Who Olivia Willis, Host, Patient Zero; and Joel Werner, Executive Producer, Patient Zero

What Patient Zero tells stories of disease outbreaks: where they begin, why they happen and how we found ourselves in the middle of one. From the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to medical mysteries of the past, this eight-part series provides a new lens through which to view pandemics.

Co-winners of the 2021 Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Science Journalism


Patient Zero, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Patient Zero, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, finalist for Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Science Journalism. Image: Teresa Tan
© Teresa Tan

Patient Zero takes listeners on quite a journey. Can you tell us a little bit about the making of it?
The program was conceived in the early months of 2020 in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic. Our aim was to cut through the deluge of daily coronavirus news and help our audience see the bigger picture — and understand the complex nature of diseases and how they spread.


We approached the series as “true crime, but for disease outbreaks” — leveraging the deft storytelling techniques that make that genre so popular to unravel the origins of epidemics (not gruesome murders). To do that, we assembled a team of specialist science and health journalists alongside audio producers with true crime documentary experience, who could lend their storytelling and narrative-podcast expertise.


Our aim was to cut through the deluge of daily coronavirus news and help our audience see the bigger picture — and understand the complex nature of diseases and how they spread.

Once we decided on which disease outbreak would be the focus of an episode — a painstaking process! We quickly got to work researching, interviewing, and developing the story arc. It takes a lot of finessing and fact-checking before we finalise each script and jump into the studio to record. The production team would then work with our sound engineer and audio wizard, Tim Jenkins, to bring these stories to life in sound.


What were some of the challenges you faced when producing the podcast?

Like many, our team was working almost entirely remotely while making both seasons of the show. At times it was challenging not to be able to get into the same room — especially for the more creative and collaborative processes that come with making a documentary. We spent many, many hours on video calls and late nights in Google Docs.


We also had quite a few international guests, so a lot of energy went into remotely setting people up to ensure they had the best quality audio, and in some cases, arranging tape-sync interviews (when a remote producer records your talent in person while you ask questions over the phone).



What’s the most surprising thing that you uncovered during the making of Patient Zero?

Focusing on the personal narratives of the people who first contract a disease, and the people whose job it is to figure out where it came from, really brought home the humanity of what are often large-scale public health emergencies. Beyond the headlines and news reporting there are people whose lives are turned upside down by these events — experiencing the fear and uncertainty of getting sick and not knowing why or being tasked with solving a medical mystery and relying on smarts and instincts to figure it out. At the heart of every disease outbreak are people doing extraordinary things.


Beyond the headlines and news reporting there are people whose lives are turned upside down by these events ...

What are you and the team working on now?

We wish we could make Patient Zero all the time ... but we’re all back at our (pretty awesome) regular jobs! For Liv, that’s as a health reporter for ABC Science, which at the moment is still all about covering COVID-19. Joel is currently in the hot seat as Acting Editor of ABC Science, while producers James Bullen and Carl Smith continue work in the unit’s audio team (James makes the brilliant All in the Mind, while Carl is a regular on The Science Show). Freelance producer Cheyne Anderson is working on a top secret new podcast for the ABC (which we can’t wait for), while producer Jane Lee has recently left the ABC to join The Guardian where she hosts Australia Reads.


In addition to ABC, where do you consume your science news?

It’s true, a lot of our science news comes direct from the excellent team we work with, who report daily science news and make fantastic science podcasts week in, week out. But beyond that, we’re huge fans of the work done by our fellow Eureka Prizes finalists: The Conversation, who give academics the opportunity to connect with a general audience in a thoroughly engaging way, and Jack Ryan, whose work at CNET throughout the pandemic has been essential reading. Australia produces so much impressive science journalism, and we’re thrilled to be a part of it.



The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards, honouring excellence across the areas of research & innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science.