A Tale of Two Covers

The bat virus is connected to the camel virus, and the camel virus is connected to the people virus. But we weren’t sure that would entice pandemic-fatigued readers.

May 2021

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Illustration by Giorgia Virgili

Illustration of Kathy Zonana

For this issue, we were in the unusual position of having two cover mock-ups to consider (generally cost-prohibitive, but in one case the image was free). Having two good choices was welcome, but it put us in a bit of a quandary.

On the one hand, we thought you’d probably be eager to read our story on university scholars’ right to study what they want to study and say what they want to say, especially in light of recent controversies over scientific evidence and pandemic policy. But we weren’t sure we had successfully crystallized the topic of academic freedom in our cover image. On the other hand, we had a beautiful piece of art to use for our feature on the complex and interwoven web of climate change, species-jumping and the prospects of future pandemics. But we were a little worried that asking you to contemplate the next major outbreak of zoonotic disease in the same month that most of us are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 would earn this magazine a one-way ticket to the recycle bin.

The camel cover, you told us, was striking, unexpected, intriguing and ‘beautifully bizarre.’ 

So we did what anyone would do in this situation: We asked our readers. Well, a baker’s dozen of you, ranging from the Class of ’77 to the Class of ’12. Broad in terms of demographics; narrow in terms of employer (all work at the Stanford Alumni Association, but in areas beyond the magazine). We posed one simple question: “In mid-May, which of these two magazines would you be more likely to open and why?” And you said, 8–4–1, “camel.” 

The camel cover, you told us, was striking, unexpected, intriguing, wacky and “beautifully bizarre.” Even if no one understood what exactly a camel had to do with anything.

Side by side covers. The left with a camel and a bat and the right with the campus.

Dromedary camels, it turns out, are the main reservoir for MERS-CoV, the coronavirus of concern between SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. And it appears they’ve been carrying the virus since 1983. There are a whole bunch of diseases like that, crossing back and forth among people and wild and domesticated animals without causing massive outbreaks, just waiting for the right mutation or environmental condition or international flight to break free. As creatures great and small move closer to the urban-wild interface, we can’t think about pandemics as 100-year events anymore. 

Uh-oh. I’m doing what I worried about: making you want to pull the blankets over your head and never leave the house again. First of all, if you have any anxiety about reentry after limiting your social contact for a year—and I can admit to that—we’ve got some tips from Stanford psychologists on how to manage it. Second of all, as the cover hints, there are things we can do to prevent, predict and prepare for the next pandemic. And if all else fails, take a look at the lead illustration for the pandemic story and contemplate the headline we almost used: Reservoir Hogs.

Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at

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