How the podcast ‘Science Vs’ investigated a 1971 virus conspiracy

Behind the scenes, Insights, Interviews
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In November, Gimlet Media’s podcast Science Vs published a two-part story on a viral outbreak in Cuban pigs in 1971. The Cuban government had ordered all their pigs burned to contain the spread of the African swine fever virus, which is deadly to pigs but not a health risk to humans. To some people, this incident was wrapped in a conspiracy theory, suggesting the CIA had allegedly released the virus to plague Cuba’s pigs.

Science Vs began its season in late August, exploring non-coronavirus science questions, from supervolcanoes to the 1918 flu, and some COVID-19 updates along the way. By then, host and executive producer Wendy Zukerman had filed a FOIA request to the CIA and began searching for people to interview for this pig conspiracy story.

“Normally, with a Science Vs story, scientists are pretty easy to find. You spot the paper that you’re looking for and then send them an email,” said Zukerman. “I knew with the other episodes we were covering I’d be able to find someone good to talk on them, but I knew with this one I was going to need time.”

The two episodes, “Did the CIA Plant a Virus in Cuba?” and “Did the CIA Do It? Part II,” took over three months to make and features a range of voices: a professor who witnessed the pig burnings in 1971 Cuba, a journalist who reported on the conspiracy back then, ex-CIA agents, researchers of U.S.-Cuban relations, and scientists, who are studying a modern outbreak of African swine fever, spreading in parts of Asia and Europe.

Storybench spoke with Zukerman on how Science Vs found the episodes’ many voices and the challenges of telling stories about conspiracies surrounding secret services and viral outbreaks.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did you first hear about African swine fever in Cuba in 1971?

Wendy Zukerman is the executive producer of the Gimlet Media podcast Science Vs. Follow her on Twitter @wendyzuk.

I heard about it from a friend, Dan Guillemette, who now works at The Daily, but who was working for Scattered, which is a podcast out of WNYC. And he was interviewing all these people from Cuba, and they kept telling this weird story about how the government came and burned their pigs. This was a story that either their parents had told them … or they remembered it.

This was pre-pandemic, and we were eating waffles, and [Dan] was like ‘This crazy thing …’ and I looked it up. Apparently, there was this pig virus [outbreak] that maybe the CIA [caused] it, but no one really knows. And it was just immediately, ‘What? This is crazy, I need to know more.’ We were going to work on it together, but then he got this job at The Daily, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it.

And then, the pandemic hit, and this idea of where a virus comes from and government intervention and conspiracy theories just took on a whole new meaning with the coronavirus. [When] we finished our whole season where we covered all things coronavirus, then I was like, ‘I think I can investigate this Cuban conspiracy pig story with this kind of fresh angle.’

Was this one of those stories that built upon itself as you were reporting it? 

In a way, yeah. What was key to making the story work was finding all the key characters. So Dan had interviewed Virgil Suarez … and Dan told me he told the story in the most visceral way, like, ‘Go talk to Virgil. He’s your first starting point.’ And Virgil immediately wanted to chat. I was like, ‘Dan, could you put us in touch?’ and I think in two hours Virgil and I were on the phone, talking about what happened in Cuba with the pigs but then just like life in general in Cuba.

When I started researching it, I found the original article that had claimed that there was a CIA connection here – that there was this pig virus, and it had been released by the CIA. It was written by two journalists [for Newsday]. One of them had died, and the other one was Drew Fetherston. As I kept reading more and more about it, it really looked like that news report was the linchpin … nothing else had that level of detail. I was like, ‘I have to find Drew.’ He was no longer working at Newsday; he’s retired. So I just started emailing people at Newsday … who had been there for a crossover period. One day, I think I went for a walk and came home and saw this email from Drew Fetherston … and he was just like ‘Hi, I hear you’re looking for me.’

[Next] was to try and find CIA agents who would talk to us – either ex-CIA or currently in the CIA to see who might know something.

How did you prepare to interview CIA agents?

I guess the same way I interview anyone. … For Brian Latell, he had written a book about Cuba and so I read his book. I listened to any other interviews that he’d done to see if I could get any details to see any particular stories that he tells well. I also wanted to be clear with my questions because he didn’t have a lot of time, so … I had to know exactly what I wanted to go in to talk to him about. 

He had done a bunch of research into what the Cuban secret service was like, and that made a really nice perspective because we always hear about the deviousness of the CIA and how good they are … but actually internationally there’s a lot of spy agencies, and so it’s not like all these other countries are just sitting ducks for the United States.

It was through actually listening to another interview he had done with a spy podcast that I heard the story that he had actually worked alongside someone who was a double agent for the Cuban government, so I knew I wanted to get that piece of information as well and how he felt about that.

And after finding the CIA agents, what happened next?

I spoke to a lot of researchers that looked at this time period, mainly political researchers, who had studied U.S.-Cuban relations, and I wanted to see if they had heard anything about whether the CIA released this virus and whether it was in the pattern of other things that the United States and the CIA was doing at the time. I sort of got some mixed answers. To try and work out whose story was more believable, I started looking at U.S. government declassified documents … They’re pretty detailed – it’ll put you in the room of Nixon and what was going on in memos at the time.

