2022 Science Reporting – Large Outlet - Silver

Throughout much of 2020, the World Health Organization maintained that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, spreads through relatively large respiratory droplets that are expelled by infected people while coughing, sneezing or speaking. It took many months for the agency to acknowledge that the virus could travel on tiny particles called aerosols that can spread widely and linger in the air. What happens inside the aerosol particles and how does the virus get into the lungs and cells of a new victim? A research team led by biophysicist Rommie Amaro of the University of California San Diego simulated a complete aerosol particle on a supercomputer for the first time. Drawing on that work, the Sϋddeutsche Zeitung team used an online format to show the structure and behavior of the coronavirus at the atomic level. “These are not just pretty illustrations of the nanoworld, dreamed up by an artist,” they wrote. “The scientists have built the model atom by atom, with all the information known about the structure of SARS-CoV-2.” The virus particle alone consists of 305 million atoms. The whole aerosol particle contains more than a billion atoms. Such simulations will become important in the future, scientists say, because they can show how tightly a potential drug binds to a target protein such as the spike on the virus that causes COVID-19. Judge Robert Lee Hotz, a former science reporter for The Wall Street Journal and currently president of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, said Christoph von Eichhorn and his colleagues “orchestrated a gorgeous exploration of how advances in imaging have revolutionized the ability to probe the lethal SARS-CoV-2 virus and its many mutations.” They took “full creative advantage of the new technology of visual media” to show viewers and readers “in revealing detail what makes variants like Delta and Omicron so dangerous—and where the pathogen itself might be vulnerable.” Dan Vergano, a science reporter for Grid, called the story “a really neat and innovative effort.” Christoph von Eichhorn, speaking for the award-winning team, said “to make the story work for our audience, it was not only important to get the facts and scientific background right, but also to create a coherent design and visualize the research vividly. Merging this into a coherent story has been a challenge – but one that we really enjoyed.”