you have a favorite essay you’ve featured?

It’s hard to pick one essay — I loved the ones you mentioned, and vividly remember reading them and being moved by them. A few months ago, I read Madhushree Ghosh’s Longreads essay “The State We Are In: Neither Here, There, nor in Heaven,” and light bulbs kept going off in my head when she discussed how immigrants face this in-between world, filled with love, longing, and guilt. Sulaiman Addonia’s LitHub excerpt on multilingualism awed me with its striking writing on language and loss. And I got goose bumps reading Elif Shafak compare motherlands to “castles made of glass” that can leave you with deep cuts. There is just so much breadth and beauty in writing by immigrants, and they often navigate topics that are ripe for deep reflection.

You share writing from publications we love, like Catapult, Guernica, and Electric Literature. We also get excited when we feature a publication, particularly smaller outlets, for the first time. Do you see more spaces today for immigrant voices?

I think there are more spaces for immigrant writers now in part because the publishing world is addressing a long overdue need to include more diverse voices. And hopefully that’s motivating more of us who are immigrants to exercise our agency and claim our narratives.

What emerging publication have you discovered this year that you’re really excited about? 

I love these outlets you mentioned and there are many more. For example, The Bare Life Review solely publishes immigrant and refugee writers. Khôra magazine is fairly new and while it doesn’t focus on immigrants, I have come across beautiful essays there. And The Rumpus often features interviews with authors who are immigrants and members of marginalized groups.

I always wonder who I would have become had my family not left, and how my immigrant experience has shaped me.

You returned home to Croatia in August and described it in your August 2021 issue as “a liminal space, where my past self merges with my present self.” Can you reflect a bit more on that journey?

I’m privileged and lucky to have the documents and resources to travel back home, which so many immigrants can’t do. My aunt, uncle, cousins, and other relatives and friends live in Croatia, so it’s a time to reconnect with many people I’ve known my whole life. It’s more than a vacation — it’s the only time of the year I get to visit my beautiful hometown of Dubrovnik and my home country. As a parent of a young child, I try to squeeze so much in those few weeks because it’s my main opportunity to immerse her in Croatian food, language, and culture.

Traveling back home is always so emotionally charged. It deeply saddens me that I live an ocean away from home and so many people I love. I have moments there when I feel like I never left, and others when I feel like the perpetual foreigner who doesn’t fit in anywhere. For many immigrants, these trips are so psychologically fraught because they amplify our thoughts about belonging, home, and identity. I always wonder who I would have become had my family not left, and how my immigrant experience has shaped me.

​​’Names Have Power’: A Reading List on Names, Identity, and the Immigrant Experience

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In first grade, I had a conversation with two classmates, Beth and Jenn, about our names. Being identical twins, they often came to school in matching outfits. I remember their knit sweaters, green and red, with their full names stitched over their chests: Elizabeth and Jennifer. I liked these names: pretty and all-American. They said their middle names were Marie and Lynn, which were just as common, easy, and palatable.

“My middle name is Ann,” I said reluctantly. “It’s kind of short for another name.” Luckily, they didn’t ask about the other name and moved on to something else. I was relieved. 

I continued to tell people, throughout most of high school, that my middle name was Ann, even though that wasn’t true. It was Anongos — my mother’s maiden name — which was embarrassing to me. I didn’t go by my full first name either. My friends called me Cheri, but my name is Cherilynn: a name that, to this day, is both mine and not mine, and one that I write only on important forms and legal documents.

From an early age, I understood the power of a name: It can shape and define you, reveal who you are, and feel like a part of your skin — or a foreign layer your body rejects. In my 20s, I had grown more comfortable in my skin to be able to say: My middle name is Anongos. But by then, as Rebecca Delacruz-Gunderson explains in her essay on being Filipino American, I also knew how American I was — how detached I was from my cultural heritage — and was glad to at least have a connection to my family’s culture through this name.

When I got married in 2012, I wanted to take my husband’s last name as my own and to continue the family tradition of keeping my maiden name as my middle name. When filling out the form before our ceremony, I wrote in Rowlands, which pushed Lucas into the middle and dropped Anongos from my name forever. I was sad to let this part of me go — one I had finally embraced, yet never fully inhabited — but was also open to what a new name would bring. 

