5 Questions for… Meg Tirrell

By Brian Flood 

3000Tirrell_Head_Silo_300dpiMeg Tirrell joined CNBC last April as a general assignment reporter focusing on biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Roughly six months later, the Ebola crisis has turned her beat into must-watch television. Tirrell started at Bloomberg News where made a name for herself by breaking stories on the pharma beat.

Tirrell spoke with TVNewser about a variety of topics including how the media has covered Ebola and her a capella group. Seriously, she’s in an a capella group.

TVNewser: You joined CNBC about six months ago. What’s been the biggest surprise so far?

Tirrell: Taking the question literally, my biggest surprise probably was when our 5pm show, “Fast Money,” asked me to do a segment on the drug Cialis (which is for, er… men’s health), and then I walked on set to find that I was going to be doing the segment side by side… with Regis Philbin. We made it a commendable 90 seconds without cracking up, and it was amazing.

Taking the question more seriously, I think one of the biggest surprises has been just how small the organization is, for such a big enterprise. Everyone owns their beat and has a seat at the table, which is awesome.

TVNewser: How/why did you get into the biotech and pharmaceutical field?

Tirrell: I come from a family of scientists, so it’s a natural fit, but I had a little bit of a circuitous path here. I initially planned to be an arts critic, but then stumbled on business reporting because of a wonderful adviser in grad school at Northwestern. Then at Bloomberg News I was offered a spot on the health team covering pharmaceuticals and biotech, and it stuck. I love how human the stories on this beat are, and how important medicine is to people’s lives. And it certainly doesn’t hurt having a phone full of chemists and biochemists to call with the silly questions I’m too embarrassed to ask people I’m not related to.

TVNewser: Shepard Smith, among others, recently criticized the media for “irresponsible” reporting on Ebola. What is your opinion of the coverage Ebola has received?

Tirrell: In the last month, I’ve traveled to Dallas, Atlanta, Philly, Dallas again, DC, and now home to New York where the Ebola story is currently unfolding. In much of that time I’ve been surrounded by the same reporters focusing on this story. It’s my impression that all of those reporters are concerned with getting it right, and delivering balanced and responsible coverage of Ebola and the real risk it poses. I’m sure there are irresponsible voices in the mix that are overwhelmed by frightening speculation, but it’s our job as reporters covering health and science to deliver just the facts, with caution and calm, while persisting to question what we don’t know yet.

TVNewser: How concerned should Americans truly be [when it comes to Ebola]? And are the major pharmaceutical companies anywhere near developing something to combat Ebola?

Tirrell: From what we know right now about Ebola, there’s very little risk for ordinary Americans. It doesn’t spread easily in the community, and every case in the U.S. beyond Thomas Eric Duncan has been among health-care workers. What we should be more worried about is the outbreak in West Africa and how to help there. This one outbreak is bigger than every outbreak of Ebola in history — combined.

Some of the major pharmaceutical companies are close to developing vaccines to potentially help in the Ebola fight; interestingly, though, it’s primarily smaller biotechs that have the drugs that might potentially be used. And even these small companies are focused primarily on other areas, showing that we don’t have a system that incentivizes development of drugs for diseases affecting emerging market countries — especially ones that only sporadically arise. It’s an area many have suggested should be addressed legislatively so we can avoid being in this situation again.

TVNewser: You’re part of an acapella group… how did you get started with that?

Tirrell: A better question might be: how did I never stop with that? I started in college and fell in love with the nerdy art that is a cappella. Now I’m in a group I joined when I first moved to New York, and everyone in it is one of my best friends. It’s so dorky and I’m 40 percent super embarrassed about it, 60 percent aca-proud (ok, really more like 10/90).