Then I went to the scientists, which is pretty late in the day for a show like Science Vs to be talking to the scientists. But we wanted that political context first, and it did help for the story arc because that is how we ended up framing the whole story. When I started speaking to as many African swine fever researchers as I possibly could, it was great, because a lot of them were open to chatting to me about this conspiracy theory and what they thought of it.

Why did you decide to open the FOIA on tape? 

I guess you just do everything on tape when you’re making a podcast. That’s what we’re taught. The funny thing is the first few edits, that audio actually wasn’t even in there; that was kind of a late edition. I was so excited when that document came because the people I had spoken to who were sort of experts of CIA FOIA requests had said, ‘Good luck, you could be waiting years and years for something.’ So I checked my mail expecting some bills from the gas company and see this manila folder from the CIA, which was just shocking, so I immediately started recording, called up my editor.

Also, had there been a smoking gun in there – a document that said ‘We did it’ … I wanted my reaction to that and my editor’s reaction to that in the moment. Of course, there was no smoking gun.

Was it easy to structure the story in a way that built suspense?

Yeah, I think so. One of the balances that we had was … to try and mimic the emotions I felt when I was trying to solve the puzzle because by the time that the team is writing the episodes, we’ve worked out our structure, I’ve spoken to all the scientists by that point, and I don’t think that the CIA did this.

But at some point, while I was doing research, I felt a different way when I was looking at some of the CIA documents that we talk about in the episode, when I found some academic papers written by scientists who had connections with the CIA who were working with African swine fever. I remember when I found that paper, I was like, ‘Oh my god. Oh my god. That’s a CIA connection.’ … Part of the challenge was to mimic that feeling, even though in my heart of hearts when writing, I didn’t think they did it.

Why is it important to tackle these kinds of conspiracy stories?

It’s funny because I guess my answer would have changed if the pandemic hadn’t existed … More broadly speaking, in a non-pandemic world, I think what it shows us is that science can help us explore conspiracy theories. And kind of the beauty, the fun, the danger of conspiracy theories is that it feels like you can never get to the bottom of them because there’s always going to be another tin foil hat to put on, another ‘But what about?’ … which we’re definitely seeing with conspiracy theories around the origins of the coronavirus.

What it shows to put a scientific lens on conspiracy theories, whether it is the origins of the coronavirus or the origins of this pig virus, is it tells us that we can. That you can take a step back, look at the evidence available to you, have fun with it, but also say, ‘What is the most likely explanation for all of this?’ And you can use that approach with any conspiracy theory you hear, whether it’s silly or very serious. I think helping our audience to see that and take that approach is potentially useful for them in their life. And it’s interesting because some of the science we found is quite new, and Drew wouldn’t have had access to it, so looking at this [in] fresh light, with fresh modern science felt like a useful and important thing to do.

How did audiences react to these episodes compared to the ‘Coronavirus: Was It Made In a Lab?’ episode? Were they similar?

I wouldn’t say it was similar. I think the Cuba pig story … the so-called B-line story that you’re trying to teach the audience – around how to look at a conspiracy theory, and how to use science and logic and evidence to help you grapple with things that are really hard to deal with – that’s kind of more subtle. And so, I think people heard of the pig story as a fun jaunt into history and then an interesting kind of turn of events.

With the Made In a Lab?,” particularly when that episode came out, that conspiracy theory was at its peak, and this [coronavirus] was really starting to take hold in a way that some people were very confused and frightened about. That has very real consequences in people’s lives. Hearing that the scientists really didn’t think that this was human-made and really didn’t think that it escaped from the lab, that has very different consequences in people’s minds … whereas a story of something that happened several decades ago isn’t going to have that visceral response.

But I think people really appreciated that “Made In a Lab?” story because there were other science journalists reporting on this myth and saying scientists do not think that this is human-made, but there was very few articles that really went into detail about why those scientists think that: that they can literally look at the genetics of this virus and look for clues of human-made, you know, the ‘stitches’ of humans. And when they look, they don’t see it. … I think that was very useful to a lot of our listeners.

For the Cuban pigs story, what were some limitations and how did you work around them?

The biggest limitation was that Drew Fetherston and his co-author, who has since passed, had spoken to these people who claimed to be on the boat and passing this virus around, and we could never find those people. Drew had told us that they were mainly his colleague’s contact, and Drew actually himself hadn’t spoken to them … So it was basically a dead end. We knew they were linked to the Bay of Pigs, so you know, [we] tried desperately hard to contact anyone who was in the Bay of Pigs. So the fact that we never found those people on the boat was a little frustrating. 

But the fact that we leaned on the science and the scientific explanation, I don’t think it would have changed the conclusion. It was just the fact that we didn’t find them has left a question of ‘Who were they?’ and ‘Why did they tell Drew Fetherston and his colleague this story?’ We just said that in the episode: ‘We don’t know what happened there.’ But that’s true for all conspiracy theories, as always … you still kind of put together the pieces that you have and you come to a conclusion.

Photos courtesy of Gimlet Media.

Julia is a graduate student at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

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