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I got the idea for this reading list a few weeks ago, when the flood of 20th-anniversary coverage of 9/11 led me to revisit Osama Shehzad’s essay on getting shit for his name. These essays dive deep into questions of identity, belonging, and the power of names — and shine a light on the immigrant experience in America. Read more…

Death of Writing, Writing of Death: A Reading List on Artificial Intelligence and Language

The other day, I saw a tweet of an obituary, seemingly written by a bot. The obituary’s odd but delightful phrases like “Brenda was an avid collector of dust,” “Brenda was a bird,” “she owed us so many poems,” and “send Brenda more life” were hilarious to some people — send me more life too, please! — while others couldn’t help but wonder: Is this really a bot?

You didn’t have to fall too far down a rabbit hole to learn that the obituary, in fact, was not written by a bot, but a human — writer and comedian Keaton Patti — as part of his book, I Forced a Bot to Write This Book. Some commenters, perhaps proud of their human-sniffing capabilities or just well-versed in real machine-written prose, were quick to point out that there was no way a bot could write this.

This had 20x the feel of a human trying to write a funny thing than a bot

Pretty sure a person wrote this without any technology more complicated than Microsoft word

not a bot! the punchlines are too consistent

For everyone afraid that AI is taking over, the bot said Brenda was a bird…

Try a language generator at Talk to Transformer, an AI demo site.

Even though the obituary was human-generated, it still reminded me of two editors’ picks we recently featured on Longreads — Jason Fagone’s feature “The Jessica Simulation” and Vauhini Vara’s essay “Ghosts” — in which AI-powered prose is a significant (and spooky) part of these stories. Both pieces prominently feature GPT-3, a powerful language generator from research laboratory OpenAI that uses machine learning to create human-like text. In simple terms, you can feed GPT-3 a prompt, and in return, it predicts and attempts to complete what comes next. Its predecessor, GPT-2, was “eerily good” at best, specializing in mediocre poetry; GPT-3, which is 100 times larger and built with 175 billion machine learning parameters, comes closer to crossing the Uncanny Valley than anything, and raises unsettling questions about the role AI will play — or is already playing — in our lives. Read more…

‘Every Single Person Migrating Has a Story’: Caitlin Dwyer on the Emotional Underlayers of Family Separation

Photos and artwork courtesy of Wafa Almaktari. Illustration by Cheri Lucas Rowlands.

For couples and families separated by borders, financial circumstances, and national policies beyond their control, their relationships remain in limbo. As people spend months and often many years physically apart — not knowing when or if they’ll see their loved ones again — love can take on a new shape: It might evolve into pain, or defiance, or patience.

Caitlin Dwyer

“Perhaps a cross-border relationship is less about cathartic reunion than the slow, patient intention to help someone else find joy,” Caitlin Dwyer writes in “The State of Waiting,” her new Longreads essay about a Yemeni couple — and their long-haul love — in the shadow of war and immigration policy.

Dwyer, a writer in Portland, Oregon, produces and hosts Many Roads to Here, a podcast on migration and identity in which immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the U.S. tell their own stories. I last worked with Dwyer in 2019 on a story called “Shared Breath,” in which she beautifully explored the intimate, unique connections between organ recipients and donor families. Read more…

“We Can’t Rush This Kind of Power”: An Educator on Teaching Poetry to High Schoolers During the Pandemic

surreal moment of a butterfly entering the pages of a book
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During this period of remote learning during the pandemic, poet and educator Paola Capó-García decided to reimagine her senior English class into a more immersive and focused eight-week poetry course. Through poems, she thought, perhaps her teenage students could reflect on “the particular chaos of 2020” and begin to process the loss they’d experienced over the year. In a piece at Teachers & Writers Magazine, Capó-García recounts this special time spent with her students, and how she created a safe, quiet space for them to think, to write, and to heal.

Poetry is so often neglected at the high school level, deemed too difficult, too precious, or too esoteric to tackle. And when it is taught, it’s typically filtered through dead white men. But teaching Whitman and Frost does not fit into my politics as a teacher and human, and it certainly does not fit the narrative of the students my school serves. I’m not interested in widening the gap between them and poetry, between them and knowledge. My goal, now and always, has been to make poetry accessible, exciting, and useful to young people. To teach them that the way they speak and live is already poetic. To help them manage the messiness of 21st century youth with 21st century language. And in this extra-messy age of Covid and Zoom and rightful apathy, poetry felt like the perfect way to make sense of it all.

Between a raging pandemic, civil rights unrest, controversial U.S. election, and graduation on the horizon, the students needed a space to explore the enormity of their feelings. To address this, I designed the writing prompts around the concept of loss. The world we’re living in is punctuated by overwhelming loss, and it must be confronted and articulated in cathartic ways.

I value the elegy as a poetic form for teenagers because it invites healing; it’s a way to give grief a name and exit strategy. I believe that one of our most important roles as teachers is to provide authentic opportunities for young people to heal.

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‘The Price For Your Return to Normal Is My Life’: On Dismantling Layers of the Doll

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“Trapped indoors as they and we have been for a year, it occurs to me that White people have just figured out what it’s like to be in a living nightmare,” writes Baltimore-based writer Breai Mason-Campbell. In “Seeing in the Dark,” a stunning essay in the first-ever issue of Pipe Wrench, Mason-Campbell reflects on how the pandemic “has been like smelling salts for the soul, quickening even the most apathetic Whiteness,” and opening the eyes of Nice White Folks, even if momentarily, to the reality and experience of being Black in America.

They now understood what it felt like to be distant from their freest selves, so they listened when we said that our grief is a nesting doll: That inside the outer sphere where Corona had stolen our loved ones, our job security, and our sense of safety, was another layer. A more suffocating circle of experience that White people, previously blinded by the light of their own incandescence, could now begin to make out from the shadows, their eyes adjusted by the global shroud of doom. These grief-bound White people, uncharacteristically able to see in the dark, became more discerning. More sensitive. More human.

But white attention is short, she writes, and Nice White Folks can retreat back into their homes — back to (their) normal — until the next moment signals them to check in with a friend or take to Twitter or donate to a GoFundMe page or post a black square or display a BLM sign.

Justice was a seasonal item, it turned out. And empathy, its sister-at-arms awakened by the storm and subsequent power outage, was being sent back to the secreted and suppressed corners from whence she emerged. Her only-just-forged outer doll dismantled and packed up in the garage. Back to business as usual.

What’s needed, she says, is the support after the funeral: the support, the solidarity, the action three months later — a year later — when everyone has moved on. “How are you going to help the family now?” she asks.

We all share the grief of Covid-19, the outer doll of fear, uncertainty, and isolation. But beneath that breastplate of horror, there are layers upon layers of sarcophagi limiting the agency and humanity of people like me.

White men, White women, Black men, cis women, cis men, hetero folks, people with degrees, people with generational wealth, anyone who doesn’t share their neighborhood with drug dealers: Corona helped you build up some armor. Use it. Now is the time to show mercy with brave and decisive acts. Stop confusing irresponsibility with freedom. Accept accountability for the fact that where you live, what you buy, how you handle the noise on your block, and where your kids go to school all help or hurt somebody’s chances at life itself. Make. Different. Choices.

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“I Was at a Loss for Any Facts that Would Actually Stick”: An Investigative Reporter on Losing His Mom to QAnon

WASHINGTON, DC—JANUARY 06: Crowds gather outside the U.S. Capitol for the Stop the Steal rally. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.

I Miss My Mom,” Jesselyn Cook’s HuffPost piece, is another read on losing a parent to QAnon.

At Buzzfeed News, Albert Samaha recounts his unsuccessful efforts to pull his mom out of QAnon. She had been an early adopter of the far-right conspiracy theory and has believed, since 2018, that Donald Trump is the anointed one — a savior in a war between good and evil. By 2020, it was clear to Samaha that there was no longer any “overlap between [their] filters of reality,” and he had given up trying to argue with her over basic, indisputable facts. After all, in her eyes, he was a dangerous member of the “liberal media” — a journalist of the “evil deep state.”

In the piece, Samaha traces his mother’s journey to QAnon, first explaining how she came to the U.S. from the Philippines and was initially indifferent to politics. But that changed during the 2000 presidential election, and in that race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, she “saw the candidates as pieces on God’s chessboard.” Later, she would declare her support for Barack Obama, but that period, writes Samaha, “turned out to be the final chapter of [their] political alignment.”

Meanwhile, she wondered where she’d gone wrong with me. Was it letting me go to public school instead of Catholic school? Subscribing to cable TV channels operated by the liberal media? Raising me in Northern California? She regretted not taking politics more seriously when I was younger. I’d grown up blinkered by American privilege, trained to ignore the dirty machinations securing my comforts. My mom had shed that luxury long ago.

She was a primary school student, living in a big house in the suburbs of Manila in 1972 when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in response to a series of bombings across the capital and an assassination attempt on the defense secretary, which he blamed on communist insurgents. But Marcos had actually orchestrated the attacks as justification for his authoritarian turn — a plot exposed only years later. The successful conspiracy ushered the Philippines into a dictatorship that jailed dissidents, embezzled public funds, and installed a bribe-based bureaucracy my grandparents refused to participate in. Having a hard head runs in the family. To this day, my aunties and uncles debate if they would have been better off had their parents just given in to the new rules of the game.

The year my mom began falling down QAnon rabbit holes, I turned the age she was when she first arrived in the States. By then, I was no longer sure that America was worth the cost of her migration. When the real estate market collapsed under the weight of Wall Street speculation, she had to sell our house at a steep loss to avoid foreclosure and her budding career as a realtor evaporated. Her near–minimum wage jobs weren’t enough to cover her bills, so her credit card debts rose. She delayed retirement plans because she saw no path to breaking even anytime soon, though she was hopeful that a turnaround was on the horizon. Through the setbacks and detours, she drifted into the arms of the people and beliefs I held most responsible for her troubles.

In the early afternoon of Jan. 6, a piece of shrapnel landed in my text message inbox: photos of my mom and an uncle among a crowd of Trump supporters in front of the state capitol in Sacramento.

Outraged, I texted them both a righteous screed proclaiming my disappointment with how irresponsible they were, gathering with maskless faces even as COVID cases surged in California — and for what? It was one thing for my mother to risk her life at campaign rallies, but now she was doing so on the basis of a lie, a lie that only seemed to gain momentum. Would it ever end? Would my mother spend the rest of the pandemic bouncing from rally to rally, calling for an overthrow of a democratically elected government, breathing in the angry shouts of mask-averse white people who probably would’ve preferred she go back to the Philippines if not for the pink MAGA hat confirming her complicity?

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“The Internet Is Inside Us”: Patricia Lockwood on the Portal, Twitter, and Her New Novel

Charlotte May / Pexels

Reading poet, essayist, and novelist Patricia Lockwood on our internet lives is a bit like falling down a rabbit hole and losing your mind. Lockwood’s musings and observations on what it’s like to be extremely online in our digital and social media age are incomparable. Her essays and lectures — like “The Communal Mind” from 2019 and her coronavirus diary from last summer — are hilarious, absurd, pure, and human. In a conversation with Gabriella Paiella at GQ, Lockwood talks about her debut novel No One Is Talking About This, the strange experience of following current events on Twitter, and how the internet is “no longer an externality” — it’s inside us.

Your London Review of Books talk “The Communal Mind” is excerpted from your book. Do you remember the turning point when you started to think of the internet as a “communal mind” and, as you put it then, “a place we can never leave”?

It did start to feel like we were locked in there. I think, honestly, it probably was 2012. It had to take a political turn. It became the place where we were imbibing the news. The point in which it turned from a communal free space of play to a place where we were getting our information was probably the difference.

We were starting out with a very bare bones, text-based version. There weren’t images. You couldn’t embed video. Ultimately, I think what changed it was the quote tweet, because that meant that as soon as you went into the portal, you were experiencing an argument first thing. You didn’t even know what these people were talking about, and immediately you were faced with the discourse. That to me was the full evolution into hell as we are experiencing it now.

I do think it’s healthy to be pulling away from Twitter at this time. But in times like this, you’re like, “Okay, I’m jumping into the portal, and I’m seeing what’s happening because it is a million eyes.” It’s the only way you can experience all sides of it. The absurd sides and the tragic sides. It’s not like it was this completely hilarious event, obviously. It’s not like it was entirely tragic either. And the portal has really evolved into a place that we can experience all those sides—the only place that you can do that.

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A Young Cartographer’s Mission to Map the Catholic Church — and Fight Climate Change

Molly Burhans, known at the Vatican as the “Map Lady,” has a vision: to map the Catholic Church’s land around the world in an effort to battle climate change. The environmental activist uses G.I.S. software, which organizes complex data and presents it geographically so it’s easier to analyze and understand, to build a clearer picture of all the assets of the Church.

Owning an estimated two hundred million acres of land, the Catholic Church is “probably the world’s largest non-state landowner,” writes David Owen in a fascinating New Yorker profile of Burhans. The Church’s properties aren’t just cathedrals and convents, but forests and farmlands (and, interestingly, 21 oil wells, some of which have made nearby residents sick from fumes). Through more effective and morally responsible land management, Burhans sees an incredible opportunity for the Church to be at the forefront of climate action, putting its land to better use and protecting vulnerable populations from the effects of global warming. Burhans’ organization, GoodLands — whose mission is to mobilize the Catholic Church to “use land for good” — has also tracked sexual abuse cases involving priests, so there are other massive benefits of mapping the Church via G.I.S.

When she met with the Pope, Turkson acted as her interpreter. She gave Francis a map that showed the percentage of Catholics in every diocese in the world, and explained how that map related to the bigger projects she envisioned. Francis seemed interested, she told me; he said that he had never seen anything like it. Still, their conversation was brief, and she didn’t think anything would come of it. Shortly before she flew home, though, she received an e-mail saying that Francis was interested in establishing a Vatican cartography institute, on a six-month trial basis, with her as its head.

Burhans was elated: this would likely be the first female-founded department in the history of the Roman Curia. Still, she knew that she had to turn him down. The offer came with no budget, other than a small stipend for herself. “If I’d said yes, it would have been a total failure,” she said. So she returned to the United States, and went to work on a blueprint for the kind of cartography institute that she believed the Church needed. When I first spoke with her, in late 2019, the United Nations had recently named her its Young Champion of the Earth for North America, a prize for environmentalists between the ages of eighteen and thirty. She was also working on a proposal for the Vatican which included a seventy-nine-page prospectus for a ten-month trial project, the cost of which she estimated at a little more than a million dollars. The prospectus included her outline for the environmental mission she believed the Church should undertake, as well as explanations (illustrated by interactive maps and graphs) of how G.I.S. could be used to support and coördinate other ecclesiastical activities, among them evangelization, real-estate management, papal security, diplomacy, and ongoing efforts to end sexual abuse by priests. She submitted her prospectus to the Pope’s office, and booked a return to Rome for April, so that she could attend a conference and, she hoped, negotiate a final configuration for the cartography institute with Vatican officials.

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The Team of Scientists Behind Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine

Photo by RADEK MICA/AFP via Getty Images

As David Heath and Gus Garcia-Roberts report in their gripping story at USA Today, credit for the swift development of the COVID-19 vaccine goes to an unheralded team of scientists and a series of pivotal discoveries in the last 15 years, all of which paved the way for the Moderna vaccine. Barney Graham is the deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health. He’s dedicated his career to studying viruses and developing vaccine candidates, most recently for the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which reached the U.S. in 2016, and later Nipah, the virus spread by bats that broke out in India in 2018 (and inspired the movie Contagion). It’s Graham’s years-long effort  — and the work of “a constellation of unsung scientists” including Jason McLellan and Kizzmekia Corbett — that put the pieces in place for Moderna’s rapid turnaround.

Not only is Heath and Garcia-Roberts’ piece a compelling read, it’s very accessible in its explanations and illustrations on how SARS-CoV-2 attacks and infects the human body, and how the Moderna vaccine actually works.

As Graham got word through back channels that the new virus in China was probably a coronavirus, he reached out to Moderna’s CEO, who was vacationing in France. We should scratch the Nipah plan, he urged Stephane Bancel in a Jan. 6 email, in favor of a different proof of concept related to the Wuhan outbreak.

“If it’s a SARS-like coronavirus, we know what to do,” Graham wrote. “This would be a great time to run the drill for how quickly can you have a scalable vaccine.”

Graham later laid out the idea for Fauci, his boss’s boss, in a conference room at NIH. Fauci is no micromanager; he hadn’t even been aware until then how confident Graham was in his ability to make a coronavirus vaccine.

There had been two other novel coronaviruses since 2003, although neither SARS nor MERS were terribly contagious and neither became pandemics. In early January, there was no reason to assume COVID-19 would be any different. Yet Graham already had his team diving into how to defeat the new coronavirus just to prove it could be done. Fauci was sold.

“Let’s go full-blown,” he said. “Let’s make a vaccine.”

Fauci had already set aside $5 million for the small Nipah demonstration project. Graham asked if there would there be millions more available.

“Barney, let me worry about the money,” Fauci replied.

If everything went perfectly, Graham said a vaccine could be ready within 12 to 18 months – the prediction Fauci would soon make public.

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